Saturday, October 21, 2006

Barney Rage

These last few days I have been filled with a seething rage and a pulsating loathing by Barney the Dinosaur.

L, the pre-schooler who is my daily charge, has been a bit under the weather for the last couple of days -- nothing worrisome, not even completely activity-attenuating, but enough such that he feels like cuddling up on the couch and watching TV rather more than usual and such that I feel inclined to support this impulse. Our pre-schooler television roster largely draws upon the resources of the public library a few blocks away from us, as we don't have cable. L's approach to the consumption of televisual media is often to fixate on one particular show and then watch it repeatedly. Therefore, though I have only ever seen one episode of Barney, I have seen it a lot.

If you had asked me to predict my reaction to Barney before I had seen it I would have predicted negativity. However, at the time my familiarity with it was mostly via its echoes through the broader popular culture, and from that I would've expected the large purple dinosaur whose name graces the production as a whole to be the principal object of my scorn. This is not, in fact, the case. Barney himself has very little to recommend him, and like the rest of the show (and unlike classics like Sesame Street) there is absolutely nothing about how he is written to entertain adults. But he does not in and of himself prompt a visceral response from me. He is uninteresting but inoffensive.

Rather, my loathing and rage are directed at the overall feel of the show and, I am somewhat ashamed to say, at the real children (ages 8 to 12?) who comprise the majority of its cast. It has taken concentrated thought over a number of viewings of this single episode to truly pinpoint the reasons for this.

All television is fake. Dramatic productions are fake by definition; that's why we watch them. Reality shows are even more fake, though I think those who watch them must be able to engage in some sort of double-consciousness, suspension-of-disbelief thing to partially believe the name and thereby squeeze some extra scintillas of voyeuristic pleasure from what is, in my limited experience, mostly boring and a bit (or a lot) silly. Even TV news is largely fake, from the growing percentage of stories on local TV news programs that have actually been pre-produced by PR firms to the more elaborate fakery by omission, misdirection, and image on CNN. (Once or twice a week I'll spend the evening in a nearby pub, reading and writing as I sip on a pint. It often has CNN playing without sound on one of the four TVs behind the bar, and my gaze will sometimes settle there. It's an interesting exercise, I think, to consume such highly produced media with a component missing, so the overall impact the product has on even the most prepared mind is somewhat shortcircuited. Just watching the stream of images, without the voice of authority present to try and guide my reading of them, makes me wonder how on earth anyone can claim to believe that what CNN is selling has more than a vague connection to the real world. Even just the fact that the only time they show anyone who looks like the people I interact with in downtown Sudbury every day, it is painfully obvious from aesthetic cues that they are present as objects, as Other, not as legitimate subjectivities for grounding standpoints upon which news production might be based. And that's just one example.)

Barney's production values are not what one would call high. The writing is cheesey and unimaginative. The children who are the main "real person" presence are apalling and look like they are being menaced out of frame by a very scary man with a whip and a sign that says, "Smile like you mean it, damnit!" One little girl in particular looks like she's either preparing to bite one of her castmates or is trying her darndest not to let on that a live ferret is squirming inside the sleeve of her costume.

One of the results of low production values and awful performances is that they draw attention to the fakeness inherent in TV. This makes it harder to suspend disbelief and therefore to enjoy the show. This is certainly going on during my experiences of viewing Barney. Even if this was the extent of it, the show would not be fun for me to watch.

One could, of course, blame economy for the quality of the show -- why lay out more than the bare minimum to keep the franchise viable? Especially considering the age of the target audience. Someone in a more charitable mood than myself might also grant a little more leniency because of youthfulness.

I think there's more than that going on, though. I have no idea if it is an example of making a virtue of the supposed necessity of thrift or if it was grounded in explicitly stylistic reasons from the get-go, but I think there is an element of deliberateness about it. I think it is deliberate because I think they are using this blatant admission of fakery to create a deeper impression of genuineness. I think the mediocre sets and the ham-handed acting are meant to evoke notions of children engaged in imaginative play largely for themselves and of children putting on self-initiated performances at home for parents and grandparents and others who love them (something I never did as a kid but that my partner and her sister and cousins did reasonably often). Such productions, whether accidentally observed by or deliberately staged for the adult in question, are regarded positively not because of whatever skill is being displayed but because you love the performers. Even when you happen to encounter such performances by kids you don't know, like say when you are over at a buddy's place or something, the relationship to the performance is still mediated by the imagined love between principle audience and performers. This is exactly what Barney tries to tap into via its production choices. Mix together this genuineness-through-explicit-fakery with a veneer of supposed "good values" (as shaped by market pressures, of course) and you have a show that adults may not enjoy watching themselves but that many would approve of and even encourage their kids to watch because it performs a certain parental delusion of wholesome childhood.

