Features editor Kenalyn Ang ponders the alluring unicorn, and why it has continued to jump forwards in popularity and fame.
Returning to St Andrews, I had the back to school rush reunion with friends after being away from one another for a while, some for nearly a year. We chatted, roamed the town, and showed each other our newly settled into homes and rooms. In a handful of such spaces, I spotted an abundance of unicorn paraphernalia, not excluding my own humble abode (I do own a plush keychain replica of Agnes’ (from Despicable Me) unicorn). Admiring the clothes, the fairy lights, the plushies, and the crockery that I witnessed, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the array of unicorn themed goods I’d just encountered in both my work experience places this past summer. I stood toying with my friend’s unicorn ornament, pushing it it to and fro and thought to myself, “Why has the unicorn – in fact the national animal of Scotland – become such a staple image. The creature’s mystic magic, a symbol of purity and power, transformed into a capitalized image, a commodity?”
According to Visit Scotland’s website, in Celtic mythology, the unicorn was a symbol of purity and innocence, as well as masculinity and power. Tales of dominance and chivalry associated with the unicorn in myths and legends have made the majestic beast the top pick for this nation’s national animal. As the tourist informational website states, ‘Scots would fight to remain unconquered’, just as the unicorn has throughout history. As its national animal, the unicorn can be seen on the United Kingdom’s Royal Arms. A unicorn stands parallel to a lion, as both England and Scotland symbolically support one another in union.
Indeed, the unicorn has had a historical and cultural presence in several cultures for centuries. In the Medieval period and Renaissance, the unicorn was a woodland creature that only a virgin could capture, with healing capabilities via its single horn on the head. Serene, empowered, and almost always foreign and fabulous, the unicorn stands as an almost unachievable though desired dream. It plays a role in Chinese mythology, Greek accounts of natural history (but not Greek mythology), and some say, even appears in the Bible referred to as ‘re’em’. However, it was the Victorian era that relayed the mythical, majestic and powerful creature to quotidian and daily life, and arguably the reason the unicorn remains so prevalent today. Endowed with a supposed medicinal value in the 16th and 17th century (the horn was thought of as an antidote for poison), the Victorian era romanticised it almost to the point of fetishization, and ultimately slotted it into less valiant ideas.
Yet it is admittedly very easy to wonder how the figure – typically white bodied and pink haired these days – came about to be every young girl’s toy, to be sparkly and pink, to decorate and represent food, beauty, recreational and artistic goods. Over the summer, I was able to witness unicorn ‘poop’ (a goopy toy for kids 3+), stationery (letter sets, stationary, trinket dishes, and more), salt (salt infused with paprika and pepper, making it pink in colour), sprinkles (cupcake confetti and baked goods décor branded with the words ‘It’s magic!’), pool floaties, socks, stickers, speakers, and many more goods I am sure others have encountered. This only continued as I left America headed for Manchester, where in the city’s section known as the Northern Quarter, I found a clothing store completely decked out externally and internally with dancing unicorns. Needless to say, a significant portion of their clothing and home goods products were also unicorn themed.
In contrast to such commodification and saturation, the unicorn continues to stand as a well-intentioned symbol popping with positivity and good cheer that more importantly, comes to signify a variety of important things catering to diverse audiences. Because of its mythical association with virgins and femininity, the unicorn is often a symbol of chastity, nurture and nobility. It can also be seen as a divine presence, according to a handful of opinion pieces online (e.eg. The Guardian, personal blogs). Miraculous and beautiful, the unicorn remains unhindered and unchained in many depictions. Additionally, the unicorn has been used as a symbol of pride and of the LGBT community, particularly during the 1970s and 80s. With the rainbow flag, unicorns were increasingly used as symbols in gay rights protests of those decades.
Yet despite the unicorn’s minor roles in more meaningful events of society and culture, it continues to remain most prominently known as the glittery, decorative subject that it is, constantly perpetuated across media. And that’s just it — as the rainbow loving, pretty little thing continues to prance up in popularity on the internet search engine ladder each year, and social media platforms boast millions of posts hashtagged ‘unicorn’ (Instagram has 9.7 million posts under #unicorn this month), the creature has nowhere to go but onwards and upwards in popularity and acclaim. With Starbucks’ unicorn Frappuccino and a whole host of other unicorn themed treats (toast, cake, ice cream) come celebrities posting posed shots and videos of themselves with cute unicorn stuff. And the frenzy rolls on.
As such a lovely and graceful symbol, it is no wonder that the unicorn has stuck around this long, without really any protest against it. Thanks to connotations embedded in the past and a history stock full of content past the frilly fun, the unicorn, a harmless symbol of good cheer and imagination, can be perpetuated equally amongst both children and adults. Neutral to post about, not too difficult with licensing to manufacture as products, and absolute eye candy, I argue that unicorns will continue to remain at the forefront of online trends and the choice plushie to cuddle with for many young children across the globe.
As some online sources have described, the unicorn is a legendary creature. It is here to stay and transform with the social, political and cultural atmospheres of an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, providing us with cutesy stress relief and gentle reminders of valuable qualities that resound in us all. But I’ll stop evangelising the unicorn now, partly because I’m sure someone else somewhere is talking up the majestic beauty, but mostly because I have stumbled upon a website that tells me that all this time, unicorns have been ‘evasive and hard for science to study’.