We need to talk about Harry Potter and unicorns

Okay people, we need to talk about unicorn mythology in Harry Potter, because when you dig in deep on it, it’s kind of fucked up. Not even kind of, to be honest. The unicorns of the Potterverse represent some serious internalised sexism, and they’re a pretty great example of how we absorb and repeat things without really thinking about it. Like, J.K. Rowling grew up with a specific unicorn mythology, decided to include some horned magic in her books, and effectively replicated it, but in a way that was pretty spectacularly creepy.

As introduced, here are the rough basics of what we know about unicorns in the world of Harry Potter:

  • They are pure gold at birth, lightening to silver in adulthood
  • Their blood and hair have magical properties
  • They are extremely rare and very shy (probably because people chase after them trying to bleed them and yank their tails out all the time, but what do I know)
  • Hagrid has somehow managed to establish an affinity with them, as he does with other mythical creatures (and more on this in a minute)
  • They prefer ladies

Uhm, recordscratch on that last one, okay?

So here’s the thing: For those of us familiar with larger unicorn mythology, we know that legend has it unicorns prefer virgins, and that’s ladies by extension because good little girls are pure and chaste until marriage, at which point they turn into the baby factories they all aspire to become. Numerous medieval paintings, tapestries, and so on depict people engaging in a unicorn hunt using a virgin as bait. Said unicorn is usually male, and uhm, that inevitable scene where the unicorn trustingly lays its head in the virgin’s lap is, uh, laden with symbolism. 

Okay fine: The horn is a dick, okay? The myth of the unicorn is about using an untouched cooter to draw a mystical penis within its realm of influence and then trap it there while the virgin’s associates kill the unicorn. (They don’t call it ‘the little death’ for nothing, am I right?) Unicorns are basically dirty old men in shiny white suits.

So in Harry Potter, the mythology as presented is that unicorns prefer girls. I am not the only one who is making the logical progression and finding it creepy, right? For one thing, it reinforces the notion that girls and virgins and boys are…not, and that virgins are more pure of heart. For Harry Potter, where kindness and purity of heart and devotion are pretty big parts of the mythology, it is a huge deal to simultaneously reinforce the creepy sexist unicorn myth and suggest that the boys of Harry Potter aren’t capable of being all steadfast and trustworthy.

There’s a big dose of gender essentialism there too. Setting aside the idea that there are only two genders in the Potterverse, we’re also learning that only cis people exist, and they hew to very specific gendered traits. Like what happens to trans children? Does a little boy become untrustworthy when he transitions, while his female classmate suddenly gets the seal of approval when she does? (Don’t worry, I’m sure Rowling will retcon a trans character to resolve this vexing mystery for us any day now.)

It’s also disturbing because we are talking about kids here. Like, 11-year-olds. If virginity is a concern as young as 11 in the Potterverse, that really concerns me, as it should concern any reasonable person. If you’re going to persist in perpetuating the unicorn/virgin myth, at least have the decency not to sexualise children, yeah? You’re carrying over the sexualised myth of the unicorn in a way that’s very disturbing. If you’re going to insist that unicorns prefer virgins, make their trust contingent on virgin status, and good luck explaining that in a middle grade series aimed at children. If you think that’s creepy and weird, which you should, then rethink the way you depict unicorns.

And let’s talk about Hagrid, who often seems to enjoy an almost enchanted relationship with the animals he works with. In the case of unicorns, it’s established that he has a sort of affectionate bond with them, and while they aren’t his best buds, they still get on okay, possibly because he’s not chasing them around trying to slaughter them? But also possibly because he’s…a virgin? What does it say about the culture of Harry Potter that Hagrid, who at times reads like a disabled character, is trusted by unicorns, whom we are led to understand prefer virgins, even after he starts dating Madame Maxime? Other people may well have a different read on Hagrid, but it is striking that there’s the potential for reading disability, and he’s also ‘innocent’ and ‘childlike’ and, you know, a virgin — things that people often ascribe to disability in the real world. I sincerely doubt that Rowling intended to explicitly write Hagrid as disabled, and she might not agree with that interpretation of his character, but casting him this way certainly sends some uncomfortable messages about people who are known for not matching the way that society expects people to look, behave, and think. Just throwing that out there.

So what do you do with a problem like unicorns? They’re such a great mythical beast that it seems a pity to leave them out of a text altogether. The answer is to get proactive about changing and deconstructing their mythology, breaking down the sexism, gender essentialism, and general grossness to build something fantastic and interesting and cool.

Image: Riding on a unicorn, Nathan Rupert, Flickr