Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.
My girls will think it’s more than a little bit ironic that I am writing a story about emojis, those characters you find throughout texts and social media, since they believe I’m the last person on the planet to download them on my phone. (I only did that a few months ago!)
It is estimated that 6 billion emojis are sent every day, according to Swyft Media, with young girls believed to be responsible for more than a billion of the daily output. They are so popular that Oxford Dictionaries declared emoji the official word of 2015. Clearly, I am very slow to capitalize on this trend!
So, as an emoji novice, if there is such an expression, I had no idea what female and male characters were available to choose from until I watched the newest #LikeAGirl video by Always, the creator of sanitary pads. In this latest video, which follows videos in 2014 and 2015 that went viral showcasing how a girls’ confidence plummets during puberty, girls are asked about the emojis that are available to represent them.
“They’re all mainly pink. That’s pretty much it,” said one girl, as you see a series of girl emojis on the screen, including one of a girl getting a haircut and another of a girl putting her hand up, both wearing pink.
Said another girl, “There (are) no girls in the professional emojis unless you count being a bride a profession.” (There are also emojis of girls as princesses and what appear to be Playboy bunnies.)
Girls of various ages and backgrounds note how there are boy emojis for rock climbing, playing basketball and biking, but none for girls doing the same activities. “Except for the surfer. That one’s a girl. Nope, it’s just a guy with long hair,” says another girl in the video before she laughs.
‘As soon as you see it, you can’t unsee it’
Rachel Simmons, co-founder of the national nonprofit Girls Leadership, which focuses on girls in K-12, and a #LikeAGirl spokesperson, said as obsessed as she is about social media, she had never thought about the representation of girls in emojis until Always brought it up.
“It’s sort of something that is hiding in plain sight,” said Simmons, author of the New York Times bestseller “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.” “And then as soon as you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
Fitfy-four percent of girls 16 to 24 years old believe that female emojis are stereotypical, and half said they represent a limited range of female interests, according to a national survey of more than 1,000 females sponsored by Always. Seventy-five percent of girls 16 to 24 would like to see more progressive depictions of female emojis such as female athletes and female police officers, the survey found.
In the video, girls said they’d love to see an emoji of a girl lifting weights, playing soccer, wrestling, going to the gym and teaching people how to play drums, even an emoji for a “super bad ass girl,” says one girl.
“I want every girl to grow up thinking that she’s capable of everything,” says another.
When girls see girl emojis funneled into particular roles and male emojis doing active things, it reflects what we tend to see in the media about how boys and girls are portrayed, with boys taking up space, making things happen and accomplishing their goals, said Simmons, who recently wrote a piece for the New York Times “Why Your Kids Love SnapChat, and Why You Should Let Them.”
Those images impact the gender norms that kids learn around what’s acceptable for a boy and a girl to do, she added. “And so if you are exposed to a stream of images of girls kind of doing more feeling than doing, girls are emoting rather than doing, that is sending a message around girls being more passive or that girls should be more passive, and boys should be more active,” said Simmons.
At the same time that girls are truly beginning to use emojis as a language, as they begin to text and use social media such as Snapchat and Instagram, they are usually at that developmental moment where fitting in is paramount to them, said Simmons.
“So ‘I want to be like everyone else, it matters to me that I conform,’ and this is the moment when they start to internalize those emojis … There’s like an intersection between what’s happening developmentally for them and that onslaught that’s happening with the emoji.”
More female emojis in the future?
Emojis, which were created by a communications firm in Japan in the late 1990s, are regulated by something called the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit organization focused on developing, maintaining and promoting software standards around the world. I contacted Unicode asking for reaction to the #LikeAGirl video and whether more female emojis will be coming in the future, but have not received a response to my questions.
An Apple spokesperson referred me to Unicode, saying it develops the standard for emoji characters. I asked if Apple would be pushing Unicode for greater representation of women in emojis, but the spokesperson has not gotten back to me.
I can already hear the critics who will argue that representation in emojis seems like such a small matter as compared to other issues affecting young women and girls, or the men’s rights activists who will “start screaming about political correctness gone haywire,” as writer Sophie Kleeman put it in a piece titled “Hey, Unicode, It’s About Damn Time We Had Some Emojis for Professional Women.”
No, it’s not the biggest issue affecting women and young girls, but it’s still an important one based on how intensely girls engage with emojis and how they internalize messages so subconsciously through their media, said Simmons, the author and educator.
“The lack of emoji options for the working woman is worth examining because it’s a small yet clear example of a social scheme that still manages to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes at every turn — even when the issue is as seemingly innocuous as a tiny digital face,” wrote Kleeman, a staff writer for Mic, which focuses on news for millennials.
Lucy Walker, an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker who studied sociolinguistics and gender when she was younger, directed the new #LikeAGirl video.
“With my background … I’ve always been aware of the important nuances in the ways we communicate and I recognize that language that reinforces stereotypes can have a profound impact on girls’ confidence,” said Walker in an email Q&A.
Research shows that girls’ confidence tends to drop during puberty. Sixty-seven percent of the 16 to 24 year-olds surveyed by Always said that the available emojis implied that girls are limited in what they can do.
There’s an obvious “lack of symmetry” of opportunity for girls in emojis and “clear messages about the things girls should and should not be doing,” said Walker. “And since emojis are so frequently used by young girls and teenagers, whose confidence is already dropping, this is especially regrettable.”
As one girl said in the video with resignation, “Girls love emojis but there aren’t enough emojis to say what girls do. That’s just how things are.”
Maybe that will change.