Making Gender-Neutral Emojis Is More Complicated Than You Think

Picture this: a teacher and a farmer are playfully chatting at a party. You got the image? OK, now here’s a question: in the mental picture you just created, does the farmer have a gender? Does the teacher? English doesn’t require gender marking on those two words the way that many other languages do. Still, all of us who are adults today have been deeply socialized to automatically apply a gender to any other human we encounter, even imaginary ones. That socialization is changing, of course, but while we’re in the midst of the changes, life can get a little complicated. Even emojis can have a hard time; in this November 2020 Wired report, freelance journalist Shira Telushkin explains the complications.

Read it here.


1. Why are gender-neutral emojis so complicated to create? How does Telushkin explain the situation? Summarize the issues involved and the steps being taken to resolve the challenges. Do you think that Telushkin’s explanation is clear and thorough? Why or why not? Is any of the information excessive or unnecessary? Is there anything missing that should have been explained more? If so, what? Point to specific examples to back up your response.

2. Telushkin’s report is very straightforward and succinct; she includes minimal examples and anecdotes. There is no bio for her included on the page, and she offers no personal information establishing her experience or authority on the topic. Does the information in the report seem reliable to you? Why or why not? What does Telushkin do to make the report trustworthy? What devices does she employ? Explain your reasoning.

3. LET’S TALK. Telushkin’s interviewee Jennifer Daniel, an emoji specialist, explains that the new characters are meant to be “more abstract and symbolic.” They’re meant to convey “the concept of farmer, or the concept of doctor.” Wow, how might that work? Grab your pencils and crayons and work with a few classmates to play with the challenge. What visual symbols might capture the concept of a person who is a farmer, doctor, teacher, etc. without using any depictions that suggest one or another specific gender? Try out your creations on a few other people. How well do they work? How was this experience for you? Fun? Frustrating? Interesting? Be prepared to discuss these questions in class or in writing.

4. AND NOW WRITE. How important are accurate emoji details to you? When you have the option, how much care do you take to select emojis that represent the gender identity (or identities) of yourself or the people you’re depicting? What about skin shades? Do you select them in meaningful ways? How often do you use the very specific profession/occupation emojis such as farmer, chef, or firefighter? The specific activity emojis such as golfing or surfing? Do you use many facial expression emojis? Object emojis? Write an essay that details your emoji use (or non-use). Analyze your usage for patterns or generalizations and explain the choices you may consciously make about which emojis you use.

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