A little while ago, when Apple introduced a new set of “more diverse” emoji, the response might be summed up best as :praise hands emoji:. In an era when the issue of representation seems to have come to the forefront, emoji became a symbol of a yearning in certain people to see themselves shown or depicted in that space out there we call the public. Because emoji are a mediating layer in communication, in expanding the range of this pictorial code we’ve become so accustomed to, we’ve also expanded the expressive range for our text chats, better reflecting the nuances of our multi-faceted lives. Or, um, something like that anyway.
As someone who has often expressed that same yearning to see myself in media and other forms of normative representation, I found myself agreeing. All the same, there were outliers. At Macleans, Adrian Lee argued that the assertion that emoji were white was a form of whitewashing itself, one that explicitly glossed over the Japanese and generally “Asian” roots of much of the iconography. More compellingly to my mind, however, Lee argued that:
Unlike most languages, less precision serves emoji better. Emojis’ generality is exactly why it’s taken off as a universal language, not necessarily the efforts of some secretive coding consortium. Emoji are our modern-day shibboleths—they’re defined not by colour, but by context.
The point: all representation is imperfect. When it comes to identity, there is no ideal representation, and particularly when we are dealing with generalities as broad as race or gender, less specificity allows for more expressive and interpretive wiggle room.
Me, I didn’t really give a shit either way. The perfect emoji for me has been there from the start.
The “turban guy emoji” is an absurdity. It depicts something certainly looks like the Sikh turban, but does so atop a clean-shaven face. It is, at least in terms of a particularly literalist take on representation, an “inaccuracy.” Which Sikh would keep a turban but shave? It makes no sense.
Obviously, then, it works perfectly for me. What it depicts is a “fake Sikh”—a Sikh who cannot be defined as one according to normative standards, but still gestures toward some kind of generalized idea of Sikh-ness. It’s the Sikh as it cannot be in real life, an identity hovering in impossibility, as the representation itself performatively instantiates its liminal existence. Or, um, something like that anyway.
But as diversity as An Issue becomes ever-more central, that difficult question of what constitutes “responsible” or, even more troublingly, “accurate” representation becomes more and more fraught. Already, I’m getting the vague sense that the demand for diversity—a call that, I should add, often comes from me—can often surreptitiously usher in essentialism, linking particular bodies with particular views. Worse, the move toward foregrounding positionality as the definining contextual frame for parsing the utterance is unsettling, fixing speech in relation to identity as if the whole messy game weren’t constantly in flux. As I said elsewhere, in what was the about the only sensible sentence I’ve ever written in my life, “The reality of being human cannot actually be found at identity positions, only in relation to them.”
It’s perhaps for this reason—to make a classically 2006 blog style jump in logic—that I was intrigued by the end of season one of Broadchurch. The dark, unsettling British murder mystery played out the usual tropes of the genre: a small town is rocked by the murder of a child, and rolls through a series of misdirection until, at last, the least likely character turns out to have done it. It’s true that by the time the series ends, it’s become obvious who the killer is, but the show does something that, to me, seemed quite interesting: it refuses to categorize the murderer.
In a piece of popular fiction depicting the murder of a child, the obvious thing to do is to compound shock upon shock—which of course means turning to pedophilia, what we consider to be our society’s most heinous crime. But without giving away too much, Broadchurch actually stops just shy of marking out a character as a pedophile, and even veers into a discomfiting depiction of a lost person that, if not quite sympathetic, makes neat classifications a little more difficult to draw.
The boon and curse of emoji is that more of them allow for better representation, but no amount is ever enough for truly satisfactory representation.The entire process of identification is too subjective to hold up accuracy or even symmetry as an ideal. But in the push for diversity or “better representation”—something that I think is unquestionably a good thing—there is an odd game at work in which there is a tension between specificity (“this character is just like me!”) and generality (“this character, who is nothing like me, is just like me!”). Lean too far one way and you get drab paint-by-numbers representation, lean too far the other way and you get boring liberal-humanist claptrap about how we’re truly all the same underneath.
A depiction of a not-quite-pedophile is hardly something to hold up as ideal. But Broadchurch as an aesthetic artefact may have in fact done something right. In suspending the “true nature” of a character in a time-to-come, it at least gestures to how representation should function: within a clear moral frame, but in which specific instances of people are unfinished, in flux, and ultimately, in the process of shifting between differing, flickering instantiations of themselves.
You know, just like cartoon emoji.