Joining a fandom isn’t always voluntary. If the people TikTok believes you have a lot in common with like something, chances are the app will try to get you to like it, too.
This is how Laurel Hiatt, a childless 25-year-old in Utah currently working toward their PhD in human genetics, became a fan of “Bluey.” The Australian animated children’s TV show — which is streaming on Disney Plus and airs on Disney Junior and the Disney Channel — follows the lives of the Heelers, a canine family composed of Bandit the dad, Chilli the mom and their children: sisters Bluey and Bingo. (The dogs in the “Bluey” universe mostly walk on two legs and age in human years).
Each brief episode is a snapshot of life as the Heelers play games and learn new things. And although some of its educational themes are typical of the kid’s show genre — how to be a good friend, how to be kind — “Bluey” also tackles some much deeper topics. There are episodes touching on loss and grieving, infertility, fear and speaking up for yourself. It’s a wholesome and often funny show grounded in a deep appreciation for self-kindness. Perhaps that’s why an increasing number of adults, including those without children, are watching it as stress relief.
Clips from the show began popping up on Hiatt’s For You Page in December. They soon turned into full episodes, which generally cap out at seven minutes long. Hiatt watched. And watched. And watched. Soon, their feed served up “Bluey” memes and remixes, cosplayers and fan art, little of which appeared to be the work of young children or their parents.
“I particularly love the dramatic edits,” Hiatt said. A memorable one sets the antics of Muffin, a particularly chaotic toddler and cousin of the two main Heeler sisters, to a song by nu metal band System of a Down. Hiatt now describes themselves as a Bingo “stan.”
Getting spammed clips of a kid's show in your social media feed until you decide to check it out is, in many ways, a shallow online experience. TikTok’s recommendation algorithms are constantly creating cultural trends, sometimes fueled by accounts that know how to maximize attention with the least effort possible.
Spammy, anonymous TikTok pages grab clips of TV shows and post them in a split screen, where the bottom half of the vertical video shows gameplay from a random mobile game, a format that — inexplicably — generates a ton of views on the app as people keep watching them. Before “Bluey,” some of these accounts were posting clips of “Family Guy” or “Rick and Morty.” After the “Bluey” shine fades, they’ll move on to something else.
But things like “Bluey” also become popular because they are meaningful.
In one viral “Bluey” clip, the children are performing a play for their parents. It takes a sudden turn when a balloon pops, prompting a wordless exchange between Bandit and Chilli that hints at a possible miscarriage before Bluey was born. In another episode, Bluey has to process feelings of loss after a new friend, made during a camping trip, is unable to properly say goodbye before their family packs up and drives off.
“Bluey’s” creator wasn’t surprised that these moments resonated so deeply with adults.
“A story is a story,” Joe Brumm, the show’s creator and showrunner, said in an email. “I grew up with ‘The Simpsons.’ I watched it as an 11-year-old while adults gathered in bars to watch new episodes.”
And sure, the target audience of “Bluey” is slightly younger than that of “The Simpsons.” But his motivation draws directly from what he thinks “The Simpsons” does at its best, to “tell a good emotional family story using adventurous filmmaking.”
“Bluey” centers on the importance of play: The Heeler parents throw themselves fully into their kids’ imaginative games, accepting and expanding on their made-up worlds. In the episode “Escape,” Bandit and Chilli soothe Bluey and Bingo’s anxiety about being left with their Nana for a day while they enjoy a kids-free rest by turning the whole thing into an elaborate, imagined chase scene as the parents try to outrun the kids. At one point in the game, the children pull out their secret weapon: the dreamhouse car, a giant dream house on wheels. Naturally, the car is pulled by butlers and contains 11 burger shops, 20 bedrooms and 40 toilets.
Hiatt kept watching “Bluey” because the show stays fundamentally kind, even as it acknowledges the full range of emotions a person might feel. The Heelers experience disappointment, joy, embarrassment, anxiety, love and sadness, sometimes directed at each other. But those emotions are always, always embedded in a deep mutual care.
“It’s nice to engage with something that has a resolution in five minutes, where the conflict is whether or not you’re going to get ice cream and the message is you should care about other people,” Hiatt said.
Although “Bluey” has reached parents and young children far beyond Australia’s shores since it started airing there in 2018, the show quickly became an established fandom for childless adults and teenagers, thanks in great part to TikTok.
