The Long Battle Against Racism and Sexism in Emoji
Jennifer 8. Lee, producer of the new doc “The Emoji Story” and vice-chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, writes about the mission to diversify emoji.
As a little Chinese American girl growing up in New York City, my parents taught me Mandarin characters, handwritten with thick black marker on white index cards. These characters were drilled into me before I learned my ABCs—or even became aware there even were ABCs.
The kids’ level of Chinese characters mapped the simple concepts to the physical world that I was still exploring as a child. Mom and dad taught me 口 (kǒu) means “mouth,” wide open like ready to swallow something. And 火 (huǒ) means “fire,” with flames licking upwards. 木 (mù) means “wood,” because it looks like a tree. And then you combine them and get new meanings. Two trees are a “forest”, or 林 (lín). Combining the characters for sun,日 (rì) , and moon, 月 (yuè), together make 明 (míng), which means “bright.”
As we got slightly older, we were sent to Chinese school on Saturday mornings (so many hours of morning cartoons lost to classroom time!). Without encountering gender theory, or before I even knew there was a word “gender,” my 6-year-old mind quickly grasped that all was not right with the way women were treated by Chinese characters.
Female, or 女 (nǚ), is one of the first and most useful characters you learn in Chinese. It looks like a woman curtsying, legs elegantly crossed. I spent a long time, pencil in grubby hand, trying to get all the angles and proportions just right, because it is embedded all over the characters.
One of the most used characters in Chinese is 好 (hǎo). It is “female” with a “child,” 子 (zi), specifically a boy child. One would think this could mean “mother,” or maybe “family.”
But no, 好 means “good.” Hard-coded into everyday Chinese language is that the benchmark for that which is good is a woman who has a young son.
There is 安 (an), a female underneath a roof. One would think it means “home,” or “family,” or even “wife.” But no. The character 安 means “peace” or “tranquil.”
In other words, subliminally we are taught, as we learn our characters, that things are at peace when a woman is at home. The word for home or family is actually a 家 (jiā), a pig underneath a roof. In other words, home and family is where you keep your pigs.
By the time my critical theory vocabulary and feminist sensibilities matured, I grew more horrified at the way that sexism was perniciously woven into Chinese characters. Three female characters together (姦) mean “evil”—a misguided notion that spans from ancient China, to the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to modern-day Mean Girls. The characters for greedy (婪), jealousy (嫉), and slave (奴) all incorporate the female radical, 女.
This was my framework of how language subliminally shaped perception when I dove into emoji for the first time in 2015, indignant that the organization that sets the standards for emoji was a nonprofit organization dominated by large U.S. multinational tech companies—the Unicode Consortium. The decision-makers at Unicode, as I observed looking at their website, skewed more male, older, whiter, and more engineer-y than the population that was using this curated visual global language.
The shortcomings of the decision-making infrastructure seeped into emoji, I was convinced. For example, there were many jobs and occupations for men in the emoji keyboard—police officers, detectives, Buckingham Palace guards, or even Santa Claus. But as of 2015, the only four roles that women had were Dancer, Bride, Princess, and Playboy Bunny. The original Unicode emoji was cobbled together from sets designed by the Japanese telecommunications companies, and this was the way women were expressed in Japanese culture.
This gender constraint on women in emoji generated a great deal of public frustration, captured by a New York Times op-ed and a viral commercial from Always featuring teenage girls confused by the dearth of female role models.
But the emoji-loving community has since mobilized. A team at Google rapidly shepherded the proposal for additional female (and male) professional roles, leading to icons that could represent farmers, teachers, doctors, judges, pilots, and astronauts that arrived in 2016. A designer at Adobe, Paul Hunt, pushed for non-gender binary emoji, which have now arrived on our devices in force (including Mx. Claus and merperson!). And Houston mother and entrepreneur, Katrina Parrott, was originally the catalyst for the addition of five-skin tones to emojis, inspired by her daughter who wanted emoji that looked like her.
We also created Emojination, a grassroots group with the motto “emoji by the people, for the people” and a mission to advocate for more representative and inclusive emoji. As such, we helped a 15-year-old Saudi Arabian girl, Rayouf Alhumedhi, lead the charge for a hijab emoji, which arrived on devices worldwide in 2017. Then a Palo Alto, California-based mother of three girls (now four), Florie Hutchinson, contacted us, indignant that all the women’s shoe emoji—even the boot and sandals—had heels. As a woman who had spent much of the recent years of her life pregnant and in flats, she wanted a shoe that represented her footwear experience. She drove that and the one-piece bathing suit.
One of the trickiest emoji issues about gender advocacy has been around menstruation. A number of proposals—across companies, advocacy groups, and private citizens—have landed in Unicode’s inbox pressing on how a dedicated emoji could reduce the stigma around menstruation around the world. Their proposed images included bloody underwear, tampons, and bloat. In the end, Unicode passed a single blood drop, an atomic character which, in combination with other characters, could get the meaning across.
Why are so many people so passionate about the representation on the emoji set? There is a lot of attention paid to diversity on the “Big Screen” of Hollywood movies and Netflix “television” shows. Intuitively, people understand that attention needs to be paid to representation on the “small screen” on our devices, that to be represented on the emoji keyboard is to feel “seen.” One of our Emojination members, a Black American woman married to an Indian man, said she cried when she saw the interracial couple emoji arrive on her keyboard because it was an official recognition of her relationship and love.
And unlike the complexity of Hollywood’s studios and greenlighting process, the process around emoji is less expensive, open to public submissions, but also bureaucratic in its own technical way. It is a process that—up to a certain extent—can be navigated. Though there are hurdles that remain, especially with flags of non-countries.
What motivates me is seeing my friends’ children grow up wholly digitally native—a generation of kids who are learning to “read and write” in emoji before they can read and write in their own native language. Yes, they are often just sending hearts, rainbows, flowers, and unicorns to grandma and grandpa. But having the panoply of emoji images at the tips of their chubby fingers signals to them that the concepts are important, that they matter even if they are not ones they immediately understand as a 4-year-old. That hijabs matter, that interracial couples matter, that non-gender binary matter.
Jennifer 8. Lee is the producer of The Emoji Story, a documentary about the regulatory world of emoji and the co-author of the upcoming Hanmoji book from MIT Kids Press, on how Chinese and emoji relate to each other. She is also a vice-chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee.