A post from Shady Characters

Emoji, part 6a: the trouble with emoji

This is the sixth in a series of eleven posts on Emoji (😂). Start at PART 1, continue to PART 7 or view ALL POSTS in the series.


The emoji season of 2019 is upon us. Every year or so for the past half-decade, successive batches of new emoji have issued forth from the hallowed conference rooms of the Unicode Consortium. This year, the emoji gods sent down their new creations — focused on improving representation of people with disabilities — on the 5th of February.1

This yearly tradition is much younger than emoji itself. Emoji has always had an ambiguous relationship with culture, ethnicity and gender — which was forgivable, perhaps, in 1999, when emoji were monochromatic 12 × 12 icons unable to communicate anything much more nuanced than “this is a person’s face”. Fifteen years later, when they had morphed into full-colour, professionally-drawn icons promoted by a bevy of global tech giants, emoji’s ongoing gender bias and cultural insensitivity was starting to look less naïve than it was wilfully ignorant.

Yellow-skinned smileys in Twitter's 2014 emoji
Twitter’s 2014 smileys. (CC-BY 4.0 images taken from Twemoji version 1.4.0.)

Consider the state of emoji in June 2014, just after their first major update since standardisation in 2010.2,3 And take, for example, the cartoonish yellow colour sported by smileys across the emoji spectrum (including those available on Twitter, as shown above4). It was a deliberately unrealistic skin colour, a hand-me-down from the days of Harvey Ball’s original 1963 smileys that happened to be so conspicuously artificial as to head off any perception of racial discrimination.5,6 Or at least, so the theory went. Unfortunately, it did just the opposite.

Most obviously, emoji’s yellow smileys sailed perilously close to invoking the old-fashioned stereotype of the “yellow-skinned” Asian — an issue that went unremarked (or, worse, unnoticed) for an uncomfortably long time. Moreover, many commentators drew parallels between emoji’s smiling yellow faces and the bright yellow cartoon characters depicted in The Simpsons,5,7,8 a popular animated series, but, despite their stylised skin colour, Bart, Homer, Lisa, Maggie and Marge were plainly meant to be white. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, claimed to have chosen the colour yellow solely because it might catch the eye of a channel-hopping viewer, but that raised the question of why the show’s non-white characters were given brown skin of various hues.9,10 Whether one saw a crude yellow-face stereotype or a white person masquerading as some impossible, aracial ideal, emoji’s yellow-skinned smileys have never been without baggage.

White people in Twitter's 2014 emoji
White people in Twitter’s 2014 smileys. (CC-BY 4.0 images taken from Twemoji version 1.4.0.)

Misguided or not, the typical yellow-faced smiley at least aspired to the idea that emoji could transcend race. When Twitter, Apple and others applied themselves to emoji’s more realistic characters, such as GIRL (👧), BOY (👦), WOMAN (👩) or MAN (👨), there was no escaping the fact that they were, to an emoji, white.11* It was not a good look.

Gender roles in Twitter's 2014 emoji
Gender roles in Twitter’s 2014 smileys. (CC-BY 4.0 images taken from Twemoji version 1.4.0.)

Skin colour was not the only problem with emoji in 2014. Most emoji with an identifiable gender were arranged along what might be charitably called traditional lines: only men could be police officers or construction workers; only women danced, got their hair cut or went for a massage; and only heterosexual couples could kiss or raise children.3 Perhaps this should not be surprising: the pocket bell pagers that gave rise to emoji did not embody the most progressive attitudes to gender. One model came in a girls’ version, pre-loaded with messages such as “I’m happy” and “I won’t forgive you”, and a boys’ version with missives such as “I’m sorry”.12

Culturally-specific symbols in Twitter's 2014 emoji
Culturally-specific symbols in Twitter’s 2014 emoji. (CC-BY 4.0 images taken from Twemoji version 1.4.0.)

