As much as pixels and animations can, emojis act as textual replacements for the social cues that body language gives us in physical interactions: the thrill of a small smile when talking to someone you love, the comfort of your best friend grinning as she breaks it to you that your thrifted clown pants are...not stylish. And yet, as much as they enrich conversation, the dictionary of available emojis has always severely lacked nuanced portrayals of women and people of color, implying that our realities are less worthy of representation. Emojis developed by female celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Amber Rose, and Blac Chyna, while flawed in various ways, are therefore much-needed feminist alternatives for communication.
For a long time, emojis only had a white skin tone option. As Roxane Gay wrote in emoji, a 2013 zine:
As a black woman, I can’t send my best friend, or anyone else, a thumbs up made by a brown hand that looks like mine…The unspoken message is that emoji are not meant to reflect a black reality or the reality of any person of color, because our realities simply don’t matter enough.
Apple attempted to create more inclusive emojis in a 2015 update that introduced six skin tone options. But, instead of creating a range of body shapes and types, the update allowed users to add brown and black skin tones to phenotypically white bodies, a Band-Aid solution implying that the narratives of people of color were simply those of white people with a little melanin added. What’s more, until an update in August, emojis were sorely missing representations of women in professional roles, instead only showing them painting their nails and getting haircuts.
Della Mosley recently wrote about how hip hop-identified youth perform gender online, specifically on Instagram. She and her colleagues found that social media platforms provide limited options for Black users to perform their identities.
“The range of performances of femininity and of Blackness in the world of emoji is limited. Women get to do nails or hair and dance and not much else," Mosley tells Complex. "And Black and brown bodies, at least on the iOS platform, merely perform the same roles as White bodies. While it is cool that I can change the police officer emoji's race, I would love to see a more inclusive design with emoji in roles that are not centered in White supremacy, heteronormativity, patriarchy, capitalism, and/or colonialism. I think these oversights come from our mobile culture's embedded-ness in these longstanding systems, but can be overcome by a more intentional analysis of how it currently shows up in emoji and the inclusion of more diverse design teams and emoji app creators.”
When many of the members of the voting body at Unicode, the company that makes Apple emojis, are engineers who are not necessarily trained to consider the semantic and political impact of emojis they design, it is not surprising that there are such glaring oversights in representation, and that they assume whiteness and maleness, the default identities represented in popular media. And, when emojis are not Apple’s primary selling point, they are not always quick to respond to user demands.
From this context of yawn-inducing images of what women and people of color say, do, and want to be, sprung Kimoji, the brainchild of businesswoman extraordinaire Kim Kardashian. As Kimoji are a business venture of their own, rather than a free add-on like traditional emojis, they are incredibly well-designed and are constantly evolving. Kim gives us gifs of herself dancing, shows us how she puts on makeup, references magazine covers and iconic moments from Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and regularly adds additional emojis for holidays.
Lindsey Weber, co-curator of The Emoji Art & Design Show, spoke with Complex about the differing motivations for Apple versus celebrities who create their own emojis.
“Emoji is not Apple’s main focus, so they’re not developing that [to the same extent]. The difference between emoji and Kimoji is that’s her business," Weber explains. "She’s charging you for that, she wants to please the customer, she wants to upgrade, she gives you what you want. But emoji on your Apple iPhone, that’s not the selling point of an iPhone. They give you that as a bonus. So they’re never responsible for talking to their customer and listening to us.”
Kimoji are another way for Kim to disseminate a brand product. To use a Kimoji in conversation is often to say, “I have an opinion on Kim Kardashian and I’m waiting for you to ask me about it.” Nevertheless, or perhaps because Kimoji are so explicitly branded and developed, Kimoji present us with an incredibly personalized product, one where Kim shows us what she wants us to see, and reminding us that hundreds of iterations of herself can exist simultaneously. What selfies are to those of us who want to casually assert our beauty and display self-love on Instagram, Kimoji are to Kim, who shows us in no uncertain terms that her representation of herself is worthy not only of celebration, but also of earning her money.
Kim is certainly a complicated figure, one whose feminist significance cannot be separated from her incredible privilege, and her emojis are not an exception. For every few sex-positive Kimoji or aspirational contouring guide images, there are also Kimoji where Kim appropriates black language, dancing, and culture, selecting aspects upon which she can capitalize without ever acknowledging that cultures from which she steals are not her own.
“I fear that the success of Kimoji will limit the presence of diversity within emoji created by women of color," Mosley writes. "[Kimoji] set a precedent in the style and content of emoji apps that would follow. [Emoji created by Amber Rose and Blac Chyna], like Kimoji, reflect a narrow range of values and identities. While there are a few emoji in these apps that have the potential to allow women of color to express themselves and their identity-based values in a way that traditional emoji don't (for example birth control and "tea time" emoji), these apps appear more likely to reinforce the same identities and roles for women of color than to expand upon them.”
And yet, it is not insignificant that women of color like Amber Rose and Blac Chyna are capitalizing off the emoji trend that Kim started and expanding the range of faces available to users who want to engage with the intersections of femininity and race.
Blac Chyna specifically hacked the Kardashian game of turning fame into more fame, despite the fact that she did not have the same connections or racial and class privileges they did. She ultimately secured her lifelong spot as a Kardashian by giving birth to a Kardashian child, even using ChyMoji to announce her pregnancy. Her ability to reclaim Kim’s problematic emoji app and use it towards building and celebrating her own empire is the ultimate example of her subversive power and business acumen.
In the worlds Rose and Chyna create, the intimacies of their narratives and dreams reign supreme.
In the worlds Rose and Chyna create, the intimacies of their narratives and dreams reign supreme. Chyna puts her face on a $20 bill and her name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, asserting that she belongs there. Foiled with these grander dreams are the specificities of her life—she likes surfing the internet on her couch; she’s a Beyoncé and Rihanna fan. Amber Rose similarly uses her emojis to get the last word on her relationship with Kanye West, one that is often discussed on his terms. She also uses the platform to comment on social justice issues like Ke$ha’s sexual assault case against Dr. Luke, Bill Cosby’s rape case, and LGBT pride.
Surely, the future of emoji as a site of resistance requires a radical departure from the general celebrations of wealth, heteronormativity, whiteness, and capitalism that are inherent to the construction of traditional emojis as well as of Kimoji, and that have established a framework for emojis created by other women. But it is exciting that the work of Blac Chyna, Amber Rose, and Kim Kardashian opens this space for consideration in varying degrees, showing that deviation is possible.