Last Monday, Apple released iOS update 11.1. Typically, I don’t pay attention to iOS updates — my phone is too full of photos, apps and music to even think about downloading them. However, this update caught my attention, and not because of its bug fixes and the return of the iPhones 3D multi-task feature. Rather, I was intrigued by a slew of new emojis such as a fairy, a curling stone, a broccoli and perhaps most notably, three gender neutral emojis at various ages.
Previously, every “human” emoji was strictly male or female – this is, of course, not taking into account the classic round yellow face emoji. In the past, emojis seemed to reinforce traditional gender roles between men and women – before a push to close the “emoji gender gap,” the majority of “occupation” emojis such as the policeman, detective and construction worker were male, while female emojis were princesses, brides or flamenco dancers.
The advent of a set of gender-neutral emojis represents a significant shift in the consideration of nonbinary gender identities. However insignificant emojis seem, representation in any medium is extremely valuable because of its power to normalize typically marginalized identities.
For trans identities, this is particularly crucial. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that approximately 30 percent of Americans know someone who is trans. Furthermore, current media representation for trans individuals is abysmal – there was only one trans character in any 2016 film from a major film studio. The character was All from Zoolander 2 – a nonbinary character whose humor is predicated entirely upon their genitals.
Without knowing trans individuals in real life, characters like All unfortunately end up serving as educational tools. This is why this new set of gender-neutral emojis is impactful and important — nonbinary representation in even the most mundane of formats serves to normalize and bring visibility to nonbinary identities. Hopefully, this is a step toward increased positive representation in the future.
This logic of simple representation can be applied in other contexts as well. Increased trans representation in University posters and promotional materials would send a clear message that trans students have a place at the University. Of course, this alone is never enough and must be backed up by inclusive University action and policy that stands up for trans students. However, simple, positive representation is always a step in the right direction even if it doesn’t solve more serious problems affecting marginalized communities. If you’re looking for something that you can personally do to be more trans inclusive, try incorporating gender-neutral language and pronouns into conversation by replacing “he" or "she” with “they,” or using they/them pronouns when applicable in everyday conversation.
Despite their mundanity, these new gender-neutral emojis are indubitably a step in the right direction. This iOS update might be one that I actually make space for on my phone.