Has Apple Gone Too Far With Gender-Neutral Emojis?

Last week, Apple unveiled the newest additions to its already-extensive emoji keyboard, which will come as part of the iOS 11.1 update. Alongside dinosaurs, mermaids, vampires and a super hi-res head of broccoli (🤔), there are a series of particularly woke emojis nestled into the new release. A long-overdue hijab emoji, for example, is the result of a proposal submitted to the Unicode Consortium by Raouf Alhumedhi, who was tired of not being able to find a virtual face in her own likeness.

Other headline-worthy emojis are gender-neutral, available in a variety of guises with different face types, ages, hairstyles and skin tones. It’s all part of a concerted effort being made by the Unicode Consortium to become more inclusive. This, unsurprisingly, has pissed some people off, although the backlash is small-scale: think angry tweeters typing updates like, “WHY THE FUCK IS THERE GOING TO BE A GENDER NEUTRAL PERSON EMOJI. (if you’re offended, I don’t care)” into a vast online void, and other sarcastic articles implying the whole things reeks of #triggered #snowflake liberals going too damn far.

Sure, the whole thing seems trivial at first glance; it’s easy to use the argument of, “They’re just emojis. Who cares?” The thing is, though, is that emojis have become a language in their own right. They’re visual, universal ways of communicating short and straight-to-the-point messages which usually get the job done — a fact that anybody who has ever used the legendary eggplant/peach emoji will likely attest to. This means that we should treat them like a language of their own; we should allow them to expand, be modified and reflect the cultural attitudes around them. Sure, emojis may seem trivial, but the revision of language indicates progress, and progress is good. I mean, can you imagine a world without “bootylicious”?

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That being said, language around gender and sexuality has grown significantly over the last few decades, so it seems unsurprising that the new “neutral” emojis come at a time in which conversations around the topic are more tense than ever. On the one hand, trans visibility — particularly in mainstream media — is rising, laws around same-sex marriage are slowly loosening in Western countries (giving way to the argument that gay couples actually have it better than straight couples) and LGBTQ-specific topics are given more political airtime than ever before. This can make it seem like queer identities are accepted — trendy, even — which sparks the aforementioned backlash rooted in the implication that things have shifted too far in the favor of minorities.

It shouldn’t take a genius to point out that this argument is, for lack of a better term, a load of shit. Trans people — young trans people in particular — are attempting suicide at alarming rates and facing countless financial, medical and cultural obstacles, but the “visibility” mentioned earlier usually just leads to intrusive, incendiary TV segments which force them to debate the “validity” of their identities. Although it’s a well-established, medically confirmed fact that gender and sex aren’t the same (sex is scientific, gender is cultural) and that biology isn’t as straightforward as we often think (intersex people exist, FYI), conversations on gender usually end up going nowhere.

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On the other hand, it’s understandable that people feel like these emojis are a step too far. The last few years have seen Facebook introduce dozens and dozens of new gender identities, whereas words like “pansexual” (attracted to anyone of any gender), “cisgender” (not trans) and even androphile (attracted to masculinity, increasingly used by the infamous gay #masc4masc brigade) are popping up rarely without explanation. In-fighting in the queer community is well-documented — misogyny, racism and femme-shaming are all huge problems, meaning that queer people face backlash from both sides and heterosexual people are left wondering what the fuck is going on. It’s a lose-lose situation, and it’s doing nobody any favors.

This is why the gender-neutral emojis could actually be a wonderful thing. There’s still no accessible alternative to queer theory, the necessary but extremely boring field of study that opened the floodgates for these conversations to be had and to be taken seriously. Then, there’s the increasingly academic world of left-wing politics which, for obvious reasons, (conservative attitudes have never been kind to us) are usually associated with minorities. These various elements have combined to create the “liberal elite,” a term which implies that all queer lefties are wanky, overly academic and incapable of having actual conversations about things (which isn’t true, obviously). Arguably, this has actually set LGBTQ+ communities back — there’s now an element of class involved which has only served to alienate people further.

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Emojis don’t see class. I mean, they’re literally just pictures — you see “sassy lady getting a haircut” and you immediately know she’s fun-loving, carefree and partial to a rosé or twelve on a Saturday night. We need to simplify the discussion, and this is both a brilliant and brilliantly subtle way of doing it. People have theorized in the past about what a gender-neutral emoji could look like, and now Apple has tried to give us an answer. It’s a start. It’s important to understand that appearance and gender identity don’t correlate – you can be non-binary but still choose to look “masculine” or “feminine” — but it’s at least a first step in opening up the conversation.

To the people praising the new emojis — that’s fine. To the people that hate them — that’s also fine. Minorities have been held back so long that increased visibility can actually feel like an unfair advantage; “equality” can seem like a bad thing if you’re lucky enough to fit the norm. That’s why people and companies react to necessary conversations about systemic racism by firing a black trans model (hint: it made her more successful) — these conversations are still divisive. A lot has changed in a short period of time — it’s easy to feel like these new gender-neutral emojis are just another nail in the casket for the world as we currently know it.

Black trans model Munroe Bergdorf was sacked by cosmetics giant L’Oreal.
Jeff Spicer / Getty Images

Still, the introduction of a vaguely androgynous cartoon isn’t enough to propel society into some dystopian future where we’re all having kinky, queer orgies and setting fire to photos of Donald Trump. All it has done is offer new representation which a very small percentage of people will identify with and feel good about, which is fine, because none of us are being forced to use them. It’s just about adding a new option and eliminating the class barrier which can make queerness so difficult to talk about without inducing a reactionary eye-roll and the feeling that you’re being patronized.

Anyway, it should make all the gender-neutral emoji haters feel better to know that life is still pretty shit for queer people anyway, especially in less privileged countries. We may have one or two trans role models, same-sex marriage and a few Pride parades, but we’re still being persecuted, disproportionately suffering with mental health issues and facing discrimination — especially queer people of color — which can block us from the positions of power needed to enact lasting change. It might look like we’re hurtling towards a label-less dystopia, but trust me, we really, truly aren’t — so just let us enjoy the emojis, please?

Next up, how should we remember Hugh Hefner and his Playboy legacy?

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