The Burden of Representation: A Post-Structural Analysis of the Emoji Update

This image features a screenshot of the emoji keyboard, where a user can choose to color the man with a mustache emoji from six different skin tones.Depending on your texting aesthetic, you may or may not have noticed the most recent Emoji update. For the more spartan texters, emojis are a set of ideograms accessed via a supplemental keyboard when texting on a smart phone. Though created in Japan, emojis spread to the United States in 2011 and are now available on Apple and Android devices. Today, smart phone wielders around the world send each other smiling poops and shrimp tempura to digitally communicate with a little bit more flair than alphanumerical characters allow.

Early in April, Emoji released an update that introduced more than 300 new “diversity emojis” to the emoji arsenal. Users can now choose between six skin tones when selecting a humanoid emoji. These six skin tones purportedly derive from the Fitzpatrick scale, a numerical classification schema for human skin color. In addition to offering a skin tone selector, Emoji has also endowed users with the choice of same-sex couples and families. This update may or may not have occurred as a response to an email from an MTV representative to Apple CEO Tim Cook accusing the app of racism. This email, coupled with complaints from the likes of Miley Cyrus and DoSomething.org, incited an update some laud as a progressive embracing of diversity.

We are not impressed. What’s more, we’ve seen this before. In 1992, Crayola introduced a line of “multicultural products” (a few shades of brown markers) in response to customer complaints. According to Crayola, the new hues (which were actually pre-existing hues packaged in a box labelled “multicultural”) were selected to “represent skin tones of the world.” The notion that a finite amount of hues can represent all skin tones or all people gets at the core this problematic politics of representation.

In presenting a range of skin tones to choose from, Emoji attempts to represent different racialized groups of people. Though these representations will never be the things that they are attempting to represent, they impose meaning onto these things. Think about René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, which realistically depicts a pipe and, at the bottom of the print, reads “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” or “This is not a pipe.” Magritte’s point, however trite, is that the painting itself is not a pipe but rather a representation of a pipe, and the image suggests something about the meaning or essence of a pipe. Given the objectness of a pipe, visually representing it is a rather innocuous act. By contrast, the act of representing people necessarily takes on greater gravity.

The sensitivity around representing historically marginalized groups of people stems from their political powerlessness to represent themselves. This gives the representation — in this case, the emoji — disproportionate weight. The single image/representation can come to stand in for and essentialize the entirety of a group. Alice Walker identifies this phenomenon of stereotypical representation as a form of social control she deems “prisons of image.” Stereotypical images are not errors of perception but rather products of prejudicial patterns. The static and limited manner in which Emoji has chosen to depict racial diversity posits an ahistorical representation of a particular person or group of people. The idea that six skin tones can sufficiently represent racial diversity flattens the notion of racial identity into simply a product of pigment, thus undermining the possibility for fluid, dynamic, or otherwise non-biological racial/ethnic identification.

The effort for these “racially diverse” emojis on behalf of Apple is NOT justice for historically marginalized and misrepresented peoples. The existence of a space for these multicultural emojis is never going to be enough to represent all groups; there is no finite amount of symbolic representations that can encompass all identities.

A multicultural campaign solely based on changing the skin color of emojis ignores the nuances in differing identities, not just in terms of appearance but in embodiments of identities beyond appearance. That the primary factor in Emoji’s new campaign is the option to change skin tones (and with a selection of six skin tones!) is very telling of how Apple only pays attention to certain issues of inclusivity that are addressed to them directly by their customers. The new emojis neglect the problematics of providing a range of six skin tones for each humanoid image and the option to change the family emoji to be purportedly inclusive of couples of varying sexualities (a.k.a. the inclusivity of lesbian and gay couples = comprehensive sexual inclusivity, yay!). Apple passes these new emojis as the solution to the previous problem of racial and sexual exclusivity, when they only perpetuate this exclusivity and exacerbate it under a commercial facade of social progress for its customers.

That the new default or “neutral” skin tone of the emoji is yellow reveals an entirely new problematic. The neutrality of the yellow skin tone supposedly emulates the neutrality of the original yellow smiley face, designed by freelance artist Harvey Ball in 1963 to increase the morale of employees at a Massachusetts insurance company. The original smiley face was not an attempt to represent any specific human body; the yellow tone of the image did not readily suggest the representation of a racial identity. Similarly, the yellow skin tone emoji isn’t supposed to be a skin tone at all—it is somehow supposed to exist outside of what Emoji considers a realistic range of skin tones. However, the default yellow emojis, which are entirely humanoid and juxtaposed with other racialized humanoid emojis, can’t escape the representational nature of a yellow skin tone. These yellow emojis instead evoke the stereotyped depictions of yellow-skinned people inscribed upon East Asians. Customers have gone so far as to wonder the “true race” of these default emojis and have accused Apple of yellowface. What Emoji has purported to be “neutrality” with this yellow skin tone is in fact not neutrality at all.

