Are Female Emoji Harmful To Girls? No, They’re Just Emoji

CNN is asking me, “Are female emojis sexist and harmful to girls?” I can only respond with another question: “Can we not?”

Always, the menstrual product company, surveyed teen girls about coded-feminine emojis like the bride, the woman getting a haircut, and the nail polish emojis. Teen girls, according to this survey, feel underrepresented and reduced, which is understandable! There are a lot of teen girls who are dedicating a lot of their time to playing sports, preparing for a university career in STEM fields, participating in their schools’ Model UN, and in general doing things other than tending to our culture’s prescriptions of what is and isn’t feminine. It would be nice to see a coded-female cop or athlete emoji.

But maybe the more honest way to pose the question is, “Are female emojis annoying and reductive to teenaged girls?” But no, this is framed as scary and wounding: CNN quotes spokeswoman for the Always #LikeAGirl campaign and co-founder of the NPO Girl’s Leadership, Rachel Simmons, as saying, “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”

And look, these emojis are not goatse-ing teenaged girls. They’re a product of a culture that codes femininity in a particular way, not a determinant of that culture. By the time a girl uses a messenger that has an emoji keyboard, she will have long since learned that pink is for girls and girls get haircuts and paint their nails and dream about fairytale weddings. Emojis and those girls are arriving at these stereotypes at the about the same time.

Are emojis harmful to girls? No, first of all because whatever harm they might impose has long since already been done. If they’re harmful, they’re minutely harmful. And there’s a difference between a microagression and something that is minutely aggressive — in my opinion, anyway.

Second, no, because please help yourself to the internet’s veritable Bacchanalian feast of fashion, beauty, wedding, and lifestyle blogs and Instagrams that are staffed and written mainly by people who identify as women, who have consciously opted into these coded-feminine activities and find them in some way empowering, stimulating, and life-giving. It seems contradictory to say that what is coded as femininity is good, that what is perceived as vanity has positive cultural value, that these activities are empowering, and then call depictions of women engaging in them “sexist and harmful.” Do they need to be complemented by depictions of women doing other things? Yes. But does that make them sexist and harmful in and of themselves? No.

And third, no, because sometimes an emoji is just an emoji. Can we stop spending our time looking for reasons to feel aggrieved, differentiate between that which is annoying and that which is a genuine grievance, and deploy our rhetoric accordingly?


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