The jolly purple dinosaur is the star of a new Mattel film, produced by Daniel Kaluuya. Below, we explore his complex, controversial and deeply fascinating cultural legacy
When Mattel’s forthcoming Barney film was announced, the company went hard on the idea that it was going pretty out-there. No mere exercise in cheap nostalgia, this was going to be an experimental, surrealist, “A24-type” study of millennial angst, inspired by the work of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. Maybe think about leaving the kids at home… But it seems that the company has had a change of heart: CEO Ynon Kreiz recently assured future audiences that it will not be an “odd movie” after all.
Daniel Kaluuya – who is attached to produce – has made enough excellent films that I’m willing to give this one a try, but it’s difficult to imagine that it will be any good. With the “millennial disenchantment” angle sanded away, what’s left? What does Barney still have to say to the modern audience? As it turns out, quite a lot. Barney is a complex guy, neither outright hero nor villain, but he was without a doubt ahead of his time, someone who prefigured many of the trends which define our society today.
Below, we explore the most significant aspects of Barney’s legacy, character and political ideology.
BARNEY IS QUEER
We can spend hours debating whether or not Barnie is gay, as young children have been doing since the early 1990s. But look: the guy is a purple dinosaur. There is no textual evidence to suggest that he is interested in fucking, or even that he possesses sexual organs – it’s just not that kind of show, nor is speculating on his off-air proclivities an interesting discussion. What we can argue, however, is that Barney is queer.
This is certainly how many of his right-wing adversaries interpreted him, upon his ascent to stardom in the early 1990s. One right-wing pastor, Joseph Chambers, wrote an excoriating diatribe against him, which described our purple pal as “an abomination onto the Lord”, and a “politically correct teacher of everything on the liberal left’s agenda”, who promoted paedophilia and homosexuality. Over 30 years later, the right are still using this same line of attack against the queer community, which means that – regardless of how he identifies – Barney deserves our solidarity. In the eyes of today’s Christo-fascists, we are all sexually ambiguous purple dinosaurs.
Likewise, according to academic Elizabeth Tucker, Barney has long been subjected to homophobic attacks: in the 1990s, during the height of the AIDS crisis, there was a popular phenomenon of school children singing parody songs about him dying from HIV-related illnesses, while during the same era, his stuffed toys were regularly shot with guns and pulverised with hammers. Throughout all this abuse, he never stopped smiling, never stopped singing, and never stopped dancing – in doing so he can be read as a symbol of queer resistance.
Why did the right react so strongly to such a benign figure? Well, there is a certain queerness inherent to Barney’s message. The “family” which Barney extols is not the nuclear, heteronormative kind, but a far more expansive, emancipatory vision which includes freely chosen associations between friends and comrades, and all manner of alternative structures. As Barney himself once put it, “Oh, a family is people and a family is love. That’s a family. They come in all different sizes and different kinds, But mine’s just right for me.” At a time when the American right was waging reactionary moral crusades under the banner of protecting “the family”, and there was a widespread effort to stigmatise single mothers, this was a potent message.
BARNEY IS A FASHION PIONEER
If there’s one trend which has defined the last few years, it’s dinocore. It’s inescapable: at this year’s Paris Fashion Week, brands like Balenciaga and Julien MacDonald unveiled dinosaur-themed collections, with models strutting down the catwalk in triceratops-inspired headpieces and pantsuits moulded in the shape of a Tyrannosaurus-Rex. Over half of the songs on Olivia Rodrigo’s acclaimed sophomore album, GUTS, deal with the theme of dinosaurs, and Charli XCX is rumoured to be working on a three-part concept album about pterodactyls. If you go out to a trendy night club in New York or London, all of the DJ’s are sampling clips from Jurassic Park in their sets, or else dropping donk remixes of its famous John Williams score.
More than any other individual, Barney influenced the development of the dinocore trend. In some way or another, it all stretches back to him: as the saying goes, only 30 million children watched Barney and Friends, but each and everyone one of them went onto become dinocore scene celebrities. He’s literally a dinosaur… need we say more?
BARNEY IS AN ECO-WARRIOR
Much like King Charles, Barney was sounding the alarm about the climate crisis decades ago. But like Cassandra, he was blessed with the gift of prophecy and doomed to be ignored. In the classic episode “Our Earth, Our Home”, Barney and his friends consider ways they can protect the environment, such as recycling, conserving water, and trying to mitigate the ravages of pollution. Lyrics like “Clean up, clean up, everybody, everywhere. Clean up, clean up, everybody, do your share,” remind us that we all have a shared responsibility to look after the planet. But this is not framed as a burden or a chore: in Barney’s world, it is a “fun thing” to do, a source of joy and collective pleasure.
But the tragedy is that Barney’s gentle, feel-good approach to climate justice has failed, and we must all live with that failure. Had he instead preached the importance of radical direct action; had he sang a catchy little tune about the moral necessity of blowing up oil pipelines; had he stared directly into the camera, with those blank eyes and that terrible, leering grin, and screamed “you’re all going to die!!!!!!!”, then perhaps the climate crisis might have been averted.
BARNEY IS AN ANTI-RACIST
Bernie was “woke” avant la lettre, which is why so many adults hated his show – it was particularly common to sneer at the “multiculturally correct group of children” which comprised its cast, who were pointed to as evidence of worthy and didactic political correctness. Barney and Friends was all about inclusivity, tolerance and exploring other cultures, but that’s not to say that it was perfect: it failed to advance a convincing thesis about the relationship between capital and racial oppression; it had little to say about how to enact meaningful structural change; and Barney’s individual politics are clearly closer to Robin D’Angelo than Angela Davis. But his message – that it’s good to be kind towards people who are different from yourself – was no bad thing for children to hear.
BARNEY IS A SOCIALIST
The cornerstone of Barney’s political philosophy is that “sharing is caring” – an inane sentiment which, set against the grasping materialism of the USA, appeared to some as quite subversive. As one commentator argued, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way, Barney and Friends was “a pinko commie propaganda machine promoting communism and socialism”, which aimed to usher in a society “whose very norms inhibit personal growth and motivation” and a “brave new world where state-sanctioned theft was promoted”. There’s more evidence for the prosecution: Barney ended up being purple, but he was originally red, which just so happens to be a colour strongly associated with both the USSR and Chairman Mao… just an innocent coincidence, I’m sure!
It’s true there are left-wing ideals in Barney, for those who care to look. At a time of atomised neoliberal alienation, his message of mutual aid (rely on your friends) and physical intimacy (give them a great big hug) is more radical than ever. But it’s possible to overstate the case. Alongside his more egalitarian views, he has also promoted the joys of the working life (arguably a form of capitalist propaganda), and his show has been associated with a form of middle-class suburbia which tends towards the liberal, if not outright conservative: as one contemporary critic wrote, “If Big Bird reflected the hip urban lives of Americans in the 70s, Barney epitomises a retreat from that, an embracing of life that is predictable and bland.”
But let’s set purity politics aside for a second: we don’t have to shun Barney simply because he makes the occasional blunder and hasn’t read the collected works of David Graeber. Even if he isn’t the revolutionary hero which so many people claim, his heart is clearly in the right place and he should still be welcome in left-wing spaces. With the correct encouragement, he may yet become the socialist propaganda machine of his detractors’ most feverish nightmares.