Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What is it about the idea of unicorns that make them so popular? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
The loss of the unicorn
Once upon a time, unicorns were believed to actually exist. Now it is universally decided, that this is not so. There are no unicorns!
Not even in a kingdom far, far away.
The unicorn receives our fantasies
This makes the unicorn safe. What does not exist cannot protest against our use of it. The school bully may hit you, but your imaginary friend will not. It seems the modern unicorn acts as a kind of canvas for our fantasy. We can project upon it the whimsy and fantastic things that we know now for certain—or think we know—do not exist in The Real World but in fairytales alone. If there are unicorns about, wizards, virgins and flying carpets hover near. Naturally, these, too, are wide open for projection and metaphor and we can soon populate entire kingdoms with our fantasies.
For the projections seem quite modern mostly. Not much in the popular contemporary unicorn, as seen on the net or in fantasy books, is taken from its history, and a lot of its actual, if imaginary, history is ignored. The modern unicorn practically eats, breathes and lives rainbows, for instance, but this is a wholly modern invention and has no roots in unicorn lore of days gone by. The unicorn of old was thoroughly appropriated by the Christian paradigm then firmly in place and sacrilege was a real, punishable crime.
Iconic it is, ironic we are
At the same time, living in The Real World and embracing many of the values and mores that are common in that place, we will be ironic and distance ourselves from the unicorn. It’s so childish, isn’t it?
The unicorn as a freedom fighter
There may be a gender dimension to this. Young girls may play with toy unicorns and it will help them feel and enact the fairytales they play, and we all know that what children do and what girls do is not top priority in societies ruled by male adults. For an adult or for a male to embrace the unicorn is thus an act of rebellion in some sense. Not necessarily consciously, but that is the way it is with projections.
Yet, the unicorn not existing, such a rebellion may also seem make-believe. Perhaps that ambiguity in itself is part of the attraction to some. Not that all who use unicorn imagery are rebels like this. Quite a few are nothing but ironic and use images of it to simply say, in essence, that fantasy, or fairy tales, or noble ideals or some other thing felt to belong to the same category as unicorns, is a stupid thing. The point of these more ironic memes, for we often see it in memes, seem primarily to be to uphold society-as-is, gender-roles-as-is and most-stuff-as-is.
As a relatively clear canvas, we can bring whatever projections we have to it.
Perhaps that’s really what makes the unicorn popular these days. It allows our fantasy a neutral spot where we can paint freely, regardless of what we are for or against.