Finally, 2014’s emoji were culturally lopsided. Having spawned emoji in the first place, Japan figured heavily in the contemporary emoji lexicon: Japan claimed the only national map and flag icons in the set (🗾, 🎌); a disproportionate number of emoji food items were Japanese, including sushi (🍣), a bento box (🍱) and a rice cracker (🍘); the country’s famed bullet train received its own emoji (🚅), as distinct from the more generic HIGH-SPEED TRAIN in use in other countries (🚄); not to mention a host of Japanese cultural peculiarities such as love hotels (🏩), carp-shaped streamers (🎏), wind chimes (🎐), and the yearly “moon viewing ceremony” (🎑). Elsewhere, there were thinly-veiled ethnic stereotypes of Western, Chinese and Indian people.13

Emoji’s diverse collection of users surveyed this problematic set of symbols, at once sprawling and patchy, and began to ask themselves: why don’t they speak for me?


The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, so they say, but Unicode was reluctant to take that step.

Back in 2008, the Unicode Consortium launched a consultation about what it called “emoji”, an idiosyncratic set of Japanese symbols it proposed to add to the standard. One notable response came from Ed Trager, the owner of a website about Unicode fonts, who was forthright about emoji’s limitations:

There is a symbol for “BLOND PERSON” — but in Japanese this is a 西洋人 or 白人 — in other words, a Westerner or Caucasian. And “MAN WITH LONG MOUSTACHE” is really a 中国人 — a “Chinese Man”. And “MAN WITH TURBAN” is really a インド人 — a Hindu. […] Wouldn’t it really be much more tactful if we had some symbols for people of other ethnic backgrounds as well?

How about FLAGS? The selection is ridiculously limited and arbitrary. Better encode flags of all of the nations of the world, if that is even possible without large dispute. Nice can of worms there too. […] There are also EAR OF RICE and CORN and CHESTNUT and PINEAPPLE. Fine, but where is ACORN and SHAFT OF WHEAT and RAMBUTAN and MANGO and MEDJOOL DATE? […] Interestingly, there is a CHAPEL but I don’t see a BUDDHIST TEMPLE or SHINTO SHRINE (even though this is a set of Japanese origin?). Weird.14

Cultural, ethnic and geographic biases galore, and all this before emoji had even been ratified in the standard. But the Unicode Consortium was not ready to grasp the nettle. Emoji debuted in 2010, as part of Unicode 6.0, and Trager’s concerns were not addressed.

Three years later, a recently laid-off NASA programme manager named Katrina Parrott took matters into her own hands — and this time Unicode took notice. Published to the Apple App Store on the 11th of October, 2013, Parrott’s self-funded “iDiversicons” app gave users hundreds of emoji-like icons depicting female construction workers, male nurses, people of colour, multi-ethnic families, same-sex couples, and more.15 Parrott wrote:

Introducing iDiversicons: The amazing new set of emoticons that show the world how you really feel. Representing an entire world of faces, iDiversicons offers everything from African-American and Asian, to Latino/Hispanic, Indian, Caucasian and Biracial.

iDiversicons attracted a respectable amount of media attention, featuring in the Houston Chronicle, Bustle, The Daily Dot and other outlets,15,16,17 but Parrott did not stop there. Within months of her app’s launch, she had submitted a series of proposals to Unicode18,19 asking them to incorporate iDiversicons into the standard and joined the consortium as an individual member to agitate for change from within.20

In March 2014, soon after iDiversicons’ debut, a contributing writer for MTV named Joey Parker took it upon himself — apropos of very little, it seems — to email Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to ask him why there were so few non-white emoji available on the company’s devices. Katie Cotton, VP of worldwide communications at Apple, responded on Cook’s behalf:

Our emoji characters are based on the Unicode standard, which is necessary for them to be displayed properly across many platforms. There needs to be more diversity in the emoji character set, and we have been working closely with the Unicode Consortium in an effort to update the standard.21

Cotton’s message was the closest thing to an official admission that emoji had some growing-up to do. Unfortunately, it came too late to make much of a difference: published in June 2014, Unicode version 7.0 added more than two hundred new emoji (most of them refugees from Microsoft’s Wingdings typeface22) but it was clear that little had been done to fix emoji’s lack of diversity.23 Smileys were still yellow; families were still headed by mum and dad; and police officers were still men.

