In a recent episode of Decoder Ring, Willa Paskin explores how and why cute poop has invaded pop culture. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In 2015, the makers of the Squatty Potty, a stool that purports to give you better posture for defecating, uploaded an ad to YouTube. In the video, a pretentious prince narrates as he stands next to a unicorn puppet, which looks kind of like a cross between a guinea pig and Homer Simpson. The unicorn is sometimes squatting over a toilet bowl and sometimes over an assembly line of ice cream cones, pooping rainbow ice cream onto them.
The ad was created by Harmon Brothers, an advertising firm whose previous clients include Poo-Pourri. For the Squatty Potty ad, it tried to find the thing most unlike poop that could also be used as a metaphor for poop. They landed on ice cream. The ad immediately went viral.
The Squatty Potty ad is not an outlier and not the only place where you can see poop, rainbows, and unicorns combined to great commercial success. Take a spin around the internet and you will find Poopeez, Poo-nicorns, Pooparoos, rainbow poop emojis that fart, cute poop Halloween costumes, 12 packs of unicorn poop emoji slime, and an entire line of toys under the brand name Poopsie that includes the Poopsie Slime Surprise Unicorn, a toy that appears in a bizarrely sexual music video that may be one of the strangest texts yet on YouTube.
There’s also the cooking videos. In a video from 2014, Rosanna Pansino, wearing a unicorn wig, explains how to make the rainbow sugar cookies that have become widely known as unicorn poop cookies. This is all to say, there are a lot of cute poop objects out there to play with, to squeeze, to eat, and to watch. But how did poop get so darn cute?
It starts with the poop emoji. Today, emoji are more or less standardized, but at their start in 1997, three different Japanese cellphone carriers had their own distinct-looking emoji sets, poop emoji included. The 1997 SoftBank poop emoji is a black-and-white pile of poo with a smile and some steam lines for comic effect. You can see a more straightforward, grosser interpretation in some of the other early Japanese emoji sets, as well as Google’s original version. It wasn’t until Apple entered the emoji scene that the now famous poop emoji found its true, cute little face.
In 2008, Angela Guzman, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, started a summer internship at Apple. She had never heard of emoji before but was part of the team that designed about 500 Apple emoji, including one for poop. “One of the things we debated was how do we want to draw this little pile of poop? Do we want to keep the eyes? Do we want to create a smile? Do we want to put flies around it?” Guzman said. Ultimately, they decided against the flies and the grossness. “We made a lot of decisions on the spot to try to make it really happy and cute.”
The poop emoji now seems to occupy a new space, where it’s not actually understood to be poop—gross and embarrassing—but its connection to poop, however tenuous, makes it illicit and interesting and funny. It’s the kind of thing parents and teachers might not let you play with, but then they do. And the semiological complexity of the poop emoji, where it is and it is not the thing that it’s a picture of, is why people like emoji so much: They’re expansive, they don’t mean any one set thing, and you can see in them what you want.
Which is how someone came to see in them unicorn poop cookies.
The creator of the first unicorn poop cookie is named Kristy Therrien, who lives in Southern California. She initially entered an online baking contest with it to win an iPad. “I was going to make a cookie called the Unicorn Sneeze. I thought, ‘That’s perfect. The unicorn would sneeze sparkles.’ … I was at my parents’ house, and my mom said, ‘When are you going to make your unicorn crap?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s it! It’ll be unicorn poop!’ ”
This was happening in the early 2010s, when emoji were just starting to take off in America. Therrien says she didn’t get the idea from the poop emoji itself, but its existence did make her feel like her whole concept wasn’t too gross to try. “It made me comfortable. If they didn’t exist, I don’t know if I would have done it because it would be too scary,” she said.
Therrien put her unicorn poop cookies on the contest’s website. Other people started to make videos of themselves making them, and Therrien realized that if she was going to hold onto her idea, she had to start making them herself.
She started professionally baking the cookie, and a batch ended up on Anderson Cooper’s talk show. She then got an order to make 10,000 of them. She put her family to work, and then an entire bakery to produce them. “If you can imagine, countertops or tabletops—I don’t know, 20 feet, maybe 40 feet of them—full of cookies that were stacked into pyramids that were like 3 feet tall.” She owns the trademark to “unicorn poop” in the context of cookies, though that hasn’t stopped the concept from proliferating.
The craziest unicorn poop toy I came across is the Poopsie Slime Surprise Unicorn, a pastel-colored uncomfortably sexy baby unicorn that poops slime. There are four different versions of the toy—that’s the surprise part, you don’t know which one you’re going to get—but each will set you back about $50. The Poopsie logo is written in glittery, rainbow bubble letters that are dripping in the corners. The toy is distinctly girly, and this, more than anything, is what’s new about the cute poop toys: The way gross-out toys, which have tended to be for boys, are marketed toward girls. Toy companies are using the trappings of girliness—rainbows, unicorns, glitter—to camouflage gross-out toys just enough to make them into girl stuff.
The Poopsie Slime Surprise Unicorn capitalizes on the popularity of slime, not just by including slime, but by tapping into the many YouTube channels that essentially advertise slime toys to other kids. It’s a compendium of stuff that’s already really popular on YouTube. This makes it both legible and super weird. You take glitter, slime, unicorns, poop, unboxing, you layer it all together to get as much search traffic and video content out of it as you can, and you get something as bizarre as a slime-pooping baby unicorn. The influence of YouTube and YouTube influencers is so strong on the toy market that the toys themselves have become influencers.
I felt like I was still missing one key perspective on the cute poop phenomenon: a child’s. Jill Franclemont is a mom who left a review of the Poopsie Slime Surprise Unicorn on Amazon, after buying one for her daughter, Ady, who is 6. Ady loves YouTube and especially videos of other kids playing with toys. Franclemont got it for Ady as a gift, and when it arrived, she felt about pretty much like I did: that it was weird and overly sexualized. But she thought all that had likely gone over her daughter’s head. “She just thinks it’s shiny and sparkly and glittery,” she said. She was pretty sure, though, that whatever she thought about it, it had nothing to with poop. Ady set us straight: “I wanted it because it could poop!”
Ady’s reaction seems like more evidence that all these poop toys simultaneously are and aren’t about poop. On the one hand, they’re different—they’re all slime and unicorns, and you can ignore the poop. And then on the other, they’re still about feces, and that’s funny.
And this is the big question for me about cute poop: Is it giving Americans, and girls in particular, more license to be real about our shit? Or is it just a way to maintain a different illusion: that we only poop flowers and rainbows and unicorns and slime? Cute poop is real, but is it really poop? And if it’s not really poop, then what is it?
The cynic in me would say that it’s just another form of marketing, another provocative, funny, mercenary way to sell us stuff. And in terms of kids in particular, it’s even opened up a whole new previously nonexistent market: gross-out toys for girls. But the not so cynic in me thinks: Don’t girls deserve gross-out toys—the opportunity to behave in gleefully inappropriate, unladylike ways—if that’s what they want?
I think people who find all of this distasteful—for girls and boys—probably have a point. But if we can talk more openly and honestly and unashamedly about our bodies, cute poop doesn’t seem so bad—though the jury might be out on whether it’s actually good.