Apple’s Gender-Neutral Emojis Aren’t for Everyone

They place restrictions and limits on an identity that’s all about freedom

Credit: Tengku Bahar/Getty

OnOn Monday, Apple released a new version of iOS — and with it, a hotly anticipated update to its emoji collection. Where once users had been limited to just male and female versions of popular emojis like elf, zombie, graduate, detective, and British police officer, now a third, gender-neutral option is available. In the same way that the addition of multiple racial options made it possible for a wider range of users to see themselves reflected in their emojis, the new gender-neutral emojis aim to provide those who don’t align with the traditional gender binary — whether they identify as gender nonconforming, nonbinary, or something else entirely — a chance to feel more accurately represented in their texts.

For some users, these new emojis are a breath of fresh air. Prior to the update, “I usually just picked a binary gender emoji at random when I used them at all,” says Karasu, a nonbinary person who contacted me over Twitter to share their thoughts about the new emoji set. Now, with the new option, their identity feels a little more visible. “It’s always nice to be seen,” they tell me.

But these new, “neutral” emojis still aren’t exactly representative. Like all emojis, the gender-neutral emoji set is forced to represent a diverse and complicated world in just one tiny picture. But unlike, say, a cup of tea or an avocado, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people have an emotional stake in how those emojis represent them — and the choices that Apple’s designers made ultimately reinforce some harmful ideas about what it means to be “gender-neutral” that can leave many people feeling erased and ignored even as their identity is supposedly made more visible.

Apple’s interpretation of gender-neutral tries to strike a balance between male and female features. While the female emojis have round heads and male ones lean towards a squarer shape, their gender-neutral counterparts are oval shaped. Their hair, too, lands somewhere between the short styles that appear on male emojis and long styles that appear on female ones, resulting in a mullet-type style that feels somewhere between “young boy” and “suburban mom.”

Memoji can only express a limited range of messages — there’s no option to, say, dress up your Memoji as a farmer or vampire — but even still, they manage to do something far more exciting than the gender-neutral emoji set.

But while this half-and-half style of gender presentation does reflect how some nonbinary folk look and identify, it’s an extremely limited representation. Though the most prominent representations of nonbinary identity — like Billions actor Asia Kate Dillon — do fit into this mold, others — like longhaired, bearded Jonathan Van Ness, or Jacob Tobia, who pairs their five o’clock shadow with beautiful shades of lipstick — offer an utterly different take on what it means to be “gender-neutral.” “They are enforcing a stereotype,” complains Melissa, who asked to have their last name withheld, another nonbinary person I connected with over Twitter, adding that gender-neutral or nonbinary identity can include “really any expression of gender or identity.” In its attempt to create visibility for people who exist beyond the binary, Apple’s emoji set reinforces the idea that nonbinary people exist in an in-between place, placing restrictions and limits on an identity that’s all about freedom.

Granted, it’s difficult to see how, exactly, Apple might be able to remedy this problem. If gender-neutral can be anything, it’s hard to see how it can be reduced to one, specific emoji. Fortunately, Apple has actually already solved this problem of representing the vast number of nonbinary identities in one tiny emoji.

Since iOS 12, Apple has given users the option to customize their own Memoji, a hyper-personalized avatar that can take on a range of hairstyles, skin shades, facial features, and accessories. Originally available just for videos, Memojis can now be sent as stickers, with users’ customized images being made to laugh, cry, have their minds blown, shrug, and express a wide range of other emotions depicted by the standard emoji set.

Right now, Memoji can only express a limited range of messages — there’s no option to, say, dress up your Memoji as a farmer or vampire — but even still, they manage to do something far more exciting than the gender-neutral emoji set. Rather than asking a diverse range of people to see themselves in a limited and stereotypical idea of what it means to be “gender-neutral,” Memoji give all users the ability to fully express themselves as themselves, using whatever hairstyles, facial shapes, accessories, and other details most accurately reflect their gender identity.

Memoji may not have been intended as a groundbreaking statement on gender representation, but by giving all of us the freedom to create emojis that move beyond the gender binary, or even gender trinary, they’ve created a playground where gender can be whatever we want. Hopefully, the future of gendered emojis looks more like the boundless world of Memoji and less like a “gender-neutral” emoji that continues to reinforce old-fashioned ideas of what it means to abandon the binary.

OneZero columnist, Peabody-nominated producer, and the author of Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal.

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