But Apple’s mea culpa signalled that emoji’s honeymoon period was over. If the media in 2010 had been too starstruck by emoji’s debut to critically evaluate its contents, four years later the lustre had worn off. Reporting on Unicode’s 2014 update, an article written by Eric Brown of the International Business Times was titled “Unicode Unveils 250 New Emoji, Gets Thumbs Down For Diversity”.24 Writing in The Guardian, Alex Hern cited a petition to raise awareness of the near-unbroken whiteness of Apple’s emoji.25 And over at New York magazine’s website for women, The Cut, Allison Davis set out a semi-satirical list of emoji missing from Unicode 7.0 that included “Afro (Black-person emoji, please.)”, “Jewfro (Curly hair transcends color.)”, “Two Women With Child (Equality!)”, “Two Men With Child (Equality!)”, “Two Women With Biracial Child (Equality! Diversity!)”, and so on.26 Emoji was in the news again, and for all the wrong reasons.


Now, finally, Unicode got it. And having got it, they moved remarkably quickly to tackle the problem.

In August 2014, just months after the disappointment of Unicode 7.0, the consortium’s technical director and president co-wrote a memo that envisioned a more inclusive character set. “L2/14-172R — Proposed enhancements for emoji characters: background” might not have won points for nominal creativity, but in it Peter Edberg and Mark Davis were candid about emoji’s problems. “It is clear that the Unicode Consortium needs to address more quickly some of the issues that have come up”, they wrote, calling attention to emoji’s lack of ethnic and cultural diversity.27 It was the starting gun for some long-overdue introspection on Unicode’s part, and it signalled a sea change in emoji as a whole.

The first visible result of Edberg and Davis’s memo came in June 2015 in the form of Unicode 8.0, yet another version of the standard — and one that arrived rather ahead of schedule. Unicode 6.0, the first edition to contain emoji, had been published in 2010; version 7.0 came in 2014; and now Unicode 8.0 had appeared less than a year after that.2,3,28 Squint, and it almost looked like Unicode were starting to take emoji seriously.

Many of Unicode 8.0’s new emoji characters, such as such as ROBOT FACE (🤖), TURKEY (🦃), and BOTTLE WITH POPPING CORK (🍾), were relatively pedestrian. Arriving with them, however, was a group of five disembodied patches of skin — ‘🏻’, ‘🏼’, ‘🏽’, ‘🏾’, and ‘🏿’ — that were less easy to fathom.29 By themselves, EMOJI MODIFIER FITZPATRICK TYPE 1, EMOJI MODIFIER FITZPATRICK TYPE 2 et al did very little, but when used in combination with certain other emoji they made a world of difference. And Unicode 8.0 made use of another character, too, that turned emoji on its head. All of this came together not in the virtual doorstop that was Unicode version 8.0, but in a new and, relatively speaking, accessible document.

Enter Emoji 1.0.


Bear with me for a moment, because we need to make a brief but sexy detour into the world of version numbering. Major revisions of the Unicode Consortium’s eponymous standard have always been named Unicode 1.0, Unicode 2.0, and so on. In August 2015, however, in the wake of Unicode 8.0, the group published a supplementary document called “Unicode® Technical Report #51: Unicode Emoji”30 which was both a guide to the technical aspects of emoji encoding and a list of all emoji characters that existed in the main Unicode 8.0 standard itself. It was a field guide to emoji, in essence, cherry-picking those parts of the Unicode standard that related to emoji and eliding the rest, and it came to be known by the slightly more wieldy name of “Emoji 1.0”.31,1

