“80s kids culture is really a flowering of very kid-specific narrative and approaches. Partly because, at least in the United States, that was when Reagan deregulated children’s TV to allow people to have these shows that are basically half hour commercials for toys. In a way I feel slime in kids’ culture was a perfect component of that.”
From the late 1970s through to the early 1990s, pop culture often gave a starring role to bright green goop. Why? From nuclear fallout through Silent Spring, Love Canal, Captain Planet, and beyond, how a media trope reflected changing environmental anxieties in the 20th century.
Written and presented by Chiquita Paschal and Ian Steadman
Produced by Sarah Myles
- Rebecca Onion, staff writer for Slate.com
- Charlie Cray, researcher for Greenpeace USA
Some additional information and resources not directly linked to within the transcript (below):
- Here’s Rebecca Onion’s history of slime for The Atlantic.
- Other good histories of slime as a toy and trope have been compiled by Daniel Engber at Slate and Adam Clair for The Verge.
- Nickelodeon has its own history of its slime:
- Enjoy what happens when you search for “slime” on YouTube.
- And the trailer for The Toxic Avenger is really something (but absolutely not for kids):
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Hey, Ian.
IAN STEADMAN: Hey, Chiquita.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Do you remember slime?
IAN STEADMAN: I love slime, you know I love slime. Wait, which slime?
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Oh, yeah, the funny green goo stuff that they just, like, poured on kids in the 90s.
IAN STEADMAN: Nickelodeon slime. Yeah, love Nickelodeon slime, big fan.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yeah, you know, I was thinking back to all of the shows and stuff that I loved as a kid slash just, like, vegged out in front of as a kid, and I just noticed that there was this recurring theme.
[TV AD CLIP:] I’ve been slimed.
[TV AD CLIP:] No one escapes the evil Hordak slime pit.
[GHOSTBUSTERS CLIP:] Venkman, what happened? Are you OK?
[GHOSTBUSTERS CLIP:] He slimed me.
[GHOSTBUSTERS CLIP:] That’s great, actual physical contact. Can you move?
[NICKELODEON CLIP:] Hey guys, you’re just in time to catch the Slime Time Live marathon celebration going on…
[CAPTAIN PLANET CLIP:] Born and raised in toxic waste, Skumm and his Rat Pack thrive on pollution, and have declared war on the environment.
[NICKELODEON CLIP:] Is it always green?
[NICKELODEON CLIP:] Well, yeah, it usually is, but I guess it could be red.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: And I realized that, like, there was an overwhelming majority of shows that had some underlying slime theme or ooze, and a lot of times it was toxic ooze. I was even thinking, like, one of my favorite slash only VHS videos that I owned was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret Of The Ooze.
[TMNT II: TSOTO CLIP]: Hey guys, look. That’s the canister that had the ooze.
[TMNT II: TSOTO CLIP]: That transformed us all.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: So, I wondered, like, how did this sort of icon, this symbol of industrial waste, and affecting kids fighting geopolitical secret wars with flying rainbow men, how does that translate into this gooey stuff that people are just, like, letting their kids just roll around the carpet with?
IAN STEADMAN: This is a good point because kids these days seem to have a very different relationship with slime than we seem to have had. Slime seems to be a thing that lives on social media. It’s bright and colorful and it’s full of glitter and other weird objects and people make it themselves at home and it’s a really different relationship with goo than people older than us had, I think.
Like, if you think of things like The Blob, for example, back in the 1950s, you had this radiation nuclear war fallout and sludge and ooze and radioactive waste, that made a lot of sense to have because people were terrified of being nuked. So, what we’re talking about here is something that’s appearing in different forms, over the decades, through pop culture, and every time it seems to be representing a different fear or anxiety in some way about how we feel about the environment or we don’t feel about the environment at a certain time. So, what is the secret of the ooze? That’s what I want to know.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Let’s go ask an adult.
[INTRO THEME MUSIC]
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Welcome to This Will Change Your Mind.
IAN STEADMAN: A show all about how other people have changed how you think about the world.
REBECCA ONION: I am Rebecca Onion, and I am a staff writer for Slate magazine, slate.com, and I live in Ohio in the United States. The Buckeye State. Actually it sort of fits in with the slime theme. A buckeye is a piece of a tree, but in Ohio we like to pay tribute to it by making it into a piece of candy, so it’s, like, a chocolate with a delicious peanut butter center.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Cool. Weird.
REBECCA ONION: So, it’s like nature made it into something, like, commercial and delicious, and probably really bad for you.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: I want to go back to that. So, you’re tying slime into nature. What about green goo is nature-related? Like, it seems kind of uncanny to me.
