When you look back wistfully on beloved characters from your childhood, you may notice that some of their back stories were a bit questionable. As a child, I would never dare have questioned the existence of a towering overly jolly purple dinosaur who resided in the abstract realm of our collective imaginations. He could only spring to life from his miniature plush toy existence if we just believed. Too bad when our parents bought us an official licensed Barney stuff toy and we tried to imagine him to life, nothing happened. The power of our actual imaginations had been dulled by the glittering allure of television entertainment. It was a lot easier to watch kids imagine something than to go through the whole ordeal ourselves. So thanks a lot, Barney and Friends. Our parents spent $24.95 on this stuffed Barney and it won't even come alive and interact with us. Sheesh.
Truth be told, Barney's habitation of our imagination was nothing new. Kid's shows have been featured imaginary characters for generations. It's pretty much par for the course for adults trying to make a buck off of children's natural sense of wonderment and naivete. Usually, though, it didn't come out quite as sugar drippingly sweet as Barney and friends. The fact that our friends at Guantanamo use Barney's signature "I Love You" played on loop as a form of auditory torture to detainees probably says it all; I can imagine our parents felt the same way after hearing it blaring from our television sets for the 12th time that day.
That song has a way of lodging itself in your brain to a place where you can't seem to wrangle it free. So, sorry, readers. If you've even begun to inwardly play the song, you're pretty much stuck with it for the day. I guess that's just the power of imagination coming back to bite you in the butt. Tough break.
The Barney the dinosaur character premiered in 1987 in a series of videos called Barney and the Backyard Gang. My family owned these videos, and I played them into the VHS reel was sputtering to cough out its last whirring rotation. I yearned for an imaginary dinosaur friend and accompanying backyard gang with whom I could put on talent shows and have campfire sing-alongs. In my reenactments, though, I pathetically had to imagine not only my dino pal but also summon a nonexistent gang of backyard pals. While now the suggestion of a backyard gang sounds pretty threatening, dangerously proximal, and somehow involving meaningfully-colored bandannas, at the time it seemed like a warm and inviting proposition of friendship.
Barney and the Backyard Gang was adapted for television as Barney and Friends in 1992 as part of the PBS kids' programming block. The show quickly caught on and became a phenomenon for small children. Like many things that appeal to small children, the show was chalkboard-scratchingly irritating to the rest of the world. To justify its presence in our home despite being generally repugnant to anyone over the age of eight, the show's theme song lauded some hefty promises set to the toon of Yankee Doodle:
Barney is a dinosaur from our imagination
When he's tall, he's what we call a dinosaur sensation
Barney teaches lots of things, like how to play pretend
A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s and how to be a friend!
Barney comes to play with us, whenever we may need him
Barney can be your friend, too, if you just make believe him!
Once your adult self has quelled the inevitable gagging from reading these sickly sweet sentiments, consider the educational value of Barney. Yes, the theme song extols Barney as a sort of teaching jack-of-all-trades, bestowing timeless wisdom onto eager young devotees worldwide. Kids may have fallen for his insidious purple charm, but a fair proportion of parents weren't buying it. While they may have sung Barney's praises for his ability to keep their children glued to the TV while they conducted some household chores, they weren't wholly impressed with his purported dissemination of important life lessons.
As a character, Barney isn't a bad guy. He's generally a pretty positive role model for children, save for the fact that he's imaginary and a dinosaur. He's upbeat, optimistic, and an all around decent dinosaur. Barney's relentless cheerfulness, however, has been the subject of critical scrutiny. Some critics claim Barney's overly positive spin on life and lack of attention paid to any negative life experiences could numb children to real emotion. This claim is pretty ridiculous, assuming that the children in question are exposed to any other life experiences than their Barney videotapes. Sorry, researchers. You can try to take down Barney, but he'll just continue his reign of jolly terror. You can't win that easily.
The television version of the show features a different group of kids, continually cycling out once they reach a point of maturity that renders questionable their consorting with imaginary dinosaurs. PBS also threw in some younger dinosaur characters like Baby Bop and BJ to broaden the show's appeal. All secondary characters are typically just as nerve-grinding and irritating as the originals, performing equally irritating signature songs and dances. It's no wonder our parents left the room when this came on. As a child, it's all sort of cute and enticing, but as an adult it's just grating.
In case you were worried that kids today might go hungry for the Barney they so desperately crave, you needn't worry. Barney's still churning out the episodes, meaning you may soon be getting a taste of your own karmic medicine when you have your own preschool-age children. Purple, imaginary dinosaur-flavored medicine with bits of cloying song stuck in it. I'm sure all of our parents will gleefully delight in our slow progression to craziness after hearing that damn "I love you" song for the umpteenth time. We put them through it, though, so it's probably only fair we have to have a go at it from the other side.