Women are pure virgins who still act as lures to trick unicorns to their doom, sexually voracious women willing to be used in sexually exploitative relationships, or they’re symbols of capitalism upon which anything can be projected. And throughout, unicorns appear on an endless parade of merchandise targeting young women and girls. Lisa Frank was only one among many who sold the unicorn mythos to young girls in the ’80s and ’90s, and any trip to Target will furnish a cornucopia of unicorn gear for women and girls alike. A lamp in the shape of a unicorn head, for example, could go just as easily in a dorm room, a third grader’s bedroom, or a millennial’s “ironic” apartment, but it tends to be marketed specifically at women. The unicorn has powerful femme associations, and has even become a source of reclamation and pride for some women, who may style themselves with rainbow “unicorn hair,” apply unicorn makeup, drink beverages from unicorn cups while lounging on unicorn pool floats and ordering unicorn drinks from Starbucks—the next iteration of a specialty drink marketed to women and targeting them for mockery.
The feminization of the unicorn, considered masculine through so much of history, forces it into the corner with other things deemed unimportant or unworthy of attention by nature of their association with women. By feminizing the unicorn, popular culture has also diminished and demeaned it. The association with young women and girls files the horn away, turning the creature into something docile and unremarkable, so it’s surprising that it’s become associated with the highly masculine world of high-powered startups, until one digs deeper to note that many of these companies are plagued by inherent suspicion, questions about sustainability, and questions about who benefits from their overvalued status. While those on the ground floor may stand to reap their earnings, those who rush to capitalize on the allure of a company with bold promises may find themselves deceived. The threads of a familiar tale emerge again.
We may not believe in the unicorn as a literal creature, but we do believe, powerfully, in the myth and symbolism of the animal as something deeply wild that we’re always chasing, waiting for it to appear over the next fold of the horizon. When something doesn’t truly exist, it’s possible to project anything onto it, whether it’s a multibillion-dollar company that exists to enrich its shareholders or an “ironic” rainbow unicorn outfit on the dance floor of a rave. The unicorn has strayed from Pliny’s somewhat nightmarish description, while remaining an ever-elusive chimera, fierce and dangerous, tame and servile, beautiful and strange. Embedded within is a cautionary tale: What will you do with the unicorn, once you’ve caught it?