REBECCA ONION: Oh, I think it’s totally uncanny. I mean, I think that’s one of the most interesting aspects of the slime phenomenon to me, is that it’s this thing that, I would argue, in kids’ lives, it’s a place that might have been previously filled by stuff that comes from the outdoors that is now, was filled by this kind of green goo. So, I think that they’re, probably in 1920 or 1910, the feeling of, like, being a kid and being, like, “Oh, I have my hands on something that’s going to horrify my mother,” that would’ve been, like, dirt or weird crap outside.
And then later on when you are interested in natural science or biology and you realize, like, the underneath of a log has these colonies of little grubs here and that’s really cool and interesting.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: It is, you’re right, like, everything decaying is slimy. That was one of the things that I was thinking about when you were, like, “stick your hand in something gross,” I was, like, “oh, just, like, a mildew pool.”
REBECCA ONION: Yeah. But the thing that, like, makes me a little bit sad about the way that kids are so interested in slime is that there is a mysteriousness to that feeling of being, like, “Oh my god, how did this even get here?” And you’re just, like, “What is this even?” There’s something sort of immediately legible or obvious about it in a way that nature slime really isn’t immediately legible or obvious.
It’s like The Toxic Avenger-type green slime. I was looking back at that, getting ready to talk to you guys, I was thinking about that again. I really liked the Troma movies when I was in middle school and high school because they’re, for any listeners who might not know, it’s this director, Lloyd Kaufman, who was really into, like, gross out borderline horror comedy, but like super low budget, super, super low budget. And he had slime in several of his movies or, like, monsters that manifested into slime, or slime that turned people into monsters, and there is something really, like, uncontainable and scary about that slime, but at the same time it’s so gross that it’s not scary. Like it sort of walks the line between horror and comedy.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yeah, like Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters isn’t actually scary.
REBECCA ONION: No.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: But, you know, it’s creepy and it’s kitschy and, you know, again, it’s kind of like playing around with this dead thing or this unknown thing or this, you know, science fictiony thing, you know, with the kind of technology involved. It’s, now I’m thinking back on it, the 80s seems, just like visually, a really slimy time.
REBECCA ONION: I mean, I was born in 1977 so I was, however old, seven at the time that this started to become, like, a real thing. So I was sort of in a prime age for it, and 80s kids culture is really, like, a flowering of very kid-specific narrative and approaches. Partly because, at least in the United States, that was when Reagan deregulated children’s TV to allow people to have these TV shows that are basically half hour commercials for toys. You guys remember the He-Man show and, like, Gummi Bears and Transformers.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: My Little Pony.
IAN STEADMAN: Biker Mice From Mars, oh yeah.
REBECCA ONION: G.I. Joe. There’s one for all of them. Every single one is just a toy. But it also is, sort of, like, I mean, I don’t want to say that before the 80s kids never had, like, crappy plastic toys, but there definitely was a flood of that kind of toy, and the fact that each kind of toy had a multimedia aspect to it. So, in a way I feel slime in kids’ culture was a perfect component of that, in a way.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: You mentioned, like, Reagan’s deregulation of this commercial space. It seems like there are two different things at odds here. You have the ultra-consumerism of, like, plop your kid zombie in front of the tube and, like, getting addicted to wanting their parents to buy this product. And then we are also seeing a lot of, like, pro-environmental narratives, you know, with these good guys and bad guys even within that, so that sets up a weird tension right off the bat.
REBECCA ONION: Right, I mean, I guess it depends on how effective you think that, like, environmentalism in kids cultures in the 80s, maybe especially the early 90s, was. I’m kind of like a sourpuss about that stuff, because I sort of feel like any time that you’re getting an environmental feeling or an explicit message that’s coming from above to you through a TV set, I don’t know.
I agree more with the environmental educators who would argue that the real way to teach environmental stewardship is to have kids be outside in their environments right outside the houses. That’s an argument makes a lot of sense to me, that the Captain Planet model of environmental education where it’s about stuff that’s happening far away and there is a moral to every story about environmental stewardship, will get people to agree with that fundamentally, but it’s not as lasting of a teaching as kids being outside and having a lived experience in the outdoors.
So in that way I feel like slime is almost perfect. It’s, like, a commercially, at least at that time it was mostly a commercially-produced product that gives some of the experience of messing around with nature and might be packaged in that way, but, I mean, it’s coming from a factory, at least then in the 80s. Now we have all kinds of kids making it out of different chemical components.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: That sounds worse.
