New Emojis, Same Old Sexism

Is pregnancy all we females can offer the world?
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Is pregnancy all we females can offer the world?

The Unicode Consortium has announced the release of seventy-two new emojis this month to be narrowed down from the seventy-seven options listed here. Among these new items are two men wrestling, a man playing handball, a groom, a dancing man, a man juggling, bacon, bourbon on ice, a shark, a buck…oh, and a pregnant woman!

There are a few other female additions—a shrugging girl, a face-palming girl, Mrs. Claus, and yes, one athlete (more on that later), but have we gained any real ground? Arguably, no. Although I do plan to use the pregnant woman (because, even though I've never been pregnant, the struggle of the food baby is real), I still feel the need to ask: really? That’s the best you could do?

Complaints about the lack of female emojis has been hotly discussed for some time now. In March, FLOTUS, herself, tweeted out a plea for more female representation, specifically a female studying emoji. And brands like Always have made public campaigns for more inclusion. But unlike Facebook, who seemed to get the message that women are seeking greater emoji representation, these new Unicode emojis have yet to provide much progress on the lady front.

In one of the last updates we made a big step forward with the inclusion of multiple skin tone options, but little else of note changed. After the backlash from women then, it's surprising that the best they came up with this time are a pregnant woman and a hand with a pink shirt (read, female) taking a selfie.

I know emojis may seem like a silly place to start in terms of gender equality, but whether you use them with purpose or not, emojis are essentially a form of nonverbal communication. Young adults in the U.S age 18-24 with smart phones send on average 67 texts per day. In addition to texting, emojis are available for use on virtually all social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it—with an estimated six billion emojis being sent out into cyberspace every day. 

According to CNN, anyone can submit a proposal for a new emoji, "but shepherding it through the approval process can take quite some time. The successful ones have to meet several criteria, such as distinctiveness and an expected high frequency of use." So, is there reason to believe that modern female emojis wouldn't be popular? Last month Google proposed a set of 13 female emojis casts in a variety of jobs including "health care, science, education, farming and construction"—citing that women are the biggest users of emojis and deserve to be well represented. So, yeah, I think we can dismiss the won't-get-used theory. Coincidentally, a member of the Google team who made the proposal is also the president and co-found of the Unicode Consortium. Here's hoping that makes these new designs a shoe-in. 

While we may not directly see the damage these funny little images have on us, the message these emoji sends is real. What is my 12-year-old sister to think, for instance, when she can’t find a female emoji that plays sports like her? Does she settle for the male version? She may not think anything of it in the moment, but she just had to make a choice that boys her age don’t have to make. Somehow in her mind the fact that she’s had to sit there for a half-second and decide which emoji to use has perhaps given her the impression that playing sports is something that girls don't do. The new update does include a female gymnast, but no male counterpart. And we all know that gymnastics is a sport steeped in gender disparity. Somehow a girl doing a cartwheel seems like the most obvious choice for a female athlete rather than one that speaks to true inclusion.

In the meantime, it seems the emoji creators have simply done it again. They prioritized dumplings and a cowboy-hat wearing smiley face over a working woman. Here’s hoping the next update will bring more than pregnancy and Mrs. Claus (I bet Mr. C’s been waiting a long time for that one). Until then, at least one new emoji is useful—and that’s the one of a female face palming herself.