And a Purple Dinosaur Shall Lead Them: Barney and the Future of Intergenerational Politics
Issue #12, March 1994
When I was very little, I had a reason to get up in the morning. The world was a scary place — stagflation, Three Mile Island, and scariest of all, disco — but I didn't care, because I knew that at four o'clock sharp I could sweep the clouds away and spend an hour where the air was sweet. That's right: Sesame Street. I was a 'Sesame Street' freak. I watched it every single day. In fact, the one time I accidentally slept through it I was so distraught that I spent the next several days in a sort of existential despair (and if you think confronting the ultimate absurdity of existence is hard now, try it when you're four years old.) Seriously, though, for a couple of years there my life really did revolve around 'Sesame Street', and even after I grew out of it, it was always sort of heartwarming to know that Big Bird and friends were continuing to bring joy and enlightenment into the lives of generation after generation of little kids.
Now, suddenly, Big Bird is passé.
That's right — the powers that be seem to have decided that 'Sesame Street' is not the ideal children's show it was once thought to be. Among the complaints that have been leveled against it by child psychologists and media watchdogs are: it's too fast; the world it presents is too unsettling for young children; most of the humor goes over the kids' heads; and so on. In the end, they conclude, 'Sesame Street' may be an effective educational tool, but it can also be quite harmful. After all, the first generation to grow up on 'Sesame Street' has now come of age — and look how *they* turned out: alienated, cynical, completely devoid of any kind of attention span. And I suppose the critics have a point. 'Sesame Street' *is* fast. It'll cut from the live-action storyline to an unrelated vignette between Bert and Ernie to a cartoon about the letter V to a quick documentary about dolphins to a news flash with Kermit the Frog to a cartoon about the number 7 and then back to the storyline, all in the space of a couple of minutes. You might even say that 'Sesame Street' is a perfect primer for — no! not that! anything but that! — MTV. (Insert dramatic 'DUM-DUM-dum' sound here.) So, yeah, it's fast. And true, while it may seem kind of hard to believe at first, the world of 'Sesame Street' might well be a little unsettling. After all, Bert and Ernie are constantly squabbling, various muppets are collapsing from exhaustion or extreme pain every five minutes, and there's a nasty green guy lurking in the trash can. So it's not all bliss and harmony. And while I didn't realize this when I was four, a lot of the humor on 'Sesame Street' *is* aimed at adults. A surprising amount of 'Sesame Street' is satirical in nature. While the kids are learning about different kinds of animals, their parents are laughing at the Springsteen parody in 'Barn in the USA'; while the kids are giggling at the sight of pigs with tennis rackets, it's for their parents' benefit that Old MacDonald mentions that the withdrawal of government subsidies has forced him to convert his farm into a condominium complex complete with health spa; and while the kids happily watch Oscar the Grouch groan in distress while some strange woman praises his candor, their parents (and college students doing research for 'Bad Subjects' articles) are getting a kick out of the fact that the woman in question is Jodie Foster slumming on PBS between films. So it's true that 'Sesame Street' isn't completely accessible to the kids. But people have been making these kinds of complaints for years now. Why are they suddenly gaining so much attention? Because now there's an alternative, one that's earned the praise of child psychologists and the undying love of little children everywhere: Barney. (Insert another dramatic 'DUM-DUM-dum' sound here.)
Those of you who have spent the last year or so in a deep coma are probably wondering who or what Barney is. Well, Barney is a dinosaur from our imagination, and when he's tall he's what you'd call a dinosaur sensation. At least that's what the opening jingle says. It's a good thing they tell us, too, because otherwise it's kind of hard to tell. I suppose he does look vaguely reptilian, but then he's also purple, cuddly, and five feet tall, qualities not normally associated with your typical T. rex or velociraptor. But it's not his appearance that separates Barney from the 'Sesame Street' crew — after all, if you can accept an eight-foot yellow talking bird, you can accept a five-foot purple talking dinosaur thing. No, what sets him apart from 'Sesame Street' (and related programs like the dearly departed 'Electric Company') is his disposition and the world he inhabits. In the world of 'Barney & Friends', there is no conflict whatsoever. None. No one fights or disagrees, nothing bad ever happens. They just hang around and sing songs and learn how to count to ten over and over and over and play games and sing some more songs and then the credits roll. The songs themselves are also very different from those in 'Sesame Street'. The songs in 'Sesame Street' are quite sophisticated, with complex melodies and often borrowing from rock, rap, music from other cultures, and in my day, disco. The songs in 'Barney & Friends' are very, very simple, usually featuring tunes borrowed from other children's songs like 'Yankee Doodle' and 'This Old Man'. And there is absolutely nothing in 'Barney & Friends' that is not completely comprehensible to any three-year-old. So the child psychologists love Barney. And most little kids would gladly fall on a grenade for him. Why, then, does everybody else seem to hate him?