REBECCA ONION: And they’re all making it for YouTube, which is a different aspect, you know, that, sort of, like, takes the whole mediated aspect of it one step further. But I don’t know, I sound cranky about it. Maybe you guys might feel more positive about these connections to environmentalism than I do.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: It’s interesting you mention that you were born in the late 70s. Ian and I were born in the late 80s, so we are kind of on either end of this period of time, and I wonder if by the time that you had matured into adulthood you were kind of seeing all these things play out and it had a different impact. We were very much captivated by Captain Planet’s mohawk. Sorry, mullet.
IAN STEADMAN: I loved Captain Planet, I just want to say, I thought he was great.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: I thought he was really hot and I was really kind of confused about it. I’m not afraid to admit it.
IAN STEADMAN: I think to bring it back to the, kind of, children’s media stuff and also broader pop culture of the time. When you look at things like Ghostbusters or even the Toxic Avenger, that idea of slime as being a way to teach the environment, you can grasp it, it’s intuitive to kids, that doesn’t really explain why it was in TV shows to me, though, you know? It still doesn’t explain why it was in movies because that’s still, to an extent, kind of a passive way of understanding the world is under threat.
REBECCA ONION: Yeah, because, like, I don’t think the Nickelodeon shows that had slime in them had an environmental message. I don’t think that was the point, it just was like, “Oh, gross.” It seems like there may be sort of like a back-and-forth between the uses of slime that are not environmentally-related at all and the ones that have an environmental theme.
It seems like the Nickelodeon ones, it’s just transgressive and it’s very visually vivid, like you can see right away. I think it’s the Nickelodeon awards or whatever it is, the Teen Choice or Kids Choice or whatever, where they used to slime celebrities. So it’d be, like, Marky Mark with a bunch of slime up and down his body, so that is the ultimate expression of it where it’s like, “Hah hah, you’re an adult and you had to deal with this, welcome to our world,” kind of.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: It’s true yeah, it became kind of a marker for kids’ territory.
REBECCA ONION: Yeah.
IAN STEADMAN: Can we talk about where slime came from originally as a toy? I’m genuinely curious about the history of this stuff as a toy, because it must’ve come from somewhere, because someone someday must’ve mixed a bunch of random crap together and realized they had something on their hands, quite literally.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yeah, the old mad scientist stroke, yeah.
IAN STEADMAN: Yes, yeah.
REBECCA ONION: That’s right, yeah. Alright, so the Dr Zeus book Bartholomew And The Ooblek from 1949 features a bunch of slime that comes out of the sky. If you look up the book there is a funny illustration of a guy running with a bunch of slime flying off of him, and so the ooblek is something that sort of transgresses the peace of the kingdom and makes everyone crazy because it just gets everywhere and nobody can contain it, but that was not a physical toy, that was a character in a book.
So, the first slimings were on You Can’t Do That On Television, which was a sketch comedy show, and that was where if you said, “I don’t know,” on air then you would get slimed.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Oh, high stakes.
REBECCA ONION: Yeah. Then probably the one that people knew better was Double Dare, which first aired in 86, and then there’s a bunch of different Nickelodeon shows that had a ton of slime. And there were a bunch of different toy manufacturers in the 70s, 80s, and 90s that made slime.
So, I found out that Mattel was the first but Nickelodeon licenced it later on, and Nickelodeon also sold Gak which was, I don’t know if you ever felt that?
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yeah. Yeah. I loved that consistency when I was a kid.
REBECCA ONION: Yeah. I think I might have actually had Gak. There was a bunch of different plastic toys that would come with, like, a little package of slime with them. Nickelodeon also tried to sell slime-related other products, so they had a slime shampoo and slime ice pops and for a while Burger King had a slime dipping sauce, which is so gross.
In the 80s and early 90s we didn’t really make it, like, I don’t really remember ever doing ooblek at summer camp or anything like that. And that’s more of a today thing. Maybe you could really say that YouTube has made homemade slime more and more popular, that, like, social sharing aspect of it, that ability to, sort of, go back and forth and say that, “I made this, I made this, I made this, look at this crazy color, look at this consistency,” or whatever.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Something that I was thinking when you were talking about the ways that kids can take a thing like slime and then transform it into something else and how much imaginative power is in that, and I wonder if maybe the ways that it’s been used in culture has morphed to reflect our own sense of agency over, almost, overcoming this scary toxic things, like, you know, environmentalism and all the things that were kind of going off the rails in the 70s and 80s.
It was scary and it was ominous and there was always the threat of something not being contained and that was the kind of way that we saw slime portrayed. And then at a certain point something changes, the threat is removed from it by the time that it becomes the slime that we see in, like, Nickelodeon kids’ culture.
