The Best of Slime
Today's slime toys are not your kid brother's ooey-gooey, neon-green puddles: they're unicorn-colored, calming, ASMR wonders. This week on This is Critical, science journalist Daniel Engber joins Virginia to dig into a contemporary cultural history of slime — and why it's more relevant today than anyone could have predicted.
Listen here and read an excerpt below.
Virginia: So you and I share an interest, nay, a passion for slime. Why is slime still so popular in toys and popular culture decades after we thought its relevance had passed?
Dan: I don't think it's been continuously popular. I think there was a slime winter, and now it is slime spring again. So let's just, let's just define our terms. I think slime was enormously popular in the 70s and 80s and, maybe into the 90s and then less so for a while. And now all of a sudden in the last six years, it's been extremely popular again.
Virginia: So tell me about the slime moment we’re in right now.
Dan: So the slime moment we're in right now is very different from 80s slime or 70s slime. For many obvious reasons, but one of them is just like, it has glitter in it. It has little bits and pieces in it. It's different colors. And, um, it seems like a lot of the slimefluencers are doing kind of like food-related slime art. Like making slime into, like fake foods.
Virginia: Yeah, yeah, you're definitely making it smell like a cupcake or like fruit loops which is truly a magnificent confection of smell by the way, whereas the slime of the 80s was usually green and you weren’t going to eat it.
Dan: The shift from a green slime to pink slime I noticed that came up a few different times in the history of slime. So in 1977, Mattel kind of created the modern slime boom, by coming up with the slime toy. The product manager at the time was a woman, um, I don't know if that's relevant, but it was interesting talking to her and hearing her description of the first like test run of slime with a bunch of kids brought into Mattel, how it was just so different from any other product that she had, you know, overseeing the testing of like Hot Wheels or something that just, as soon as the kids saw the slime, it was like total Bedlam in the product testing room.
Dan: So that was green slime. Then a year later Mattel was like, oh, what a huge hit we have. We need to, you know, do slime 2.0. And they came up with this follow-up product, which had like gooey worms in it. And this Mattel product manager who was in her 80s when I spoke to her, I mean, but she remembered this stuff. And she said, well, you know, that didn't work. I think the worms were a bad idea. But it kind of came up in passing that they changed the color to this pinkish purple and then, I don't know, it seemed like maybe that might've been a factor, and suddenly the slime was not the right slime. Because slime, as it's represented in toys and pop culture, um, for the next 10 years is green, always green, always green.
Virginia: Is it the color of snot? Like is that what sort of it's supposed to be?
Dan: No, I think, I mean, maybe there's like a snottiness to it, but it's like a neon green. It's like the color of radiation.
Virginia: Yes, right, it’s like Homer Simpson's little bar of nuclear waste or whatever that is, right?
Dan: Right. You know, slime was associated with toxic waste. The Three Mile Island accident was 1979. The anti-nuclear activism movement was just getting very big in the beginning of the 80s, right as this sort of slime thing was developing, and slime, you know, one face of it is in toys for kids, but then there's also this kind of slime aesthetic, um, in, you know, the world of punk rock.
Virginia: Oh, like Gwar. Do you know who I’m talking about?
Virginia: I've been to see Gwar in concert, and this is going to be the first time I use this expression. Um, I was like doused in stunt jizz. Yes, stunt jizz. That is a thing. It is - my god. I just got an exclamation point in the chat from the producer on that one. But yes stunt jizz, it was viscous, it wasn't real jizz. and Gwar was known for dousing their audience in what were supposed to seem like revolting bodily fluids.
Dan: What color was it?
Virginia: Um, It was white. It was clear and white.
Dan: Boy slime.
Virginia: Yes, exactly.
Hear the full episode here.