Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Apple rolled out 328 new emojis on Monday, giving users the option to select ones that are non-binary. This means that people won’t have to identify as masculine or feminine when they choose their emojis. Why is this so important? Consider that gender is, in the end, a made-up convention– and compelling people (emoji users, for example) to make it relevant to everyday interactions hurts every one of us, no matter how we conceive of ourselves.
The most important reason it doesn’t make sense for people to have to select a gender when they use an emoji – or do most other things in life – is because gender doesn’t exist outside of our imaginations. While people are born with a sex based on their biological characteristics, gender is a social construct. In her 1990 book “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,” feminist philosopher Judith Butler famously argued that gender is actually a kind of social performance. From our earliest years, boys are taught to be aggressive and competitive while girls are taught to be caring and nurture relationships. True, biological differences play a role in our behavior since testosterone is linked to more aggressive actions, but such differences are blown out of all proportion by social expectations.
Apple has done the right thing by giving its users the option to remove the concept of gender, which is obviously irrelevant to the use of emojis. Now it’s time for other organizations to follow its lead. Companies, non-profits and governments should consider whether they’re asking people to identify their genders and whether doing so is necessary. Most of the time, the answer will be no. There may be a legitimate medical reason for a doctor to ask questions about a person’s sex – or it might make sense for a dating app to match people based upon certain characteristics. But, most of the time, it’s not germane.
Making gender part of the equation in situations like casual online communication is a problem for two reasons. First, not everyone identifies as male or female. Some people, for example, identify as being gender fluid, as having no gender, as having more than one gender, or reject the concept of gender altogether. In addition, some identify as having a gender that does not match their sex (so some men identify as female and some women identify as male). Asking such people to choose whether they are male or female in order to use an emoji to, for example, indicate that they are juggling, or face-palming or any number of the cute, shorthand pictures we use to communicate is obviously discriminatory.
But it’s also unfair to people whose gender does match their sex. That’s because consistently reinforcing gender shores up stereotypes that aren’t helpful to anyone. The stereotypical aggressive male would be a healthier person if he focused more on relationships. The stereotypical relationship-centered woman would be better off making sure that her own needs are met while caring for everyone around her. And no one should feel forced to conform to social expectations that don’t match their own interests, feelings or needs.
Making gender a part of emojis is also absurd because gender should have nothing to do with the use of an image to electronically convey one’s emotion. But including gender in emojis could subconsciously encourage people to use them in gendered ways. So, a woman using a female emoji might then express more stereotypically female emotions, and vice versa.
A person’s gender, incidentally, also isn’t relevant when they, say, buy an airline ticket or register to vote. So we simply shouldn’t be asked for it. But it’s a ubiquitous box that we’re asked to tick all the time.
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Gender is not a concept that should be relevant to most social or professional interactions. But the more that organizations pretend that it is, the more the rest of us may keep performing accordingly. That’s unfair to everyone, no matter how we identify.