Save the Stiletto Emoji

Ban this painful, patriarchy-preserving shoe everywhere else. But keep it on our phones.

Lisa Larson-Walker

An amphora. A fish cake. Two different kinds of camels. All these things and more—a funicular!—can now be found on your emoji keyboard. Lately, I’ve found myself scrutinizing the tiny cartoon bowls of soup my friends send me and wondering, “Is she suggesting we go out for udon or ramen?” There are too many emojis, and they have made my phone as difficult to navigate as an overstocked dollar store.

On Monday, the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit corporation that works on translating alphabets into code, reviewed the emoji applicants for Unicode 11.0, which are scheduled for release in June 2018. The list of candidates includes some very reasonable options: a foot, a skateboard, a broom. The vast majority, however, range from too specific to bizarrely specific. There is a hippopotamus, a microbe, and a whole series of disembodied hairlines. Are these emojis, or the broken-down parts of a Kenny Scharf painting?

One of the emoji candidates generating the most controversy is a flat woman’s shoe. This addition was proposed by the director of a Bay Area–based PR firm, Florie Hutchinson, who explains that the default shoe, a bright-red stiletto, is both sexist and unrealistic. That’s certainly true. But she’s missing the stiletto emoji’s, well, point.

It is incontrovertible that women should have many footwear options in the real world. We should consider, however, allowing emoji land to be one place where we allow this painful, patriarchal shoe to live on. Emojis are symbols rather than literal renderings, and following certain visual conventions makes them more legible. It is also true that we do not all drive sedans or eat apples with leaves on the stems, but we accept these little drawings as universally acknowledged representations, the better for us to communicate comprehensibly with one another.

Size is also a factor. An emoji is a very small graphic, meant to be read along with text. They are not displayed large enough for close examination, and it’s more important that the image reads quickly and clearly than that it is finely detailed. A stiletto is a clear and unmistakable shoe, scannable at any size, as opposed to the more amorphous blobs that make up a brogue or sneaker.

Though Hutchinson raises concerns about women only having heeled options when they select an emoji, there’s also a sneaker that isn’t assigned to a gender. Moreover, the stiletto is not specifically designated for women in the Unicode system. It’s actually the default suggestion for both male and female iPhone users when they type in “shoe.” The lack of prescription here suggests that the stiletto is there more to represent a shoe—any shoe—than it is to neatly fit a user profile.

At the root of the problem with emojis is a tension between representation and legibility. At first, Unicode intended for emojis to be simple and unpoliticized. In their guidelines, the organization warns against the overly specific and advises applicants, “don’t justify the addition of emoji because they further a ‘cause,’ no matter how worthwhile.” This would suggest that Unicode was looking for emojis to take a more passive, descriptive approach to language.

However, when Unicode first wrote the rules of conduct, it probably did not realize what a cultural touchstone emojis would become. Unicode is 26 years old, a relatively fusty old organization as far as Silicon Valley goes, and as time has passed, the group’s membership has diversified.

As more voices weigh in on what should and should not be included in each emoji expansion, we must distinguish between important changes, like the 2015 addition of a mosque and synagogue, versus less essential new emojis, like that variety of hairlines, which may help some users make a point about widow’s peaks and male pattern baldness, but mostly just clutters the emoji library.

If anything, we would be better off getting rid of emojis than adding them. Let’s forget the floppy disc, the handball player, and the endless phases of the moon. If we limit ourselves to one rice dish, a single type of cloud, and just one kind of hospital—the iconic, not the specific—our emoji use might suddenly become exciting, creative, and even personal again.

Having a Canadian flag emoji is dandy, but how much more satisfying is it to represent the country more viscerally—say, with a maple leaf, a snowy mountain, and a grinning face? Your undergraduate writing professor’s most shopworn advice is applicable here: Show, don’t tell. Why evoke love with two nondescript kissing faces when you can use a rose, a gemstone, and a celebratory horn blast? Just imagine where our creativity—that thing we use to complete the distance emojis can’t go—could take us. A lot further than how far one can walk in a pair of stylish ballet flats, no doubt.