Emoji 1.0 freed emoji from Unicode’s rigorous and conservative standardisation process. The basic concept of Unicode was unchanged — every single character included in the Unicode standard, whether emoji or not, still had to be voted on and approved by the full Unicode Technical Committe and ratified by the (deep breath) Coded Character Sets standardization subcommittee of ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee 1 — but with Emoji 1.0 the Unicode Consortium was giving emoji a shortcut. For reasons you may already have guessed at, it was now possible to combine multiple emoji characters to create new composite glyphs, but with the caveat that such new glyphs were recommendations only, rather than “real” Unicode characters. Henceforth, the main Unicode standard would contain only standalone characters; Emoji 1.0 and its successors, on the other hand, would list all recommended combinations of emoji.1 A small but significant wedge had been driven between staid old Unicode and vibrant, vital emoji.

The first group of composite characters introduced with Emoji 1.0 came courtesy of the five skin colour emoji described above. These five tones drew on a dermatological classification called the “Fitzpatrick scale” that categorized skin tone by a person’s reaction to ultraviolet light.32 When placed immediately after one of a designated set of emoji (all of which displayed at least some skin), a Fitzpatrick modifier glyph caused the emoji to change its skin tone so that, for example, the BABY emoji took on a more realistic skin colour: 👶 + 🏾 = 👶🏾 .30 The method of combining a regular emoji with a Fitzpatrick modifier simply by placing the two next to each other was simple and robust: if a given messaging app or web browser understood that ‘👶’ and ‘🏾’ could be combined, so much the better; if not, and the two were displayed as separate glyphs, the reader would at least still get the general idea: “👶‌🏾”.

Beyond the Fitzpatrick modifiers, the key to Emoji 1.0’s next parlour trick was a previously unheralded character called the ZERO WIDTH JOINER. I would reproduce it here, but there is no point: the ZWJ, as it is usually called, is one of a handful of Unicode characters that have no visible representation but rather exist to change the behaviour of the “real” characters around them. The ZWJ, for its part, had been created to help make sense of certain complex scripts such as Arabic, Devanagari and Malayalam, where two abutting letters could take one form or another depending on context: the ZWJ “glued” such characters together; its sibling, the ZERO WIDTH NON JOINER, held them apart.33

When applied to emoji, the ZERO WIDTH JOINER opened the door to a much more diverse character set. Unlike the skin tone modifiers, the ZWJ did not simply change the colour of existing emoji; instead, it created entirely new glyphs. The prototypical example given in Emoji 1.0 was as follows: 👩 + ZWJ + ❤️ + ZWJ + 👩 = 👩‍❤️‍👩 , creating a same-sex couple emoji that, along with tens of similar composite glyphs, sailed blissfully past the lumbering ISO/IEC standardisation process.30

Taken together, Emoji 1.0’s skin tone modifiers and ZWJ-based symbols marked fundamental shifts both in how emoji worked on a technical level and in the set of symbols that we, the users, could make use of in our online writings. Moreover, Emoji 1.0 was the first of many emoji updates that would make a splash in the mainstream press, giving rise to the annual festival of “emoji season”, in which commentators pick over the new glyphs that will soon make an appearance on their smartphones and computers.

Next time, we’ll take a look at some of the new symbols that emoji season has brought us over the years and, in doing so, we’ll see just how difficult it is to build a truly representative character set.

