Unicorns in America

My 5-year-old son is refusing to like unicorns. “Unicorns are for girls,” he tells me. “The boys in school said so.” I bought him a unicorn T-shirt but lately he only wears it at home. I try to encourage him, but I also think back to my own childhood: how my wise, feminist mother would dress me in nonbinary clothes which in my teens propelled me into a rebellion of silk pink ribbons and bows. Only later did I appreciate the freedom she gave me. Children have to find their own way to understanding, but what are boys missing out on when supposedly feminine symbols are barred to them? Does it close down openness to the traits associated with traditional femininity like gentleness, care, sensitivity, or the irrational, magic, and the mystic?

This year, I took my students to a workshop on clothes that challenged gender binaries, held at the Ohio State Costume and Textiles Collection. Our guide Marlise Schoeny surprised us by showing us dresses that were routinely worn by nineteenth-century boys, and she explained that the color pink was (until the beginning of the twentieth century) thought to be masculine, a paler shade of virile red. Such details are a reminder that the rules we create for children’s dress and toys are at best arbitrary, at their worst a means for conditioning.

And this brings us back to the unicorn. Fluffy unicorns are everywhere in the United States, the fodder of girls’ birthday parties, or cuddly toys lined up in rows in the “pink section” of toy-store shelves. What does it mean though when America has embraced the symbol but only for girls? Is the exclusion of boys telling of an anxiety about gender norms? And why has it been sanitized so carefully?

The Ancient Greeks recorded the unicorn’s existence carefully in their natural histories believing it to be a real beast: a horse-like creature with blue eyes, and a narwhal-like horn that when drunk from had healing properties. The Greek bestiary, the Physiologus describes the unicorn’s power and fierceness, and how it could only be tamed by throwing a virgin into its path. The story is more King Kong than cuddly toy, and like the giant ape, the unicorn is placated and charmed by the presence of the virgin; the Physiologus tells us that she suckles the creature, and takes power over it. The whole story has a strange, sexually charged dynamic, and typically for a patriarchal society, the Greek text elevates the virgin as the most desirable object of male desire, whilst also gesturing to women’s sexual powers, and their fertility as mothers.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France (F)

Medieval artists, inspired by that maternal aspect, refigured the virgin as Mary, and the unicorn became part of an elaborate allegory for Christ’s sacrifice. The most famous rendering of the Medieval virgin/unicorn story is the “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries at Musée Cluny in Paris. I saw the tapestries during a stay in Paris, when I would sit daily in the half-light of the darkened gallery.

So many works of literature have been inspired by the tapestries (including my own poetry collection Conquest), but what struck me at the time was the gorgeous tension and sensuous grace of the depictions of the lady and unicorn. The intricate background blooming with wild flowers and adorned with small animals speaks to fertility and sensuousness, and it renders a kind of Eden, but where a virginal Eve is forever suspended in the moment before sex, elevated, empowered, and given authority. The tapestries are themed by the senses, but end with the lady returning to her jewel-box, a symbol that Freud would interpret as the seat of women’s sexuality: the title is ‘A mon seul désir’, which might mean ‘To my sole desire,’ or ‘To my sole love.’ Whichever meaning is taken from it, here might be a woman in control of her own sexuality.

Might the Medieval unicorn queer the fluffy version so common in America? Or thinking another way, might the unicorn symbol itself be more powerful for young women than we might recognize? Just consider the symbolism of the tapestry The Unicorn in Captivity (1495-1505) part of the Unicorn Tapestries collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – see the video below:

The pure white unicorn is pictured sitting, its striking horn aloft. A tuft of beard sprouts from its chin, and it waits behind the fence pleasantly enough, with an odd expression of tenderness. Its long legs look as though they could vault the fence easily, but still it waits. Berry juice or blood stands out against its white hide, perhaps a reminder of the virgin. Especially striking is how the picture, to modern eyes at least, mingles what we would think of as traditionally masculine and feminine. 

The power exerted over the creature, who sits and waits, neutralizes the more aggressive, sexual connotations of the Greek unicorn story. In this way, the unicorn might be a positive symbol for girls, and I remember feeling this as a kid when I watched the 1982 animated film, The Last Unicorn.In this peculiar little movie, the unicorn (voiced by Mia Farrow) seeks to save her family, corralled by an evil king (voiced by Christopher Lee) and his servant: the terrifying red bull. To do so, she must transform into a human woman, and it is because the king’s son (voiced by Jeff Bridges) falls in love with her that she is able to save the other unicorns. She cannot love the prince in return, however, but prefers to turn back to her horse form and be free. The prince takes this decision without bitterness, but continues to love her despite his loss, almost as though the roles are reversed: he is the devoted unicorn, and she the powerful virgin.

In all the unicorn stories explored here – the taming of the Greek unicorn, the fenced Medieval unicorn, and the animated feminist unicorn – the portraits of heterosexual love and desire are subverted in some way. It is thought-provoking to think about such portrayals in the light of heteronormative sexual scripts for young people, where girls are supposed to be gatekeepers, while boys are taught to overcome girls’ hesitation, to be bold, aggressive, and take risks in encounters. 

How different then is the unicorn tamed, fenced, or freeing itself from the heterosexual love story. Sexual scripts in the West are quite different in tone to the story of the unicorn who gives up control, gives up itself to the lady, to her sole desire. Is it any wonder then that Western culture seeks to sanitize the unicorn, to make it cuddly and safe? Might keeping the unicorn as something solely for girls be because its story of devotion and love goes against the script of macho American masculinity? Indeed, whatever gender lovers might be, the unicorn seems to speak to love and desire in its most beautiful and graceful manifestations. And despite its sanitizing, the unicorn still might be working to queer restrictions and strictures, casting the shadow of its other, more subversive selves across the toystore shelves.

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