I know people whom this would totally, totally work on.

What pushes my irritation to its greatest depths is that its genuineness-through-explicit-fakery is itself palpably fake, and in quite offensive ways. The forced smiles of the children that we are meant to read as amateur awkwardness overlaying genuine enthusiasm don't just hide kids who are tired from being on the set too long or wishing they could just hang out with their friends today -- it hides for some of them, I am sure, bitter jealousy that "that b____ got my solo!", and parental pressure so strong it gives tummy aches, and twisted unlikely dreams that if a couple of mouseketeers can do it well why can't I be the next superrich, widely desired, Britney-shaped cogs in the entertainment-industrial complex's machine? It hides, in other words, social relations in which the kids as real people are embedded that are not necessarily pleasant or liberatory spaces to be -- it hides the exploitation of these kids, it hides hides what is probably sometimes vicious competition, it hides dreams of spectacular success that is only possible because of ubiquitous denial of the dreams of others, pastes a smile and "family values" on it, and calls it wholesome.

Or the short exchange of dialogue between two of the girls where the clearly dominant girl forgets that the subordinate girl will be unable to enjoy a privilege that the rest of the kids will get to, followed by a quick apology and strategizing around making her feel better. The exact words of the first part of that exchange with only very subtle shifts in tone would make a great example of how little girls can be perfectly nasty to one another. But we are forced to smile and soldier on and forget that such things happen.

Or the fake genuineness as a whole excluding all of those aspects of real kids real experiences that we pretend to protect kids from by writing them out of child-focused media while doing nothing about the social bases of the actual, material experiences. This is hardly unique to Barney, but it is very much operative in that show.

Or carefully crafting the audience of parents and children that are watching the semi-imaginary circus that the main kids and dinosaurs are performing as the focus of the only episode I've seen, and crafting/choosing the shots of that audience, in ways that make it quite clear that a central mandate for this audience and its members is to perform diversity for the cameras. It's better than an all-white audience erasing racialized people completely, but, still, racialized bodies are present and shown not because of their intrinsic worth as people or as a sign of some sort of substantive engagement with difference infused with power, but rather they are used to allow white-dominated capitalist media to perform difference in completely unthreatening ways that doe not force any viewers to reflect, for example, on how the power-infused dynamics of actual geographical segregation in North America means it would be almost impossible for a circus to set up its tent in a random community on the continent and get that particular mix of faces.

In a way, the fake-genuineness-through-explicit-fakery via smiles and other things is so vile because it is an echo of dynamics at the heart of capitalism and nationalism -- the expectation that right thinking people, that people who deserve to be included, that people that matter, that people who have the privilege of not thinking about such things, will perform a manic, plastic enthusiasm that they think is a cover only for their own privileged alienation but in fact contributes to the spectacle that keeps us from seeing (or admitting that we are seeing) the man behind the screen and the horrific things he does. It is a wholesomeness that is built on determined denial, that conceals lies and suffering, that keeps us from seeing the violence of the dominant nation, of capital, of state relations. It is an example of capital seeking out every corner of realness, including the imaginative play of children and the smiles on their faces, and using it all to produce fakery, convince us it's genuine, and generate profit.

[Pauses to catch breath.]

Okay. Perhaps I'm going a little over the top. That has been known to happen. It may be happening now. Intense, repeated exposure to the same text is likely to have strange results, especially when it's a text you don't like. Maybe that's what's going on. Maybe the best solution is to wait for L's cold to disappear and make a point of turning off the box, going together down to the nearby stream, and throwing large stones into the water with vigour and abandon. That sounds real nice, actually, weather permitting.

[Pauses again.]

But, seriously, how on earth do people without blogs to vent on deal with this stuff?

2 comments:

DesertPeace said...

What a brilliantly written post... truly enjoyable.
But.... are you serious about some people not having blogs?? i
I thought everyone did....
If you go through the blogesphere it seems some morons even have more than one.
Yours is a unique one... I enjoy every visit.

Scott said...

are you serious about some people not having blogs?? i I thought everyone did....

Yep...I think I saw something on the news, once, about a grandma in Witchita who refused to get one because it interfered with her hang-gliding schedule... :)

Anyway, I'm glad you liked the post and thanks, as always, for reading!