7.26.2010

Unicorn is the New Skull: Mainstreaming of Gay Symbolism | CULTURE / TRENDS / ART & DESIGN


Pop culture has started to embrace and find humorous irony in gay iconography, symbolism and culture, without coming across as derogatory or un-PC.

Specifically, a portfolio of [traditionally recognized] gay symbolism like rainbows, sparkles, unicorns, etc. are infiltrating mainstream pop culture, most particularly in style & design. And not in like a totally gay sort of way.

While the growing popularity of rainbows and unicorns may seem a bit topical, the increased usage of such symbolism in mass entertainment, fashion and general pop culture is actually quite indicative of a larger shift in perceptions of gay culture, homophobia, etc.

Let's just step aside and take a second to talk in depth about just one of those iconic symbols: The Unicorn.

Unicorn is the new skull.
We've already seen the unicorn creeping its way into several facets of style and design, from fashion to jewelry, emblems and even tattoos. (We caught a hipster subway rider rocking out a huge unicorn tattoo on his neck…and it was pretty badass.)

The skull has had it's run, but it's played out, in fashion, art, jewelry & accessories, logos & graphics. It's dark and gothic and represents death -- interesting symbolism to coincide with a decade of conservatism and war. Enter the unicorn: It's equally iconic, but exudes a lighter, more uplifting portfolio of associations, fantasy & adventure, sunshine & sparkles…and gayness… However, it still has an emblem-ready character about it (as seen in the British Royal Coat of Arms), readily lending itself to a variety of graphic applications. Also, let's not forget that the unicorn is deeply rooted in a layered history, both in legend and in art (medieval art, etc.).
(image: Coat of Arms of Prince Charles of Wales, via philologos.org)

Our prediction: We're going to see the unicorn lending itself to style & design in the same way that the skull has been for the last ten years.

We've even seen unicorns popping up in fine art! Check out the work of Amanda Dolan. Meanwhile, a slew of unicorn-themed artworks and crafts have been popping up on craft sites and marketplaces like Etsy. The winning piece on last week's 'Work of Art' (Bravo) was a sex & drug themed unicorn sculpture.


(Artist Amanda Dolan rocks out with unicorns and other sparkly sweet deliciousness in her unique paintings and collages -- Read more on Zandland)


We've been seeing unicorn-themed viral content gaining popularity on the social network circuit. Charlie the Unicorn, the animated gay unicorn saga/YouTube sensation has 50 million views! Meanwhile, ThinkGeek's faux product for this last April Fools Day, Unicorn Meat spread like wildfire on the social media front, landing on hundreds of blogs, news sites and Facebook pages. The joke garnered the attention of the National Pork Board, who placed a cease and desist letter on the site. They were advertising Unicorn as 'the new white meat' (they also claimed that unicorn was an 'excellent source of sparkles').


Unicorns have even infiltrated the gaming world, with the smash hit Robot Unicorn Attack by Adult Swim for the iPhone. Players navigate their unicorn through a rainbow sparkle universe to burst through stars with their rainbow power. Set to the tune of Erasure's 'Always'. It seriously doesn't get more gay than this. But interestingly, this game isn't positioned for little girls. Rather, they're aiming their attentions at the Adult Swim viewer, straight 20-to-early-30-something males. And it's an intensely addicting game to say the least. It's made several of Apple's best of lists, including 'What we're playing,' 'What's Hot,' and 'Best Games You've Never Played.' A big 180 from first person shooter games like Call of Duty!

Continue Reading...




(Unicorn Princess Heels in sparkle gold by Jeffrey Campbell)

Jeffrey Campbell's Unicorn Princess Heels were a mega-hit last year, selling out on almost all online venues. The shoes came with a unicorn horn heel that made girls swoon. One Zandl Group Young Adult male panelist excitingly bought a pair in sparkle gold for his wife, alongside a unicorn-themed tee.

Check out this poster for a dance party last week in Downtown Los Angeles:

Unicorns aside, there are plenty of areas where mainstream culture is picking up on gay visual cues. Katy Perry's new video, 'California Gurls' is full of over-the-top gay symbolism. The lyrics to the song are anything but, talking about the hotness of California girls (i.e. "daisy dukes, bikinis on top…so hot they'll melt your popsicle")… And also features womanizer Snoop Dogg, set against a landscape of rainbows, candy colors, sparkles and cotton candy clouds (art directed by Will Cotton). Nothing seems heterosexual in this saccharine pink glitter candy world, but somehow it works -- and is a hit with all segments. We're thinking 5-10 years ago, Snoop's fan base wouldn't have been so totally down with all those rainbows.

(still: Snoop Dogg in Katy Perry's 'California Gurls')

Similarly, Major Lazer's video, 'Keep It Goin' Louder' (dir. Eric Wareheim) from last summer's LP, 'Guns Don't Kill People…Lazers Do,' features a bizarre twist on chauvinism, yet set against a rainbow-gay themed landscape of sparkles and rainbows. One could equate the video with an acid trip through a gay wonderland, complete with humanoid plus-size woman gyrating, etc. (somewhat NSFW). Major Lazer is an electronic-dance reggae-themed duo, and the track and album was a huge hit with hip hop audiences and dance enthusiasts alike. Additionally, to coincide with their tour, they sold unisex tees with neon pink sparkly boom box graphics.

