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Lisa Simpson Unicorn.png

Technicolour Dreams: Why We Love the Mermaid and Unicorn Trend

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Think Pieces | September 21, 2017 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Think Pieces | September 21, 2017 |

I went to a music festival last month with a friend. It was a pretty low-key affair - the first time the event had been held - and altogether we had a wonderful time. There are three things from this exciting weekend that linger heavily in my mind: The inevitably pricey beer, the fever of the music, and all the sparkles. A stall had been set up where festival-goers would have their hair done in mermaid or unicorn styles, meaning gemstones glued to the hairline, a fog of glitter sprayed onto every follicle, and a rainbow of temporary dyes to give the illusion of the sea at dusk or an explosion in a nail polish factory. Those partaking in the make-over could also have elaborate designs of rhinestones and glitter paint adorned across their faces to complete the look. Over the course of two days, I may have breathed in more glitter than anything else. On the second day of the festival, stray gems could be found embedded in the grass.

As someone who is now closer to 30 than 20 and whose dress sense can be best described as ‘perpetually waiting for a tea party’, I’ve been on the fence about this recent trend of technicolour fantasy, echoing back to My Little Pony, Lisa Frank trapper keepers, and just a hint of flower power. It seems to have invaded everything, from make-up and hair to food and fashion. Both trends have already been accused of infantilising their audiences, particularly women, which is an understandable point on some level. Even I can’t stop myself from quietly judging people my age just a little for having unicorn backpacks, before smacking myself down for being a dismissive jerk.

I’ve seen more than one person walk around in public while wearing a unicorn onesie (seemingly without the aid of intoxication), and Instagram seems to have been invaded by a barrage of glitter laden food, including grilled cheese, pancakes and burgers. There’s a lipgloss brand named Unicorn Snot. Vogue did a write-up on Mermaid Toast, and yes, there are dildos with theming to match both. It inspires equal measures of laughter, eye-rolling, and perplexity. Of course it’s weird and kind of stupid, yet I still find myself oddly endeared to the madness once I get over my instinctive rejection.

A lot of this trend’s current popularity can be found in simple numbers. Social media buzz has driven businesses big and small to pander to the fad, partly because of supply and demand but also because such products are perfectly crafted to be liked and shared. Instagram filters already add new hues to reality so why not cut out the middle man with some deep sea turquoise or iridescent glow? Mermaid Toast probably tastes gross, but damn if it doesn’t bring in the Twitter numbers. Starbucks knew this when they made their Unicorn Frappuccino. It barely mattered how the drink tastes, although Stephen Colbert did say it was akin to French-kissing Tinkerbell. It wasn’t a drink so much as it was an Instagram trap, and it worked. The particular aesthetic of that site invites a life of rose-tinted envy, one where the surface level of beauty has been achingly organized to reach maximum influence, even if the reality is more calculating and dour. In that sense, a Unicorn Frappuccino is the ideal beverage for Instagram - just look, don’t drink.

There’s more to the trend than just looking good. Right now, pop culture is pretty grim. Blockbuster films have taken on a permanent palate of de-saturated sadness, all greys and rainfall and concrete smashed with a fist of doom. Dourness has become shorthand for seriousness, and so our perpetually haunted heroes must fight not only the bad guys but the darkness within, signalled by an absolute refusal from cinematographers to acknowledge that other colours exist. Even now with hopeful and bright examples to the contrary making money hand over fist at the box office and inspiring fervent anticipation amongst fans (like the explosion of colour present in the trailers and posters for Thor: Ragnarok), producers still clamour for ‘dark and edgy’. Maybe if Zack Snyder had a unicorn, the DCU would chill out a little.

The unicorn and mermaid trend is one mostly coded as feminine in nature, and women’s pop culture is still something that’s maligned and dismissed by the mainstream even when it makes billions of dollars: The embossed fuchsia covers of romance novels; the scarlet haze of soap operas; the technicolour dazzle of hair and make-up artistry; even the welcoming pastels of baking and cozy culinary experimentation. It’s 2017 and we still have to contend with arguments over the colour pink. When you’re told to not make a fuss and blend in with the crowd lest you embarrass someone, the urge to explode with glitter and metallic is a mighty force. Unruliness in women is something we’re supposed to clamp down - don’t be loud, don’t backchat, don’t make a scene - so what better way to oppose that than being the mermaid of your dreams, dizzying and vibrant and impossible to dismiss?

Pop culture’s recent grimness is nothing compared to the smothering reality of the world at large, an increasing hell-scape of global warming, crumbling democracy, and legitimized bigotry. There’s never been a more pressing need for something hopeful and bright, even if it’s just as a minute form of self-care. Mermaids and unicorns can represent whatever you need them to: Unique strength, irrepressible joy, feminine power, a beacon of optimism in a world of grey. It’s a fairytale aesthetic but it’s not as if fairytales are empty of darkness: It’s just that we’re mostly guaranteed a world where goodness prevails. Mostly. It didn’t work out great for the original Little Mermaid.

It’s no coincidence that this symbol of femininity has also been re-energised as one for LGBTQ+ pride. What rainbow flag couldn’t be improved with the addition of a unicorn? Ariel from The Little Mermaid has long stood as a hero for LGBTQ+ kids who saw themselves in her struggle to live the life she knew she always wanted, a movie that offered a much more optimistic ending than the tragic Hans Christian Andersen story it was based on (one with frequently noted gay subtext). There’s even a wonderful British charity dedicated to supporting gender nonconforming children called Mermaids. Janet Mock wrote about the special meaning the mermaid trend has for trans women and non-binary individuals in Allure:

‘Like mermaids, trans women are viewed as half-women, half-other. Like mermaids, trans women grapple with people’s disturbing curiosity with their genitals. And like mermaids, we are fascinating and beautiful and magical.’

This trend will probably be over by the end of the year, replaced by something else that will leave me ever closer to permanent ‘Old Woman Yells at Cloud’ status (bring on robot realness). There’s enough darkness in our lives to contend with on a daily basis, and frankly, a rainbow dye-job or teal-poached breakfast is the least we can do to ensure some of the light stays in our lives. Besides, unicorns have horns and mermaids have teeth - being sparkly doesn’t mean they won’t fight hard when the time comes.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.