REBECCA ONION: There’s sort of a nuclear fear argument around it in a way. I mean, I think this idea that, in the late 60s, early 70s, through the 80s, there was a lot of, “Oh my God, what are we doing to the environment?” Like, I don’t know if you guys have ever read John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, which is like a really chilling and horrifying science fiction book from the 70s, or Philip Whiley’s The End Of The Dream. So, those are 70s environmental scare fiction books where, like, it’s off-the-rails scary, it’s, like, there are worms coming out of the sea and no one knows where they came from.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Nope, nope, nope, shut it down.
REBECCA ONION: Or, like, there are kids swimming in a river and a nuclear reactor containment fails and all of the water that was cooling the reactor comes down the river and, like, boils them alive. So, stuff like that, that’s how people were thinking. People were thinking, like, “We don’t even know what the risks are that we have created, we don’t even have a sense of it,” you know, it could be anything, which is honestly the way I feel about climate change now, is that, like, the same way, we don’t know what we’re doing, what the hell, anything can happen.
I feel, like, slime in a way is almost scary and gross but it’s almost a way to make those kind of threats carnivalesque and funny, in a way, and I really think that in some ways, culturally, we’re just really bad at managing that kind of fear in a way that’s productive, and I think that we continue to be part of managing that kind of fear in a way that is productive. And I feel like slime is an example of the weird bullshit ways we come up with to manage it, that do nothing in the real world. Sorry, I’m such a bummer.
CHARLIE CRAY: So, I guess there is a pattern of how Hollywood screenwriters see something in the news and they go “Oh that would make a good story.” I mean you had, like, The Toxic Avenger and some of the other stuff coming later, like The Mutant Ninja Turtles. What was that show with the big dog, and Shaggy?
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Scooby Doo.
CHARLIE CRAY: They had some episodes of Scooby Doo.
IAN STEADMAN: They definitely did, yeah.
CHARLIE CRAY: I’m Charley Cray, I’m with Greenpeace U.S.A., business and political strategist. I spent about ten years as a campaigner-organizer working on hazardous waste issues like incineration, toxins in the Great Lakes, PVC plastic, and the whole suite of correlated organic chemicals.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: So you’re the real life Captain Planet?
CHARLIE CRAY: I would not claim that.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: You know, Ian and I were talking a lot about how we’ve come to understand a lot of things about environmental messages from our childhood, and we grew up in the late 80s and early- mid-90s, and it was, you know, a period of time where, in the media, especially children’s media, there were so many examples of storylines and cartoons and things that involve sludge and toxic waste and slime, and so we wanted to talk to you because we wanted to figure out, like, is slime real? Like, what is the closest thing to slime in real science land?
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah. Is there actually glowing green barrels that were tipped into rivers at some point? Is that something that was actually happening?
CHARLIE CRAY: It definitely was in the earlier 70s. The Cuyahoga River went on fire in Cleveland, you know, there were algae blooms from fertilizer runoff. Hazardous waste dumps. The Valley of Drums near Louisville, Kentucky. You got Love Canal. Hooker Chemical, which later became Occidental, it had very hazardous waste and it started oozing into people’s basements. Times Beach, Missouri, where a small waste disposal company took dioxin-contaminated oil and sold it as a dust suppressant. Maybe someone’s outside gardening and all of a sudden the EPA pulls up his truck gets out of their truck in moon suits, and they ended up evacuating the entire community. You’ve got Morrisonville in what’s called “Cancer Alley” down between Baton Rouge and Louisiana, where there’s a high concentration of chemical plants. There was Stringfellow Acid Pits incidents in Southern California. Warren County, North Carolina was one of the more famous cases. An African-American community they found high levels of PCB. Of course, hazardous waste disposal companies target low-income and minority communities, and have forever, because they’re less politically powerful.
And then, you know, after all this pattern emerged, some members of Congress asked the government to start looking at this pattern, and the General Accounting Office, as it was known, around the mid-80s, did a report where they found, they estimated that there was something between 130,000 and 425,000 hazardous waste sites in the country.
IAN STEADMAN: That’s a massive margin, that’s a massive margin of error.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: That’s just the waste sites, that’s not even counting the people that would be affected by it, hundreds- and thousands-fold.
CHARLIE CRAY: You know, all of this comes with the growth of the chemical industry whose products are not well understood or well regulated. Obviously some of that popped up in news media, Love Canal in particular became a national story because they committed high level civil disobedience, took an EPA administrator hostage for a day, basically, and it became national news.
