#Art + Culture

World Emoji Day 2022: Tracing The Evolution Of Emojis Through Lens Of Gender Representation

Almost anyone with a smartphone regularly uses emojis like pictograms and smiley faces. We use them to convey how we’re feeling, what we’re up to. An emoji can be a convenient addition to a message, or even a primary method of communication. But do you know the storied history of how these lovable symbols have ingrained themselves into our culture?

To mark World Emoji Day, celebrated annually on July 17, here is a synopsis of the evolution of emojis.

Evolution of Emojis: A brief history 

The first emoji were created in 1999 by Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita. Kurita worked on the development team for “i-mode,” an early mobile internet platform from Japan’s main mobile carrier, DOCOMO. Kurita wanted to design an attractive interface to convey information in a simple, succinct way: for example, an icon to show the weather forecast rather than spelling out “cloudy.” So Kurita sketched a set of 12- by 12-pixel images that could be selected from a keyboard-like grid within the i-mode interface, then sent on mobiles and pages as their own individual characters. However, the emoji trend only really took off when Apple added an official emoji keyboard to iOS in 2011, and Android followed in their footsteps several years later. Kurita’s original 176 emoji are now part of the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

In 2010, the Unicode Consortium, which is responsible for the standardisation of symbols in digital interfaces, adopted the emoji. All emoji that today are supported by smartphones derive from a standardised model created by the Unicode Consortium.

Diversification

Emojis finally saw the light of day in 2010 when they became available globally. They had emerged as an important language of the digital age, but it was a language that had no words for “women with jobs” or “people of colour.”  People found emojis to be overwhelmingly white, a bit sexist, and, in terms of religious symbols and cultural diversity, extremely limited.

In 2012, pop star Miley Cyrus, in a tweet, called for an increase in ethnicity options in emoji, using the hashtag #EmojiEthnicityUpdate.

Evolution Of Emojis

Gender Representation

When many of these emojis were first launched, they had just one version apiece and predominantly followed gender stereotypes. Men were used to showcase most of the work-based activities while women were mainly seen getting haircuts. With emojis used so frequently by so many – especially young people – they ran the risk of perpetuating these stereotypes. To combat that in a positive way, alternate versions of these characters have gradually been added to show that women can be construction workers and men can be dancers.

Emojipedia declared the year 2015 as “the year of Emoji diversity.” Every updated version of Emoji since has brought new additions to inclusive emoji. Some of the more notable inclusions are women portrayed in various professions, like “woman detective,” 🕵️‍♀️or “woman firefighter,” 👩‍🚒to food options representing different cultures, religious symbols like prayer beads, 📿 headscarves and garments, 🧕👳 synagogues, 🕍 to single parents, 👨‍👧 or same-sex couples. 👩‍❤️‍👩 And, most recently, a gender-neutral person. 👱

The rainbow flag, which represents the LGBTQI community, was added to the emoji set with iOS 10. Mathew Shurka, an LGBTQ+ activist was one of the most vocal advocates for getting the rainbow flag added to the emoji set.

In 2019, the gender-neutral option for each human emoji was introduced to appear more inclusive and androgynous, with hair that falls above the shoulders and an outfit that’s grey rather than the gender-signalling purple-clad female and blue-wearing male icons.

334 new emojis were released in 2020 as part of the Unicode Emoji 13.0 and 13.1 updates, with 207 emojis of the latter update rolled out throughout 2021. Users have gained the option to augment their messages with emojis like the bubble tea, the placard and the transgender flag and now can start sending out the flaming heart, the bearded woman and interracial couples.


Suggested Reading: World Emoji Day: Meet Jennifer Daniel, Known As “The Woman Who Invents Emojis”