(And while we're on sparkles: let's not totally put aside the non-masculine pretty-boy ultra-sparkly heartthrob vampires of the Twilight Saga.)


So is traditional gay symbolism losing it's meaning?

In short, it's more of a generational shift than a loss of meaning. Many of these icons have been linked in some way gay culture in the last several decades. Of course the adoption of the rainbow flag in 1978 immediately gave the rainbow a specific association to gay culture. But other symbols like the unicorn garner similar associations based on their extreme lack of masculinity and heightened sense of feminine frivolity (and of course they're often portrayed on or near rainbows). Now, in 2010, cultural affiliations with these symbols are evolving. And we think that's a good thing.

Meanwhile, many of the above examples are using traditionally gay symbolism for ironic juxtaposition. The humor proves a level of acceptance, and an unspoken friendly cultural collaboration moving forward into the new decade.

There's a new generation of more socially liberal young adults now, who are driving pop culture. Their formative years were laden with news, debate and information regarding the homosexual movement, from marriage rights to DOMA to Don't Ask, Don't Tell…and they've seen progress and action along the way, and have had more educated conversations with their peers on those topics. Meanwhile, there's way less fear of being perceived as gay because there's less negative slant associated with it. Pop culture has played a big role in this, with a slew of personalities on Bravo, MTV, reality shows, influential celebrities like Adam Lambert and megastars like Lady Gaga who use their influence to further equal rights and awareness.

Meanwhile, teen soaps are no holds barred when it comes to bringing in gay characters and story lines. '90210' (CW) and 'Secret Life of the American Teen' (ABC Family) are just two of many shows that feature gay protagonists in the high school hallways. An interesting twist in the new decade, however, is that these characters are generally not fighting for acceptance based on their sexual identity, but rather deal with the same issues as everyone else -- a big shift from how homosexuality was portrayed in the '90s, etc. with shows like 'My So Called Life' among others which dealt with dramatic tales of coming out and finding acceptance.

Of course, kids these days still throw out, ‘That’s so gay,’ and other similarly cringe-worthy remarks - perhaps more than ever. The term, ‘Gay,’ however, has lost a portion of its actual mean-spirited message. Often, the term comes with a friendly banter sentiment, void of derogatory meaning. And that’s important to understand when following teen lingo.

With all of this pop culture entertainment pushing a general theme of, 'It's not a big deal,' it makes sense that people would generally be less wary of cues that traditionally set off the red (or rainbow) flag. Interestingly, those who shut themselves off to all things ‘gay’ are in effect turning their back on a large chunk of pop culture, and alienating themselves from the cultural circle of knowledge. And as we've seen develop in the last several years, knowledge carries a massive 'cool factor' amongst todays youth.

As an umbrella to this whole evolution: In this harsh economy and steamy current event climate (oil spill, health care, war), people are looking for an escape, an uplifting balance.

And let's face it…By definition, Gay = Happy.

-jmd

16 comments:

NYC Faces Makeup Artist Anni Bruno 10:15 AM  

Great article. Personally, as a child growing up in the '80s, unicorns seemed to be everywhere back then, but didn't associate with gay-ness (or they did, but I didn't notice because I was a kid.) They were just prettysparklefantasy creatures. Now that our generation is driving the media, I wonder if it also has to do with a bit of '80s childhood nostalgia?

jams,  10:34 AM  

Well, 'prettysparklefantasy' is pretty gay, let's face it.

Totally agree though. The whole '80s retro thing definitely comes into play here. Especially the rainbow pop visual sensibilities, etc. I'm not sure, but it seems like maybe in the politically correct '90s, there was even more polarization between straight and gay culture as a kind of natural counter to all the news and media, negative stereotyping, AIDS -- and clear lack of 'normal people' homosexuals in the media.

Chris Fairbanks 8:08 AM  

Kind of tangential, but the discussion about taking awesome/ridiculous stuff seriously reminded me of the new sincerity - http://www.maximumfun.org/blog/2006/02/manifesto-for-new-sincerity.html

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toile la la 8:33 AM  

"Unicorn is the New Skull", the post title, reeled me in after finding the Zandland Blog in a roundabout way (after viewing Irma Zandl's video review of Danny Danziger's Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

First thought: Wonderful. So Happy to see a cheery cultural icon replacing the ominous gloom of skulls.

Granted, skulls are a visual reminder of our mortality. Yes, it is healthy to accept our mortality. But, just start to analyze the skull images we're still seeing daily on all sorts of merchandise (and tattooed on a large portion of the population). These are not matter-of-fact, reference book skull images, but very often seem to have a vividly morbid nature. Not healthy fodder for the psyche.

I believe Antony Hegarty - English singer, musician and artist - best sums up this shift to the more-feminine in his Spring 2012 I-D magazine interview, in which he explains that a more nurturing (traditionally feminine) mindset is necessary for a "sustainable future for society and the world".

Perhaps the trend-sightings of unicorns are indicative of a shift away from the destructive testosterone-overloaded mindset pervading more recent years.

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A portfolio of [traditionally recognized] gay symbolism like rainbows, sparkles, unicorns, etc. are infiltrating mainstream pop culture, most particularly in style & design. And not in like a totally gay sort of way.

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