Bluey’s official social media channel has also grown “rapidly” over the past six months, said Devin Johnson, a spokesman for the BBC. One video on their channel — of Bluey’s dad asking her to use her “inside voice” after operatically singing “can we get the bill” in a restaurant — has nearly 15 million views. The sound itself went viral, as other accounts used the audio clip to make videos of their own. It’s been used in more than 177 thousand videos across TikTok by other creators.
Like with any fandom, it comes with its own toxicity and perils. A quick search of Archive of our Own, a popular fan fiction repository, brings up some truly unspeakable NSFW stories featuring “Bluey” characters. There’s pretty intense discourse on TikTok, too: a subset of adult and teenage fans appear locked in an unending, passionate argument about whether Bandit is a “toxic” father, for instance, for the way he teases his kids.
But the vast majority of the “Bluey” fandom is, well, wholesome. Bluey’s composer Joff Bush created his own TikTok account last week to connect with fans of the show. His first video on the platform has nearly 200,000 views. Another scene from “Bluey” is currently on its way to becoming a viral sound: Bingo, the youngest Heeler, singing a cute song about a bug.
“A lot of the adults we hear from who watch ‘Bluey’ and don’t have their own kids to relate it to say they get home from a mad stressful day at work, and it’s just seven minutes of uplift,” said Mary Bolling, the co-host of the “Bluey”-centric Gotta Be Done podcast.
Before the TikTok wave of attention, “Bluey” already had a dedicated online fandom composed of, mainly, parents who were trying to parse why the heck this kids cartoon had such depth to it. This question led Bolling and Kate McMahon, both former Australian journalists, to launch their podcast in 2019. The title, “Gotta Be Done,” references the phrase Chilli and Bandit often say to each other when it’s time to do adult stuff, like cleaning the living room.
Margaret Thompson, whose “Bluey” theory YouTube videos get hundreds of thousands of views, was similarly drawn in. As an Australian living in the United States, she originally created her channel to help non-Australian parents understand some of the nuances of the show they might be missing and to join in on some of the theorizing and easter egg hunts already happening on Facebook groups for parents who watch “Bluey” with their kids. But recently, she’s noticed a spike of interest in her content from teenagers and childless adults.
“I had someone on my livestream mention that they were getting bullied at school for liking ‘Bluey,’ which broke my heart,” Thompson said. According to the analytics of her channel, about a quarter of her audience is between 13 and 17 years old. Another 50 percent are between 18 and 35. She decided to ask her followers: For those who are not parents of young children, what is it about “Bluey” that drew you in?
The post had more than 300 replies.
“I was so shocked by some of the answers,” Thompson said. So many “people who replied who were like, ‘I had a really bad upbringing and this is healing my inner child,’ or, ‘I’m struggling with my parents at the moment and seeing this way of gentle parenting is really helping me get through it.’”
For Hiatt, watching “Bluey” is part of how they cope with stress.
“When the pandemic hit, I was actually studying infectious disease in medical school and basically went into lockdown,” they said. “My partner works in news, and was editing videos to edit out dead bodies all day.” To help themselves recover, “I set this media rule for myself, which I called ‘no bad vibes.’”
And this is precisely the role “Bluey” plays for them. “I've consumed probably several lifetimes worth of irony at this point.” Watching “Bluey,” by contrast, is “sort of a breath of fresh air, I guess, to engage with something that is pleasant.”
This is a central paradox of internet culture: lighthearted stories about a cartoon dog show that appeal to depressed childless millennials who spend too much time online are also sometimes about healing trauma. The rise of “Bluey” on TikTok is, in part, due to the relentless popularity of stolen content and For You Page junk food that pollutes and overwhelms the more you consume it.
And yet …
There is, as always, an episode of “Bluey” that resonates here, where Bingo, the quiet, sensitive younger sibling of Bluey, practices her latest gymnastics move in the kitchen of the Heeler home. As she does, a fugue of activity builds around her — other children chasing a toy, a little bulldog kid building a tower of blocks, the Heeler parents preparing food for a party, Bluey racing a friend through the house.
In this loud, overstimulating chaos, Bingo tries to get someone, anyone, to stay still for a moment and watch her handstand. She’s sad and distressed as those around her get distracted just before she succeeds each time. Like all “Bluey stories,” the ending of this episode is filled with warmth and kindness.
You’ll just have to watch to find out how.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Laurel Hiatt lives in Georgia. Hiatt lives in Utah. This story has been corrected.