Meet the designer behind gender-neutral emoji

Emojis tend to encode gender with traditional signs of masculinity (beard, mustache, short hair) and femininity (painted nails, longer hair, skirts). Hunt found this limiting, even unsettling: Why was a nurse a woman and a police officer a man? Why were “frivolous” activities like painting your nails or dancing depicted as feminine, while “serious” activities like building were always depicted as masculine? Why were these images so strongly gendered?

Hunt decided to do something about it. They were already part of the Emoji Subcommittee, a group of designers and industry experts within the nonprofit Unicode Consortium, which works with hardware and software companies to make emoji readable and universal across devices. Thus, in 2016, Hunt presented a proposal to push for gender-inclusive emoji, which they defined as “a humanized appearance that uses visual cues common to all genders by excluding stereotypes that are explicitly male or female.”

It was revolutionary. For many, emojis were cute and simplistic additions to text, not humanistic and certainly not political. Hunt acknowledges this, saying diplomatically that there was some skepticism from those running the committee. Some designers pointed to Google, which had tried to avoid gender and race with its yellow spots on Gchat. In a way, this worked, but Hunt found the accommodation a little odd: Why couldn’t emoji express more nuances of the human experience without resorting to abstraction?

Hunt’s proposal found an audience in Jennifer Daniel, who now heads the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee and has been instrumental in redefining the linguistics of emoji, ushering in an era that celebrates the inclusion and creative use of symbols as a means of expression

Daniel told me that when he joined the subcommittee in 2018, “none of them [the gender-inclusive emoji Hunt had proposed] they were properly supported.” He pushed for the implementation of Hunt’s proposal, and published guidelines for the creation of a class of gender-neutral emojis.

For Hunt, emoji are a powerful means of expression precisely because words sometimes fail us. They remember meeting their future husband, an Australian, while living in San Francisco: “When you meet someone, you build a common story together and develop your own language.” That language for Hunt and his spouse included the sprinkles heart emoji, which became a “logo” for the budding relationship. “This emoji meant a lot to me,” they say. “He still does.”

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