1.
Jeremy Burge, “230 New Emojis in Final List for 2019”, Emojipedia Blog, 2019. 
2.
“Unicode 6.0.0”, Unicode.Org, 2010. 
3.
“Unicode 7.0.0”, Unicode.Org, 2014. 
4.
“Twemoji v1.4.0”, 2014. 
5.
Caitlin Dewey, “Are Apple’s New ‘yellow face’ Emoji Racist?”, Washington Post, February–2015. 
6.
Unknown entry 
7.
Robinson Meyer, “Finally, Emoji People of Color”, The Atlantic, February–2015. 
8.
Andrew McGill, “Why White People Don’t Use White Emoji”, The Atlantic, 2016. 
9.
“Hotseat: The Simpsons Creator Matt Groening”, CBBC Newsround, 2007. 
10.
Zara Rahman, “The Problem With Emoji Skin Tones That No One Talks About”, The Daily Dot, 2018. 
11.
Jeremy Burge, “Man Emoji”, Emojipedia
12.
Tamiko Lippit, “Japan Teens Flip for Private Pagers”, International Herald Tribune, April–1995. 
13.
The Unicode Consortium, The Unicode Standard, Version 6.0 - Archived Code Charts, 2010. 
14.
Ed Trager, “Emoji: Public Review December 2008 - A Very Pretty Can of Worms Indeed”, Unicode Mail List Archive, 2008. 
15.
Heather Alexander, “Mom’s New Line of Diverse Emoticons Includes Same Sex Couples, Brown Faces”, Houston Chronicle, July–2014. 
16.
Elizabeth Robinson, “The One-Woman Mission to Diversify Emoji”, The Daily Dot, July–2014. 
17.
Lucia Peters, “IDiversicons Give Us the Emoji Diversity We Need (Finally!)”, Bustle, July–2014. 
18.
Katrina Parrott, “L2/14-085: UTC Document Submission: Request Approval to Add ‘Our New IDiversicons: Diverse Emoji Characters’ to the Next Updated Unicode Standard”, 2014. 
19.
Shervin Afshar and Katrina Parrott, “L2/14-154R: Report on Diversity Emoji Use in IDiversicons and Proposal to Add New Emoji from IDiversicons Collection to Unicode”, 2014. 
20.
Alicia Lutes, “Chattin’ Diversity, Emojis, and Representation With iDiversicons’ Katrina Parrott”, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, June–2015. 
21.
Joey Parker, “What Does Apple Think About The Lack Of Diversity In Emojis? We Have Their Response.”, MTV Act, March–2014. 
22.
“Emoji Versions & Sources, v11.0”, Unicode.Org, 2018. 
23.
Jeremy Burge, “Unicode Version 7.0”, Emojipedia
24.
Eric Brown, “Unicode Unveils 250 New Emoji, Gets Thumbs Down For Diversity”, International Business Times, June–2014. 
25.
Alex Hern, “More Than 250 New Emojis Announced by Unicode”, The Guardian, June–2014. 
26.
Allison P. Davis, “Life Won’t Be Complete Until We Get These Emojis”, The Cut, June–2014. 
27.
Peter Edberg and Mark Davis, “L2/14-172R: Proposed Enhancements for Emoji Characters: Background”, 2014. 
28.
“Unicode 8.0.0”, Unicode.Org, 2015. 
29.
Jeremy Burge, “Unicode Version 8.0”, Emojipedia
30.
Mark Davis and Peter Edberg, “Unicode Technical Report #51: Unicode Emoji (version 1.0)”, Unicode.Org, 2015. 
31.
Jeremy Burge, “Emoji Version 1.0”, Emojipedia
32.
Thomas Fitzpatrick B, “The Validity and Practicality of Sun-Reactive Skin Types I Through VI”, June–1988. 
33.
The Unicode Consortium, “3.0 New Character Semantics”, in Unicode Standard, Version 1.1, 1993, 5-8. 
*
Yes, they are yellow now. Come back next time to find out why. 
There was one glimmer of hope, in that two men could hold hands (👬), or two women (👭).3 
Ironically, in order to demonstrate the fallback rendering of a BABY emoji followed by a Fitzpatrick skin tone modifier (👶‌🏾), I had to place a ZERO WIDTH NON JOINER between the two to stop them being rendered as a single glyph. 

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