Barney, you see, has become the victim of one of the most vicious backlashes in recent memory. This backlash comes in two flavors. First, there are the parents of all the little Barneyphiles. Forced to buy every single scrap of Barney merchandise, forced to play the Barney videotapes over and over and over, and worst of all, forced to listen to the 'I love you, you love me, we're a happy family' song roughly eighty thousand times a day, theirs is a classic case of backlash due to overexposure. (Others who have fallen prey to this phenomenon include Nirvana, the Energizer Bunny, and Ross Perot.) But then there's the curious case of all the people who hate Barney with a passion despite having never seen the show. Among these are the kids who quite literally beat the stuffing out of Barney in a Texas shopping mall. They haven't been forced to listen to the saccharine songs, they haven't had to suffer through the wretched acting, they haven't had to deal with Barney's grating voice clawing at their eardrums. So why does their hatred match, if not surpass, that of the parents who've had to deal with Barney firsthand? Neil Howe and William Strauss have an answer.
Howe and Strauss, in their landmark pop sociology book Generations, posit that each generation possesses one of four 'peer personalities': idealist, reactive, civic, or adaptive. The idea is pretty simple. What makes our character? Heredity and environment. Don't these vary wildly from one person to the next? Of course. But a big part of our environment is the world in which we live, and real-world events and trends, social, economic and cultural, are going to reach out and affect *everyone* — at least everyone in the dominant culture. And *how* they affect you is going to depend on your age. Take the counterculture of the 60's for example. If you're middle-aged and have lived most of your life according to a certain set of values, and then the counterculture comes along and attacks your values, that's going to affect you one way. If you're in the prime of life and feel stifled by the rules of older generations, and the counterculture comes along and offers you a chance to be free and experiment with life, that's going to affect you another way. And if you're very young and the counterculture comes along and suddenly your parents are out 'finding themselves' instead of taking care of you, that's going to affect you yet another way. Everyone of the same age grew up in the same era and shares a certain set of experiences, and that's what makes a generation. It's a social construction, but no more than race or gender or any of those attributes that people seem to find meaningful.
So let's return to the four generational peer personalities. In Generations, Howe and Strauss use them to analyze the entirety of American history. This is where they tend to embarrass themselves: four hundred years of history is simply way too big an entity for anyone to get any kind of handle on. But this doesn't mean that generational analysis can't be useful. It's a very interesting way at looking at various facets of pop culture. Pop culture such as, say, 'Barney & Friends'. Let's take a look at how it works. (Be warned: generalizations ahead. Like all generalizations, none of this can be applied to any particular individual ?? your mileage may vary. End of disclaimer. No lawsuits, please.)
Our story begins in the fifties. The idealist Boomers were kids, the adaptive Silent were in high school and college, and the civic GI Generation controlled the airwaves. (I'm borrowing these names for the generations from Howe and Strauss, though I'm applying them much more broadly than they do. For instance, they actually spend a paragraph or two arguing that someone born on January 1, 1943, is going to be fundamentally different from someone born on December 31, 1942, but not from January 2, 1943. I think that's just silly. So you can use this as a rule of thumb: the GIs were born in the first quarter of the 20th century; the Silent were born between the mid-twenties and mid-forties; and as for the Boomers — well, we all know who they are. We now return you to your regularly scheduled article.) Education around this time was for the most part nice and boring, just the way the GIs liked it: the three R's, Dick and Jane, and the occasional well-groomed scientist on TV mixing chemicals to show America's youth that through technology we could triumph over our godless communist oppressors. It was the same kind of education that had enabled the GIs themselves to kick Nazi butt, invent the atomic bomb, and bring about the 'Ozzie & Harriet' fifties. But then, in the sixties, the counterculture hit ?? the type of 'spiritual awakening' (to use the Howe/Strauss term) that comes along once in a lifetime and fundamentally changes the nature of society. By this time, the GIs were showing signs of age, and it was the Silent Generation that was primarily in charge of the educational system. The Boomers were pushing them to reform education, and the Silent themselves weren't exactly enamored of the old system. So they came up with some ideas: New Math, mandatory busing, and of course, 'Sesame Street'.
By the time 'Sesame Street' began in 1968, a whole new generation of kids had come on the scene: the 13th Generation (to use the Howe/Strauss term) or, as they (we?) have come to be known, Generation X. According to the theory, the generation born in the aftermath of a spiritual awakening ends up with a reactive peer personality — cynical, alienated, apathetic, nihilistic — and Gen-X was no exception. This was mostly because of other factors, such as a skyrocketing divorce rate, a dramatic plunge in the amount of time parents spent with their kids, and so forth, but 'Sesame Street' helped. Sounds kind of farfetched, you say? Well, consider this: by the late seventies, the percentage of children age three to five who watched 'Sesame Street' at least a couple of times a week was in the high nineties. That's right, the high nineties. So chances are that if you spent any portion of the seventies in diapers, you had at least a passing familiarity with Big Bird. And what kind of education were you getting? One without any kind of core curriculum or lesson plan, where you sort of picked up whatever you could from among all the bells and whistles, where learning about cultural diversity was just as important as learning the alphabet. Which was fine, but it wasn't the sort of thing likely to lead to stratospheric SAT scores. Nor was it likely to inspire patience for anything that wasn't completely entertaining at all times. And like I said earlier, it taught that the world is full of conflict, and that the misfortune of others is funny — muppets are always tripping and falling and banging their heads and stuff, and the other muppets laugh. It's not 'Beavis and Butt-head', but for educational TV, there's quite a bit to raise the eyebrows of the media police.