Moreover, the yellow hair of each default emoji suggests the purported neutrality of yellow hair. Not only is the yellow skin tone rooted in racist depictions of East Asians, the yellow color of the hair also seems to suggest the normalization and neutrality of the white body within the public discourse on image representation of bodies, further complementing customers’ complaints about yellowface.

The skin tones of these multicultural humanoid emojis puts pressure on users to choose emojis that represent them. Otherwise, others might interpret the use of an emoji that does not represent the user as appropriation or mockery. There is also an unequal burden of pressure to represent the self when it comes to the emojis that embody white people. Since the white body is prescribed as neutral and heterogenous, white people do not need to feel the obligation for images of white bodies to represent white people. One image of a white person does not represent all white people or whiteness because we accept the heterogeneity of white as dominant in our discourse of body representation.

The attempts at comprehensive representation by the new emojis also ignore the intersectionality of identities. Although the emoji that depicts a family can now be adjusted to change the gender of each member of the family between female and male, this is a crude attempt at understanding the representation of families with same-sex parents. First, none of the family members’ skin tones can be changed; they maintain the default yellow. Second, the attempt at including same-sex parents of only female and male genders erases any opportunity to be gender-inclusive of identities that do not fall into the categories of female and male. And third, Apple’s attempt to only include same-sex parents as part of their supposedly LGBTQ-inclusive Emoji campaign (or really just LGBQ) with the semblance of a progressive inclusivity for LGBTQ identities denies any opportunity to understand the variety and nuance among people of different sexualities.

Even when Apple attempts to reckon with the underrepresentation of people of color and LGBTQIA people, they still fail to understand how meanings of certain identities are inscribed by representative images of human bodies. People’s identities go beyond popular representations or understandings of them. Thus, representations that attempt to encompass all identities in a finite space is simply impossible.

The Emoji update promotes a sense of complacency with multicultural and sexual inclusivity, by suggesting that achieving it is as easy as including six skin tones and same-sex parents. Apple’s idea that this update is enough to include the identities that they neglected with the previous emojis still erases a history of misrepresentation of marginalized peoples by approximating an inclusive justice for people of color and LGBTQIA people.

Apple’s power to determine the changes to the emojis also raises questions as to who gets to represent marginalized peoples and who gets to decide when that representation is enough. When their customers asked for changes to emojis regarding racial inclusivity, Apple sought to solve this customer dissatisfaction with these six skin tones, rather than addressing the larger issues of racial representation. Under its diversity quota, Apple neglects to understand the identities that it attempts to include and the identities it excludes. The fact that six skin tones and same-sex parents are the primary points of their attention reveal their priorities to satisfy only specific concerns of their customers and capitalize on the semblance of a multicultural, sexually-inclusive campaign.

2 Comments
  1. I’m interested in what “simply criticizing” means when criticism, according to Wendy Brown’s Untimeliness and Punctuality, offers a way to disrupt the systems that control how we think, such as “time” or “progressive” campaigns for inclusivity. Maybe criticizing an issue isn’t enough to some people because providing concrete solutions is the only way that people can find solace amid crisis. It’s easy to say that there should be a concrete solution to a concrete problem… But we’re saying that it’s not that easy, it’s not as easy as coming up with an “even more inclusive” design, because representative images in a finite space are never going to be inclusive of all identities. We’re just talking about how the Emoji update is indicative of a larger problem of representation in popular culture, critiquing Emoji as a way to disrupt people’s thoughts on the “progress” made by the update.

    I’m also interested in your understanding of how emojis work technologically. How do emojis not work like pictures? How do humanoid emojis not act as imagistic depictions of humans? And how is customization not really a thing here? Isn’t that a question to ask the designers of this update? If customization isn’t applicable to emojis, then how are we not already saying that customization can’t be applied to emojis for the sake of inclusivity…? It’s interesting to see a comment about “simply criticizing” when I don’t even see the context that explains your criticism.

    LGBTQIA can be reductive, I understand the problems that go along with using a term that, like the emojis we’re criticizing, attempts to confine identities into a finite space. I apologize for our use of a term that excludes identities. But if we’re going to attack terms for not being “correct” rather than trying to understand the problem of finite comprehensiveness, I question the productivity of using another term that still inevitably excludes identities.

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