With every new version of its iOS operating system, Apple releases a new update to its iconic emoji collection. This set of new editions comes with highly-anticipated gender-neutral emojis for popular characters like elf, zombie, detective, graduate, and police officer.
A previous update added multiple racial options to human emojis, allowing more of Apple’s users to find emojis that reflective of them. This new update is aimed to provide people who are nonbinary or gender-nonconforming with a chance to see themselves accurately represented in their texts, too.
While some users appreciate this new update, and feel more visible in their emoji options, others are less than impressed. Apple’s interpretation of “gender-neutral” is limited, only displaying a certain type of nonbinary person.
It’s true, all emojis have to represent the real world with one tiny picture, but that depiction is more important when it comes to people than a tree or a tomato. Apple’s new emoji update reinforces stereotypes about what it means to be gender-neutral, and though its intention is to increase visibility, this emoji release may leave just as many people feeling their identities are being erased or ignored.
So what do these new emojis look like? Pretty much a cross between the pre-existing male and female emojis already in Apple’s rotation. Apple’s female emojis have round heads, while male ones are square-shaped; the gender-neutral faces are in between, closer to oval. Their hair is in between long and short, ranging from bob to mullet, but not as long as Apple’s ‘female’ or as short as Apple’s ‘male.’
These emojis show nonbinary people as a half-and-half combination of male and female, but that’s nowhere near an accurate portrayal. Nonbinary people present themselves differently from each other and can express their gender or identity in ways that don’t align with stereotypes of male, female, or a combination of both.
Yes, Apple’s new emojis may provide a sense of freedom or visibility for some people. But for others, they reinforce constricting stereotypes about what it means to exist beyond the gender binary. It’s not clear how Apple can fix this problem, but reducing ‘gender-neutral’ to one specific emoji, just like reducing ‘male’ or ‘female’ to a specific emoji, will never be accurate.
Fortunately, Apple does provide a better way to reflect yourself in texts: Memoji. Starting in iOS 12, users can customize their own “Memojis,” and send them as stickers to communicate a range of emotions. You can specify your Memoji’s hair, skin shade, facial features, and accessories, allowing people to express exactly how they present in emoji form.
The options for Memoji are still limited, and it hasn’t caught on in the same way Apple’s emoji have, but it does provide a less restrictive way to express yourself through text. With Memoji and other customizable avatars like Bitmoji, users can see themselves, and their gender expression, reflected more accurately online.
What can users expect from the overall future of emojis? Hopefully, opportunities to customize their personal avatar to become an elf, zombie, detective… whatever they want to be, instead of being restricted to stereotypes of ‘male’ ‘female’ and ‘gender-neutral.’