Okay, great. So 'Sesame Street' fosters a reactive peer personality. Yes, and? Well, the 'and' part is that finally, 'Sesame Street' viewership rates are dropping. It's Barney who's scoring up in the high nineties. Today's kids just plain like Barney better. And Barney does *not* foster a reactive peer personality. (This, I think, is why reactives who have never ever seen the show hate Barney so much: he goes against all their values. The most important thing for a member of a reactive generation to be is 'cool' — and Barney is pretty much the definition of 'uncool.') Let's take a quick look at the kind of education Barney's legions are getting. First of all, it's much more structured. Every show is built around one theme, and sticks to it fairly faithfully — if the show's about how to count to ten, ninety percent of the show is going to be about how to count to ten. Over and over and over. Secondly, unlike 'Sesame Street', there is only one authority figure in 'Barney & Friends': Barney himself. Barney has all the answers and the kids follow him without question. And what does Barney preach? Universal love, community, sincerity, friendship, team spirit; but also conformity, unquestioning adherence to authority, and enforced happiness. (One recent episode revolved around the attempts of Barney and some other kids to pester a little girl into cheering up ?? they simply *would not let* her be sad for a while.) These are the kind of values, both positive and negative, associated with the civic peer personality. So the fact that the children of the nineties are both growing up on Barney and actively choosing to watch him strongly suggests that the generational cycle has finally moved out of the reactive phase and into the civic phase. Gen-X has had its last birthyear.
Again, so what? So far, this entire article has been little more than an exercise in taxonomy: through the lens of children's TV shows, we can determine that the reactive 13th Generation has given way to the civic Millennial Generation. It looks pretty on a chart, but what does it mean? Well, the answer is very simple. Left unchecked, civic generations can be dangerous.
It all has to do with their lifecycle type. Reactive generations, according to the Howe/Strauss theory, live a picaresque lifecycle. They have to pick up survival skills very early in life and pretty much make it on their own. Those who do survive into adulthood (and this survival rate is significantly lower for reactive generations than for any of the other three types) typically suffer exhaustion while they're quite young (Coupland's 'mid-twenties breakdown'.) Thus we end up with slackers — and today's slackers aren't really all that different from the reactive Lost Generation survivors who haunted Parisian cafés in the 1920's. But civic generations live a heroic/hubristic lifecycle. For instance, let's look at the previous civic generation, the GI Generation that I mentioned earlier. They were the first Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the soldiers and WAVES who won WWII, the 'organization men' of the fifties. When they were young, older generations sacrificed to give them the GI Bill; now that they're old, younger generations are sacrificing to give them Social Security. They're the most direct beneficiaries of the national debt, yet the statistics tell us that its lifetime cost will be five times greater for Gen-X than for the GIs. Taxes on a retired couple with a $30,000 income are one-fifth of the taxes on a Gen-X couple with one child and the same income. Thirty percent of the US budget is spent on the elderly. And none of this is going to change until they're gone. Why not? Because the GI Generation, like all civic generations, excel at collective action. As long as the AARP is around, Congress will never do anything to shift the balance in favor of younger generations — the seniors' lobby is the most powerful in the country. Besides, they make an argument that's hard to beat: they earned it. They put in their time at the company, deferred their own gratification to indulge their (Boomer) children. And now they're going to get their reward even if it kills the rest of us.
Flash forward to the Millennial Generation. Listen to the popular rhetoric about crime, drugs, the economy, and one message becomes clear: it's too late for the teenagers, but we've got to help the kids. If history repeats itself, and it usually does, it won't be long before we older generations are asked to make economic sacrifices to give the Millennials a head start, just like the one the GIs got. And what is Generation X going to do about it? After all, the reputation of today's youth for political apathy and withdrawal isn't entirely unwarranted. But tomorrow's youth is a different story.
Which brings us finally to how this article fits into Bad Subjects. This publication is in large part a call for organization and collective action for positive change. Viewed from this perspective, the prospect of a generation of uncynical young people who excel at just this type of thing is positively utopic. But collective action isn't good in and of itself. It has to be turned toward the right ends. Our goal as older generations must therefore be to steer Barney's army in a positive direction. Civic generations can accomplish great things, as the GIs did in winning WWII, or building the massive public works projects of the thirties. But the last thing we need is for the Millennials to establish a generational hegemony like their GI predecessors. When historians look back on the early twenty-first century, the use toward which the civic aptitude for accomplishment was put will be one of the defining aspects of the era: what that turns out to be will be largely up to us. At any rate, it's something to think about the next time you see your local toddler plopping down in front of the TV to spend another half-hour with everyone's favorite purple dinosaur.
Adam Cadre is a senior English major at UC-Berkeley, doing his honors thesis on generational polemic in 20th-century America, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He was born in 1974, which, if you believe Coupland, is the year everything started to go downhill.