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Apr 30, 2015

Emoji as identity politics (and your dick doesn't look like an eggplant)

Whether it is celebrities trying their hand at international diplomacy or the insistence on racially diverse emoji, we focus on the symbol and ignore the real.


In overwhelmingly empty news to hand, the image-sharing app Instagram has taken a moral stand on eggplant. The stand against this fruit has not been taken on Paleo grounds but, apparently, for the way it is newly used as a search term by those fluent in emoji.

These pictograms, whose use was locally legitimised by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, are now in frequent enough exchange that they have begun to function as a sort of language. Just like words in English, icons in emoji can refer to things other than the literal object they represent and so, apparently, eggplant now means penis.

This is a great shock to me and, I imagine, the entire emoji-illiterate community, who would have naturally supposed that the male organ was already signified on smartphones by a more visually verbatim dick. Probably a bright yellow one with a single happy winking eye.

Surely there must be greater use for a cartoon penis in an emerging language than a cartoon aubergine. Then again, scholars who have given their lives to the study of the phallus in language remind us that this threshold signifier only holds its power by remaining symbolically veiled.

As Jacques Lacan might have said if he lived into the era of emoji, “LOL OMFG Aubergine Clapping Hands Doughnut”.

That anyone but a linguist should give any work at all to emoji penis analysis might seem silly and if you are already impatient with the matter, you are probably quite sane.

Nonetheless, emoji has begun to function as a Rosetta Stone for the complex exchanges of meaning in our time, and to ignore its frequent discussion in traditional and social media is, possibly, to ignore the radically changing nature of representation itself.

For some months, a campaign to add racially diverse face symbols to emoji built and ended in recent and widely reported success. This seems kind of nice and inclusive until you consider that the initial emoji faces were not representative of whiteness but formed from an obviously synthetic school-bus yellow.

This cuneiform was as racially charged as Hello Kitty, which is to say, not at all. To presume that the original emoji had as its referent some sort of Caucasian hegemon instead of any mobile device user is some really weird humanism.

To be tediously clear, saying that emoji had no racist undertones is not at all the same thing as saying that the world is not racist. The world is clearly racist. But hexadecimal diversity will do nothing to promote material diversity in institutions outside text message.

In fact, there is an argument that the imposition of racial categories into a language where there were previously none — not even the dominant culture’s presumed whiteness but just a canary-yellow blob — is self-defeating identity politics.

Yes, I am quite aware that a discussion of cultural and social identity in the context of text messages seems like a stupid excess, but it wasn’t me who started it and it certainly wouldn’t have been my preference to see, as we did, last week, a discussion of drug abuse and emoji.

Actual adult human journalists reported on a study that revealed that Australians use more beer and drug pictograms than the 15 other nations surveyed.

Let’s set aside the concern that our emoji data is being retained and just ask: WTF. There are more reliable data on Australian drug consumption available than how many beer icons we send to our friends.

If we want to know about the problems of racism, drugs or dick pics, there are more dependable studies than emoji. But in this era of hashtags and inert thinking, we look increasingly to an absolutely symbolic register of meaning in order to fix the real.

To call our time post-material hardly begins to do justice to the blank idiocy of such discussion.

I understand that people want to be nice and that these moments of symbolic inclusion, or, as in the case of the eggplant penis, exclusion, are intended morally and well. But if we believe, and we increasingly do, that everything bad in the world can be fixed by recourse to representation, we necessarily forget the real those symbols purport to represent.

It’s not just a case of not having time to address both the materiality of real-life problems like racism, drug abuse or abusive amateur porn and their representation. It’s a case of representation eclipsing the real itself.

In a world where an eggplant is permitted to represent a penis or a beer is seen as genuine evidence of a social problem, the scope for material change closes to a point that focuses entirely on the symbolic.

We see this not only in discussion around emoji but in questions on the nature of discourse itself. The way to fix social problems is increasingly seen as a discursive one, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the great demand for better “role models” in media or the use of the self, and the selfie, as a route to social change.

The deaths of Chan and Sukumaran stand as brutal and heartbreaking reminders of the biopower of the modern state. But some of the real-life emoji protest against these acts are disturbing.

For all its good intentions, the I Stand For Mercy video released two days ago, and alternately critiqued and commended, is a document of our emerging blankness and disdain for the real.

Here we see actors and celebrities empty not only of the most basic understanding of realpolitik — “The time for diplomacy is over” urges one naive militarist — but of the existence of the real.

This is not to say that the several people who held out their selfie-sticks and filmed themselves saying emotional things at the peak of their weepy sincerity did not mean well. But the belief in the use of the symbol, the celebrity or the role model as something that can truly effect material change is almost complete.

Again. They mean very well and have devoted time and tears to what they believe to be action. That their aims are good is not in question. That they could do anything beyond expressing public grief is not in question. There was, in the case of the recent executions, very little that could be practically done.

But Brendan Cowell’s explanation — you can see him in the video, he’s the guy who asks our Prime Minister to show some eggplants — that he was heartbroken doesn’t really excuse this latest celebrity outpouring. Cowell and all the others in the video, despite their noble aims, are really only serving their own interests as functioning symbols in the language of celebrity hieroglyph.

