The XX Factor

New Emoji, Including Many Genders of Magical Humanoids, Are Coming

How often does anyone even think about hedgehogs?


New emoji are coming to phones this summer, offering texters the means to compose ever more specific missives through tiny images their parents can’t see. Emojipedia revealed mockups of the several dozen candidates on its website—and the mind positively spins with potential storylines the new emoji might create.

If these final-round emoji come to pass, nerds will have several magical creatures—merfolk, vampires, elves, fairies, wizards, zombies, genies—to add to their fantasy narratives. Spagoers can discuss steamrooms, yoga, and coconut water with newfound specificity. Curling enthusiasts will have a symbol for their sport, that spinny thing that looks like an iron. For that matter, ironing enthusiasts will also have a workable stand-in for their hobby. Gizmodo has all 69 here; Emojipedia noted on its blog in November that among the several hoped-for emoji that didn’t make it to the final round were the almond, leafy greens, and “face banging against wall.”

There are a few additions that are likely to garner mass appreciation. The dumpling, which has an analogue in nearly every culinary culture, has been a pet project of Jennifer 8. Lee’s for some time. Her effort to get a dough-encircled packet of foods into the mix led her to buy a nonvoting membership on the Unicode Technical Committee and raise nearly $12,500 to support her lobbying efforts. Lee also backed a teen girl’s enterprising proposal for a hijab-wearing emoji, a version of which has made it into this most recent set.

Still, as with every emoji rollout, this new crop begs the question: Why? Part of the fun of the original, very limited set of emoji was their lack of precision as a communication tool. Users were forced to use the next best thing—a whale in a text about Shark Week, for instance, or a horse on a photo of a zebra, or a shish kabob on a tweet about Olympic fencing—to get their points across, which was cute and creative. Now, emoji are trending more literal than symbolic, cluttering our pages with useless pictograms. How many miscommunications have resulted from the lack of a good way to say “sled”? How often does anyone discuss hedgehogs? Does the negligible ontological difference between a cricket and an ant warrant the former a permanent place in our visual lexicon? Why introduce a smiley face with a hand over its mouth when the “speak no evil” monkey already exists?

Nowhere is this question more pertinent than in Unicode’s near-universal move toward emoji gender equality. In previous updates, the organization has doubled up many of its previously gendered or gender-neutral images. Now there’s a surfer on a green board and one on a pink board; a cyclist with a ponytail and one without; a clean-faced person in a turban and one with a beard; and a man in a tux to go with the bride. There’s even a Mrs. Claus, who plays an exceedingly minor role in Santa’s life story.

Likewise, in the new set of emoji additions, each humanoid figure comes in two genders: elf lady and elf man; vampire lady and vampire man; a coy mermaid with her hands folded below a bikini top and a merman with a trident and pecs; a rock climber in a pink unitard and one in red. To me, this is tiresome. As a woman, I don’t feel like I need to see a ponytail or the barely-visible shadows of tiny emoji breasts to feel represented in a pictogram. Some men have long hair and some female athletes don’t wear pink. Once Unicode members started gendering emoji, they opened a gigantic can of tomatoes (another unnecessary new emoji option), ensuring that they must now make every type of person represented in emoji entirely, visibly gendered, twice over.

That makes it all the more noticeable and puzzling when they leave a gender out. Rayouf Alhumedhi, the girl who proposed the hijab-wearing emoji, included in her original plan a man wearing a keffiyeh. Unicode opted to include only the woman in its rollout. One wonders why the world needed two genders each of genies and fairies, but only one person with a religious or cultural headscarf. There’s also a breastfeeding woman in the new batch, and no man feeding a baby. Normally, I wouldn’t care about this or the fact that, for instance, all the lesbian emoji have long hair and dresses. But since we will soon have two genders of elves who are nearly identical except for the width of their eyebrows, I have to wonder where my dads and butches are at. If you give a mouse a cookie, in other words, she’s going to want another cookie with suspenders and shorter hair to go with it.

Among all this unnecessary specificity is at least one step in the right direction: a totally nongendered “older adult,” “adult,” and “child” set, which you wouldn’t have been able to decipher had I not identified them for you here. The latter two have swoopy bangs and short bobs; the kid has an open-mouthed grin and the adult is smirking. The older adult has a gray pixie cut and round glasses. Since emoji aren’t real people and gender isn’t determined by eyebrow shape, these new folks seem most useful as signifiers of two specific hairdos. Diversity achieved!