The ominous specters confronting our culture right now—impending climate change, the national opioid epidemic, whatever it is that Donald Trump decides to go on a Twitter rant about next—hang heavy over our collective consciousness, casting our daily lives in a darker light, though you wouldn't necessarily know it if you were to take a quick scroll through popular Instagram accounts. That version of our world is filled with things like rainbow bagels, unicorn toast, mermaid hair, and millennial pink... everything.
At first, this striking dichotomy appears to be a study in intentional contrasts; it seems as if the light exists only in reaction and opposition to the dark. And, to a certain extent, that might be true. In times of extreme despair, it makes a basic level of sense to seek out positivity, to find the proverbial silver lining, the rainbow after the storm. And, really, what could be more basic than a desire to leave a dark reality for a self-constructed fantasy world of pastel pinks and mythological creatures, ones with long flowing hair and iridescent rainbow hues? It seems like an obvious, if indeed juvenile, reaction; one which can be easily dismissed as not only a millennial refusal to grow up, but also a capitalist inclination to capitalize on that refusal.
While there's undoubtedly some truth to at least the latter part of that assumption (and probably the former, to some extent, too), there are also other truths at work here; namely that, from rainbows to mermaids to pale pink hues, all of this imagery has, at varying times, been used as powerful symbols of queer resistance, making its recent popularity and mainstreaming a fascinating aspect of our current cultural climate. Why now? Why has our culture, in a time of seemingly unparalleled divisiveness, embraced these particular symbols with an unabashed fervor?
First, a little history: Even before Disney put its indelible mark on The Little Mermaid, the Hans Christian Andersen story was surely one of the most widely known fairy tales of all time. On the surface, this makes a certain kind of sense. It has all the classic hallmarks of familiar love stories. Boy and Girl from different worlds are thrown together by fate; they fall in love, but something stands in the way of their happiness (in this case, as per usual, an Evil Woman); fate intervenes again, though, and Boy and Girl live happily ever after. Well, that's how the Disney version goes anyway.
The Andersen tale is much darker, befitting not only from the black Danish seas from which its heroine originates but also from the fact that many believe Andersen was inspired to write this story because of his unrequited love for Edvard Collin, a member of the Copenhagen elite, who did not return Andersen's love. There is no happy ending for the mermaid in Andersen's version; for her, a devouring infatuation with a handsome, indifferent prince leads to her exile from her family and birthplace, and the decision to sell her voice—her soul—in order for a chance at love. After suffering excruciating pain—the Little Mermaid's newly formed legs are cursed; each step feels like she's walking on upturned knives—she is rejected by the prince in favor of another, normal woman, and the nameless creature is returned to the troubled sea from which she came, dispersed into the water as effervescent froth, cresting each wave in turn.
That the Little Mermaid would become an icon of queer culture as early as the 19th century is no surprise, really; she is emblematic of every young boy or girl who felt different from the family and place in which he or she was raised, who suffered in silence while loving someone they knew wouldn't—or couldn't—love them back, who died without ever realizing the versions of themselves they most wanted to be. More than just the Little Mermaid, though, the mythological perception of mermaids as being shape-shifting temptresses, whose sole purpose was to ruin the lives of men, trapping them with their siren calls, tricking them to succumb to their basest, carnal natures, is not so dissimilar to how queer people have been cast as duplicitous; there's a virulent aspect of homophobia which maintains that the LGBT community is trying to "lure" straight men and women into their clutches through deception and trickery.
But as the queer community did with countless other symbols meant to signify their otherness in an undesirable way, mermaids became embraced icons within the queer community; their legendary beauty and wildness were celebrated rather than stigmatized. (See: Coney Island's annual bacchanalia, The Mermaid Parade.) And while it's understandable to dismiss Disney's The Little Mermaid as being the cornily uplifting version of Andersen's tragic tale, it is also possible to see its happy ending as a declaration that queer people have happy endings, too; that even if their parents don't understand them and their voices are taken away, they are not only deserving of love and acceptance, but capable of achieving it, too, on their own terms.
Unicorns, as well, have a complicated mythological significance when it comes to queer culture, having been stand-ins for everything from virgins to general outsiders to Christ himself. But it is the unicorn's resolute status as a wild being constantly under threat of capture, torture, and death (see: all medieval tapestries with images of dying and fenced-in unicorns), which is most significant to the queer community. Unicorns are, after all, at first glance, not so different from non-magical creatures; look quickly, and you see just another majestic horse. But look again, and the unicorn's difference is unmistakable from any other woodland creature. As psychologist Vivian Diller told Jezebel recently, "The unicorn can be a sweet, innocent pony, but there’s also this phallic horn and sword out of its head. It’s a symbol of freedom to be male and female." In other words, it's an iconic example of the possibility to be whoever you want to be, separate from any limiting binaries.
But it's not just unicorns and mermaids which are shattering preconceived gender and sexuality ideas. The enormous mainstream popularity of the color now known forevermore as millennial pink is another example of the ways in which queer iconography has been embraced by the masses. Though take a walk through the medieval wing of any major museum, and you'll soon see that millennial pink has been around for quite some time. Often used in paintings depicting saints, this shade of pink is most commonly associated with none other than baby Jesus himself; in stark contrast to the rich blue hues robing his mother, the Christ child is swaddled in the most delicate of pinks. Is it mere coincidence that both millennial pink and unicorns have historic associations with Jesus as well as within queer culture? Of course not. Christ, too, was a misunderstood outsider, persecuted for his differences, despised for his refusal to condemn others who lived on society's fringes. So millennial pink actually has its roots in revolution and upheaval.
The ubiquitous use and seemingly universal appeal of millennial pink, then, is fascinating for precisely the same reason that the rise of mermaids and unicorns is; these long-marginalized symbols have recent histories in which they were closely associated with persecution, but were ultimately reclaimed as symbols of re-appropriated power. After all, it was with pink triangles that the LGBT community was marked for death in Nazi Germany; now, the pink (as well as the rainbow) triangle is a symbol of LGBT pride. Beyond that, the rise of pink in everything from clothing to hair color to furniture to beauty product branding has taken a long-gendered and -sexualized hue and made it universally palatable, a small but visible step toward dismantling the constructed differences between what our society deems "male" or "female," "straight" or "queer." (Take note of the fact that the one place you'll be hard-pressed to find millennial pink, and will instead be surrounded by aggressively lurid reds, is at a Trump rally, an effective sea of MAGA hats.)
Easily recognizable symbolism—whether it be Oscar Wilde's green carnations, brightly colored handkerchiefs, or the rainbow flag—has long been an important part of queer culture, a way for the LGBT community to take ownership over their marginalization, a way to claim their othered status and show pride in who they are—and a way in which to find some light and color in even the darkest of days. The fact that some of the queer community's most potent symbols are now popping up all over social media is thus a fascinating aspect of today's reality.
As much as it's easy to be hopeful that the mainstream acceptance of traditionally queer iconography is a purely positive sign, one which indicates that millennials are ready, willing, and able to set aside constructed gendered identities all in favor of... getting a great Instagram shot, it is accompanied by a somewhat uneasy feeling about the hyper-commercialization of these symbols, and what gets lost when these symbols are busy being sold. Consider the mermaid; while they certainly have a complex past, mermaids also signify recognizable, gender-normative beauty tropes, what with their long flowing hair, flawless alabaster skin (no sunburns for them!), and slim (if, at least, partially piscine) figures. And the latent sexuality of the unicorn is muted when the creature is reduced to being nothing more than a cartoon-like cuddly creature, better known for its holographic coloring than its complex history. Millennial pink, too, can just be reduced to its capacity as an almost universally flattering shade, with all political connotations forgotten.
And yet, while it would be a shame to lose all the context of this powerful iconography, it is possible to remain optimistic that both millennials' attraction to all these things and the demand for more things like this, things that don't conform to society's constructed gender ideas, is a positive sign of the times. Even if the initial appeal of these symbols is partly based on a desire to escape our dark surroundings, the fact remains that, rather than retreat to the kind of apocalypse-prepper fantasy of so many right wing lunatics, millennials are choosing to escape to a fantasy world populated by colorful, magical outsiders, the kind of creatures who might have endured persecution and torment, but who still choose to be proud of who they are, resolutely and unapologetically themselves in the face of despair—and that's not a bad way to be at all.