That these people, like so many others, believe that “standing for” and representing a concept can lead beyond representation itself is peculiar. But entirely forgivable, I guess, in a world where a penis is also an eggplant.


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13 thoughts on “Emoji as identity politics (and your dick doesn’t look like an eggplant)

  1. cave

    another great one Helen

  2. Jeff Waugh

    The early emoji representations (on iOS and Android) were NOT yellow and absent of “racial categorisation”. They were predominantly white. Except for the guy with the turban.

    “White people as the default” is a thing we need to change throughout society. It happens to be very easy to change in the technology we use, but so rarely considered because so much of the technology we use is built or designed by… white guys. Those fabulous early Apple icons had greater diversity than you’d otherwise expect because they were designed by the great Susan Kare.

    The demand for representation is why the Unicode Consortium worked on modifiers. Today, you’ll see Duplo yellow “raceless” emoji until you choose a skin tone appropriate for what you’re trying to communicate.

    Being able to see yourself represented in the medium of the time isn’t mere symbolism.

  3. muruk

    Twenty years ago I lived in the Philippines with my Filipina wife. We bought our veges fresh each day from the lady vendors in the town market. Most days at least one of these ladies would hold up a selection of different sized fruits and ask my wife which one was the right size while looking in the general direction of my junk.

    I think this probably happens throughout SE Asia where skinny eggplants are usually the only ones available. That some people dont know that this veg is a dick is because of ignorance, and could I suggest, a hint of white supremacy.

  4. Helen Razer

    Hey, Jeff and thanks for your emoji literacy.
    While it’s true that emoji (which was not devised by white people) may have initially featured faces of a particular pale hue, is it not also true that its first real common appearance on the devices of the world was bright yellow?
    As for your charge that the representation can be more than “mere symbol”, well, my point is that symbols have to necessarily be symbols. There’s nothing “mere” about the symbolic.
    But the more faith we have that a representation of the social is or can change the social, the more entranced we become with the power of the icon itself.
    I am not dismissing people’s need to feel represented as petty nor would I for one moment question the real of racism. But to suggest that this can be meaningfully addressed or upturned by language and not, perhaps, just hidden by a sort of linguistic consolation prize is my concern.
    The idea that the symbolic has eclipsed the real is not mine alone, btw. And, again, is certainly not a view I hold because I think injustice is not a very real fact of life. I argue against the disappearance of the real because I believe it absolutely.

  5. Helen Razer

    @muruk for serious? Who could know all the local symbols for phallus? It’s not white supremacy to fail to have had your experience. It’s just an unfortunate lack of knowledge for all the fun, smutty things that the people of the planet do.

  6. old greybeard

    I would rather the PM behaved a little less like an eggplant. He is certainly showing every sign of being an eggplant head.

  7. Humphrey Bower

    Dear Helen, your critique of narcissism and identity politics is spot on. I would argue however that it springs from an overestimation of the imaginary rather than the symbolic function of language and representation. Celebrities are particularly prone to this when they fall captive to the commodification of their own image (including the image of their own words). This captivation is of course reinforced by the proliferation of mirrors in a media-saturated society of spectacle. The hysterical protest of the beautiful soul railing against the injustice of the world springs from the same illusion: that anything other than practical collective or individual action can effect real change. Such action is properly symbolic, rather than imaginary. For example: passing legislation in parliament, or pronouncing legal judgments in court. In short: we need effective symbolic action rather than imaginary posturing if we want to produce real change. By the way, I love emojii and aubergines but never confuse their imaginary, symbolic and real functions. Best Humphrey 😉

  8. Seb Tonkin

    Hi Helen,
    At the risk of spending too much time and effort on fact checking ’emoji literacy’, the status quo until the recent iPhone update was that most emoji faces were yellow. However, there was always a subset of I guess more ‘realistic’ faces (old man, baby, man in turban) which were not yellow but instead a pale pinkish hue (except, of course, man in turban). It’s these ones which have had other colour options added. The previously yellow ones are still yellow (you don’t even have the colour options for those).

  9. Seb Tonkin

    Is it particularly important? Probs not. But it was replacing a racial default, not a raceless one.

  10. Dogs breakfast

    I suspect that this is one of the signs of the impending apocalypse. All meaning is now gone.

    When John was tripping and then described the events of the apocalypse I’m sure he was just seeing the various ephemera of the modern day and couldn’t make any sense of them, and consequently the book of revelations reads like a bad trip.

    He was just describing modern communication methods.

  11. Dogs breakfast

    BTW, given that this is now considered something worthy of debate, the apocalypse can’t come quite soon enough.

    AFP and various spy agencies, please take that as a joke, it wasn’t a political manifesto.

  12. William Marshall

    Political correctness blah blah blah, the first emoji was actually this sort of thing :(:);( etc, yes, they are emotocons but they are the mother of all emoji, and yes, we are all in love with ourselves in some way!

  13. Norman Hanscombe

    Helen, as a distinguished “writer and broadcaster”, do you ever feel you could spend more time on socially important issues?


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