The other day I came across a tweet from someone that resonated strongly with me. I regret that I did not save it so that I could credit the person properly, but it said something akin to this: “Who would have thought unicorns would be the trend to replace zombies and vampires?”
This person, of course, is referring to the fact that you can’t walk two feet through the metaphorical recesses of the Internet without encountering something unicorn-themed. There are the thousands of multicolored #UnicornHair styles on Instagram, for example:
Or merch like these super trendy unicorn makeup brushes (which I will freely admit to owning) being sold everywhere:
And of course, you all know about the now infamous unicorn Starbucks frappuccino, Which our own Kristy Puchko recently described as “radioactive purple splatter.” But gosh, doesn’t it look pretty?
The idea of embracing a boldly multicolored, magical vibe, especially in food and fashion, isn’t actually all that new — it’s just been dressed up with a new mascot in the unicorn. Before that there was the mermaid look, which emphasized fish scales and an aquatic blue-green palette; before that it was the galaxy print, and before that it was just regular ol’ rainbows — remember those bagels? And then, before that, it was mermaids again. Meanwhile, if you like to incorporate sparkles or pastels or earthiness or whatever the dominant trend du jour might be, but you don’t want to give up your black gothy wardrobe, you can go for some variant on witches, an edgier catch-all aesthetic for women who grew up watching Charmed and Sailor Moon in equal measure.
So why is this aesthetic coming to such a tipping point now, and why is it so unlike creature obsessions of years past? I have two theories: first, that trends which seem more feminine are currently getting a bigger visibility boost thanks to social media and an oversaturation of beauty-focused media outlets. Instagram is a big part of this chain; a popular makeup artist or hairstylist might do something new and kitschy like “unicorn tears” or “galaxy freckles,” and all of a sudden everyone is doing it, and every website has a round-up of all those Instagram posts, and then a company (like Starbucks) latches onto it and makes it into a product people can buy. This also explains why there’s no specific pop culture narrative associated with unicorns, like vampires had with Twilight or True Blood, and zombies did with The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later.
Secondly, and more importantly: Unicorns have replaced zombies and vampires because monsters are only compelling when they are fictional. Predators who struggle to overcome their sexual urges, or mindless hordes bent on violence to engorge themselves, no longer have the same appeal they once did when they were merely metaphors. But unicorns never hurt anybody — at least, not these psychedelic Lisa Frank-ified creatures currently dominating the internet. They remind young women of the things we embraced as children, when we didn’t need to worry about global warming, or lack of healthcare, or knowing just how many of our elected officials think of us as inconvenient objects to own. They’re a form of escapism that doesn’t hinge on us ever feeling scared for our own safety.
Of course, it also could just be they’re nice to look at. And what’s wrong with that? Pictures of pink and blue drinks topped with whipped cream make me content in a way I can’t describe, even though I don’t think they need to exist and I certainly never want to taste one for myself. They’re pretty, but in a garish, artificial way that doesn’t pretend to be natural and certainly doesn’t act like it’s good for you. It might be crass, but at least it’s honest. There’s something to be said for that.