There are many inexplicable things in this world but I find it hard to get past the emotional relevance of an emoji called “Women with Bunny Ears.” In the last two years, this crude little pictogram, which shows two leotard-clad women dancing in unison like they’re gleefully auditioning for a cartoon version of A Night at the Playboy Mansion, has become my default for conveying – with disturbing accuracy – my feelings about swapping workweek drudgery for drinks with a good friend.
Sadly, when it comes to illustrating the complexity of female experience the retrograde charm of “Women with Bunny Ears” is about as far as it goes. In emoji land, guys get to be doctors, detectives, weightlifters, firemen and Santa (a seven-year old boy’s entire spectrum of grown-up aspirations) while women have the dubious honour of being a bride, princess or mistress of the sassy hand gesture. Emoji, which were created in 1998 by Japanese designer Shigekata Kurita to help users weave thoughts and emotions into text messages and adopted worldwide when Apple hid an emoji keyboard in the iPhone ten years later, have given us nearly 1,851 new ways to express ourselves. But in terms of gender roles, they’ve also seen us travel back in time 50 years.
The Unicode Consortium put a fix to last month. The mysterious Silicon Valley-based not-for-profit charged with governing the creation of new emoji recently added male and female options to every profession and approved 11 new career women emoji – including an engineer, doctor, chemist, farmer, banker and a rock star who channels David Bowie – to coincide with World Emoji Day on July 17.
The new emoji, which are available in different skin tones, were submitted in May by a team of Google employees hoping to give young women some options for reflecting professional desires beyond Barbie pink manicures and perky appointments at the salon. “While Unicode TR52 brings parity between existing male emoji and female emoji, we believe we can have a larger positive impact by adding 13 new emoji that depict women across a representative sample of professions,” they wrote in the proposal. “We believe this will empower young women, the heaviest emoji users, and better reflect the pivotal roles women play in the world.”
91 per cent of the online population use emoji, the majority of which are women under 30.
Although it’s difficult to be cynical of the desire to empower young women, it’s also true that career women emoji risk playing into the narrative that treats female visibility and female power as one and the same. Like last year’s racially diverse emoji, which gave people of colour the tools to account for their race but zero insight into tackling the problem of racism (try not feeling awkward after texting a brown emoji to a white person), the ability to send a miniature female engineer or chef wielding a frying pan is great news for the droves of young women who use emoji on a weekly basis (A September 2015 AdWeek study found that 91 per cent of the online population use emoji, the majority of which are women under 30). But in a world in which only 18 per cent of Google engineers are women and female Silicon Valley workers are paid up to 30 per cent less than men for performing the same jobs according to an April 2016 report by Hired, reducing the process of navigating industries rife with misogyny to a smiling pictogram was always going to be a harder sell.
But in May 2015, a BBC article reported that emoji is now the UK’s fastest growing language and has already eclipsed hieroglyphics, which took centuries to be adapted by humans, suggests that these odd, childish symbols don’t just describe the world, they can shape it too. Who would have ever guessed that a drawing of an eggplant would become the universal symbol for sexual innuendo, that heart-shaped eyes could describe adoring someone with such economy or that the wacky visual puns we string together with our smartphones could ever be used as evidence in court? “Women with Bunny Ears” doesn’t so much describe my emotions as much as it crystallise feelings I didn’t know I had. Hopefully, the rise of emoji that reflect the pivotal roles women play in the world aren’t an empty gesture but a picture of things to come.