IAN STEADMAN: Were people just not constantly terrified about all of this happening?
CHARLIE CRAY: Well a lot of this, the science didn’t emerge, some of this what I’m describing, until later, but I think, I don’t know how terrified people were. It really depended who you were and where you lived and what knowledge you had. I mean, if you remember in the 50s and 60s through all these sci-fi films, Godzilla or stuff, they were sort of responses to the testing of nuclear weapons, and most kids, people who are older now, remember practicing duck and cover drills in school, that was one of the things they did. So, in the 70s and 80s, it turned out the people trying to kill us were right here, in the form of…
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: The call is coming from inside.
CHARLIE CRAY: Yeah, so I don’t think that they wanted people to think about this stuff very much. But it was, you know, it was there in the background.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: And it keeps emerging and it keeps popping up, and as you were going through that laundry list of sites, I was thinking about Flint and what has happened with the contamination there, and also going back to that underlying vulnerability for communities of color or low-income communities, and the lack of political capital to do anything about it. Can you talk a little bit about what that process is like, of defending one’s community from this, sort of, evil villain that’s all around us?
CHARLIE CRAY: Yeah, well I think, you know, it’s usually the women in the community who see a pattern of health problems. What happens is, usually they find that their elected representatives are not responsive, and they have to organize themselves, by themselves. And, at this point, there are hundreds if not thousands of community groups that have formed at the local level, and often network with each other to find their common challenges and organize politically.
But, you know, there was a lot of very strong organizing in the 80s, leading into the 90s. 1990, if people google it, I mean, the first People Of Color Environmental Justice Summit was a historical moment where you had Native Americans, and Latinos, and Asian Pacific communities, and African American activists all coming together to bond and network and find common ground and articulate principles, and they really challenged the national environmental groups, that were predominantly white in their staff make up, to pay attention to those who, as one person put it, “Don’t have the complexion for protection.” So, it’s a very large movement with a very rich history.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: So it sounds like saving the environment is a lot less like Captain Planet and a lot more like Erin Brockovich. Maybe minus the crazy parts.
CHARLIE CRAY: Yeah, very good point. Erin Brockovich is a really good, you know, you’ve got a lot of women who, you know, are just really strong and don’t take no for an answer and will find a way to protect their families and communities.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: So you’ve got all this YouTube glamor goo, but it’s not actually doing anything or making any difference, and it’s just cute and we’ve, like, really divorced ourselves from our actual relationship to the fear of very real environmental threats, and I think it’s a really good reminder that sometimes you actually have to, like, get up and go into the world and, like, face bureaucrats in order to make a change.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah, slime has represented a lot of different things over the last 50, 60 years, but consistently it’s represented some kind of environmental problem, and it turns out that the children’s media that we were being fed, as much as we feel good about it and feel nostalgic about it, being that emotionally connected to something as a piece of culture is not the same as being influenced by it as an effective influencer of change, you know? Something that’s going to make people get up and do stuff.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: If we’ve learnt nothing from this first season it’s that the power is yours.
IAN STEADMAN: The power is ours.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Ours, yeah. It’s like that warm, fuzzy feeling you get at the end of the cartoons but you’re, like, “Oh, it’s real life.”
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah, if you want that, there’s an easy way to get that as an adult. Like, you don’t have to watch old reruns of Captain Planet on YouTube. What you can do is go to your local environmental community group meeting and get your hands dirty.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: You know, I just made a connection back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze. I think it’s actually the reason that I, like, wanted to become a journalist. I was obsessed with April.
IAN STEADMAN: She’s the news reporter character?
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: And she was super good at her job, she was always having leads and finding out stuff she wasn’t supposed to.
IAN STEADMAN: She wore a kickass yellow jumpsuit.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yeah. Style goals, journalism goals, hangs-out-with-turtle goals.
IAN STEADMAN: I don’t know if we can promise people that they’ll be able to do the turtle bit of that if they join a community activism group, but you never know.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Activism takes all forms.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah, and as we come to the end of this first season of the show, we’ve explored in different ways how ideas can change the world but something that I think unites all of them is that it’s never just an idea on its own. It’s always an idea combined with other work.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yeah, I think that we’ve been looking at the ways that our brain actually interacts with the interplay of society and the issues at hand, and how it’s kind of this dance between how we cognitively process things, our, like, social behaviors within our communities and within our environments, and then how that actually, you know, relates to how messaging comes across.
And slime was just one example of how a representation of a representation of a representation can, kind of, evolve over time and just filter in our subconscious and, essentially, effect and shape the attitude that we have about very real stakes confronting us and our survival on this planet.