Emojis are the fastest growing new language, and with another 72 emojis to start rolling out this month, the gendered depiction of men and women is troubling. By SAMANTHA STEELE.
You’ll find a single coconut shrimp, a head from the Easter Islands and even a unicorn before you’ll find a female police officer in your emoji keyboard.
Sadly, that’s not an exaggeration. Check your phone. There’s a detective and a construction worker – men – then a princess and a bride. A guy running, and a woman dancing the samba. A suit, and a bikini. The distinction is clear.
Since the Oxford Dictionary controversially chose the “laughing crying” emoji as the 2015 Word of the Year, the increasing significance of these expressive yellow faces is clear. Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype and other social media platforms all have emoji keyboards that allow you to choose pictorial icons to express emotions, actions, and symbolise a range of other meanings (let’s just say the brinjal emoji means something other than a brinjal in the US).
“Language isn’t just words any more,” says Dr Amiena Peck, a linguistics lecturer at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). “Language is about making meaning, and in the digital space emoji are an important part of this.”
Textspeak strips language of the essential context we use – paralinguistic cues, like nodding; facial expressions and body language – and emojis put those back.
“Online communication is increasingly and powerfully nuanced by the use of emojis,” says Professor Tommaso Milani, an Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) with a specialisation in gender. Dr Peck puts it another way: “You need more than words in a conversation; you need to know how the other person feels.”
It’s no surprise then that 92% of people comunicating digitally use emojis and that Forbes cites them as the fastest-growing new language. With another possible 72 emojis to start rolling out this month – you can expect avocados and bacon to appear on your emoji keyboards soon – the question of how people are represented is increasingly significant.
As Professor Milani says, “Language is more than a reflection of social structure; language is more than a mirror. Language contributes to society and our language is an active part of patriarchy.” A common example of this in everyday speak is the universal “he: (using “he” as the neutral), placing women firmly as the “other”.
Aside from the little yellow faces skewing male – they’re more likely to be perceived as men than women – all the “action” and career-specific emojis are male. The female emojis are dancing, getting married or grooming themselves: flipping their hair, painting their nails or getting a head massage. This represents the divide between the public “helping” sphere and the private “selfish” sphere: the men are providing services, while the women are forced once again into beauty-centric roles.
“Again women and men are divided by doing certain activities and these perceived gender differences are constantly reinforced,” says Professor Milani. “Emojis and language are not a description of reality, they help create a reality that serves men’s purposes in maintaining the power dynamic.”
Though emojis are hardly the root of this issue, they are a linguistic tool that represents the societal issues around gender. Explains Professor Milani: “No one in 2016 believes in the ‘strong hypothesis’ that language determines thoughts. But linguists do believe the weak hypothesis, that language influences your thoughts.”
With people literally growing up with a phone in their hand, this subtle, unspoken gender divide is a mould for unexamined prejudice. Says Dr Peck, “Children draw correlations between messages like ‘women don’t do that’ and ‘it’s unladylike to…’ – this normalises what men and women ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do.”
This is why Google employees approached Unicode in March of this year – in short, the people who choose and universally encode icons like emojis – with 13 suggested emojis representing women in the workplace.
As the Google employees wrote in their proposal, “Isn’t it time that emojis also reflect the reality that women play a key role in every walk of life and in every profession?”
Their suggestions include women in science, factories and using tech. And since women use emojis 30% more than men, this representation and normalisation of women in career-driven roles is vital.
“People laugh and say … just by changing language you can change the world?,” says Professor Milani, “Well, it’s a start.” DM
Submit a proposal to Unicode
Fill out this form. Give suggested images for how the characters might be displayed What’s your suggestion for emoji ordering? Suggest a category such as “cat face” and which character yours would be in that category (for example, “weary cat face”). Include any other useful info, such as suggested annotations. Follow the process on submitting a proposal.
Photo: Mock-ups of the 72 new emoji slated for release in Unicode 9.0, made in the Apple style by Emojipedia. Photograph: Emojipedia.