Apple's Memoji Are Gender Neutral — Here's Why That Matters

Many adjectives are used to describe emoji — playful, silly, expressive — but progressive is not usually one of them.
Since Unicode, the non-profit that creates software standards across devices, officially adopted emoji in 2010, the process of approving and rolling out a more inclusive set of icons has been sluggish: A diverse range of skin tones was not introduced until 2015; same-sex couples were released that year, too, though there are still no skin tones beyond the default yellow; a woman wearing a hijab finally appeared in 2017's emoji set. Meanwhile, redheads and anyone with hair that's anything other than stick straight are still waiting for an accurate representation of themselves on keyboards.
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Of course, over the years, plenty of new, emoji-like avatars have popped up to address these gaps. Bitmoji have dominated this space since 2016 with a create-your-own approach that makes it easy for anyone to build a character in their image. But this year, two dominant device makers decided to disrupt the status quo. In February, Samsung revealed AR Emoji, a clever (and slightly creepy-looking) way to create interactive avatars that speak onscreen as you speak IRL. Yesterday, Apple revealed their version of the interactive emoji, called Memoji (i.e. Animoji, but make it human).
Besides looking cute, rather than creepy, Memoji have another major plus over their direct competitor: They don't require users to pick a gender. In fact, the entire creation process is gender neutral — there is no mention of male or female anywhere onscreen. This is an emoji set anyone can relate to, no matter how they identify, what their hair looks like, or even how many piercings they have.

The point is not that you need to create a character who looks exactly like you — it's that you have the option and ability to create a character you feel best represents you.

This is a big deal, especially now, because an increasing number of children and teenagers are identifying with more diverse, nontraditional gender identities. In California, for example, 27% of people ages 12 to 17 identify as gender nonconforming. When you create an AR Emoji on Samsung's Galaxy S9 or S9+, you are immediately asked to identify as male or female. The implication that identification is a prerequisite for getting an accurate avatar is not in line with Gen Z's increasing awareness of gender fluidity.
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On iOS 12 on the iPhone, on the other hand, there is no such choice required: You simply pick a skin tone (there are many options and each has a slider to let you choose the exact shade), then continue customising each feature, from freckles to helix piercings. All hairstyles are grouped together — longer hair, braids, and cornrows are towards the top, and you'll see variations of pixie cuts and shorter styles towards the bottom.
You are not limited to creating one Memoji: you could create thousands of combinations with the options provided. One avatar could have dangly earrings and a bald head; another could have a long beard and braids; a third could wear a hijab and bold red lipstick. The point is not that you need to create a character who looks exactly like you — it's that you have the option and ability to create a character you feel best represents you.
If you want pink skin with blue hair and grey highlights, so be it.
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