ZZ Ziff Proves Not All Heroes Wear Capes
“Every child is born a naturalist. His eyes are, by nature, open to the glories of the stars, the beauty of the flowers, and the mystery of life.” - Ritu Ghatourey
Thinking back, I have difficulties recalling environmental advocates who catered to children when I was growing up in the ’90s. I vaguely remember Captain Planet, and the Native American man shedding a tear in that 1970s public service announcement about litter and pollution, and Recycle Rex (that “Recycle, Reduce, Reuse” song has been burned into my memory since I first heard it in kindergarten). Maybe the real problem was not the lack of characters, but the lack of characters I could really connect with. I was somehow born knowing the environment mattered, but I needed someone to shepherd me through the beginnings of my environmental journey.
Like a lot of kids, I often resorted to television to entertain me after my room was clean and my homework was done. I was intrigued by the dynamics of the group of tweens and their bumbling camp counselor on the show Salute Your Shorts. Sure, the title sounds silly, but it’s a reference to a longtime camp tradition of stealing kids’ underpants and running them up a flagpole.
Set at Camp Anawanna, the characters embodied various persona (the brain, the bully, the cool kid, etc.), including the tree-hugging, tie-dye-wearing ZZ Ziff. For me, ZZ was someone I could identify with and admire. She was just a few years older, she was enthusiastic and energetic, she loved animals, and she had a mouth full of metal, which I thought was pretty rad. She donned big globe earrings and cared intensely about our fragile planet.
In one episode, while fighting over a prize-winning frog, ZZ sacrifices her pursuit of a trophy to save the frog’s life. And in an even more memorable episode called “The Environmental Party,” ZZ opens the show explaining to the camp counselor that she has found “710 distinct pieces of trash” between her bunk and the main hall. ZZ proceeds to alienate her fellow campers by turning off water and electricity to save resources while they try to blow-dry their hair and take showers, turning their bunk into a sorting station, and rudely blaming everyone for the planet’s poor health.
In order to win her friends over again, ZZ throws a party to collect recyclables and teach everyone how to treat the environment. They raffle off a can-crushing dance with the most popular girl at camp—and just when everyone is having a blast, ZZ loses the crowd when she premiers a frightening song predicting a bleak environmental future if we don’t clean up our act. The party ends with a food fight, and ZZ laments as she cleans up all the wasted food.
The next day she meets with an old friend who provides her with some perspective about winning over the hearts, minds, and wallets of the other campers. ZZ changes her approach and appeals to their sense of capitalism when she informs them that recycling, growing their own food, conserving resources, reusing textiles, and repurposing old tires can earn them money for a trip to the local waterslide. In the end, they learn about environmentalism, earn the money, and end up using the cash to buy a tree. Awwwww!
So, why was ZZ able to make an impression on me, even all these years later? I think first and foremost, she was a real person in my age range, not a cartoon or a puppet. I could identify with a strong girl who fought for the planet. She was flawed in that she naively assumed everyone else shared her goals, and that leveraging guilt was an effective way to persuade people to become conservationists. But she found a way to be a leader and rally everyone around her by using their interests to accomplish her mission—one that benefited everyone in the long run. She didn’t focus narrowly on recycling but rather the overall idea of sustainability. She demonstrated this when she spoke about upcycling old textiles, composting to nourish the soil, conserving water and energy, and the dangers of Styrofoam, tire waste, and oil spills.
ZZ Ziff proves that not all heroes wear capes. Some wear globe shaped earrings and tie-dyed shirts.