The longer that we live with emoji, the more disappointingly familiar they threaten to become. Slate has taken a firm and consistent line on the growing realism of these once abstract images: Last year, Zoe Mendelson chastised Apple for its increasingly realistic emoji keyboard, writing that its characters had grown, “way too lifelike, literal, objectively interpretable, and well, way less weird.” More recently, Ian Prasad Philbrick mourned the passing of Android’s peculiar blob emojis. And back in March, Christina Cauterucci surveyed some of iOS’s promised options, writing that emoji’s real power had once been its provocative imprecision, a quality that threatens to fade with each new addition.
Now that those iOS characters are almost here, however, it may be time to reconsider that line of reasoning, if only because many of them are still deeply, deeply strange. On Monday, Apple previewed some its new offerings, complete with a cutesy animated GIF. In what follows, we offer close readings of six of these soon-to-be iconic icons.
FACE WITH OPEN MOUTH VOMITING
It’s hard to imagine an emoji that we at Slate have wanted or needed more than this concise representation of queasy disgust. In Slack, the chat program we use for internal communications, we’ve employed a handful of substitutes to make up for its persistent absence, including a still of Peter from Family Guy throwing up. It’s an option that I’ve been loath to use, largely because the show itself does little to calm my stomach.
So despite its graphic qualities, this new emoji comes as a sort of relief, much as leaning over the toilet can when you have food poisoning. Look closely, however, and you’ll see that this image is still surprisingly strange. That veritable river of green spew seems to be peppered with tiny yellow and red dots of … something. It is as if our hero had attempted to Taste the Rainbow™, only to find that it disagreed with his digestive system. Will Skittles sue Apple? Only time will tell!
This emoji set, which comes in two genders and a variety of skin tones, feels less overdue, and less necessary, than its upchucking compatriot, but it may yet play an important role. It seems primed, of course, to appeal to the Lord of the Rings fan in us all, but in its wide-eyed wonder it seems poised to help us tell other stories. No mere reminder of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination, it might become an invitation to other adventures. I, for one, know what I’ll be texting to my old Dungeons and Dragons group when the time comes to get the gang back together for one last delve into the lost mine of Phandelver.
This is a good zebra. Nice stripes, strong pose. Great work, Apple.
Here we have another with fairly obvious applications. I can already imagine texting it to a friend, accompanied by a selfie of me standing beside Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist David Fahrenthold that I might someday take, my own mouth similarly agape with undisguised delight.
And yet, I can’t escape the way those outsized stars obscure the character’s eyes. Might we, perhaps, interpret this image as a subtle commentary on our cult of celebrity? Is there not a story here of the ways that our fascination with fame blinds us to the realities of our world? Despite its seemingly cheerful charms, perhaps this image is a grim indictment of the way we live now. Reader, this is nothing if not an artifact of an era that could have elected a manifestly incompetent businessman to the highest office in the land, just because he happened to have a successful television show.
Sometimes you need an emoji that simply says, “My. Mind. Is. Blown.” And until now we haven’t had one that fits the bill. Despite its grim implications at a time when the Doomsday Clock ticks toward midnight, the mushroom cloud that rises from this figure’s head finally satisfies that need.
Nevertheless, I find myself dwelling on the incidental debris that projects outward from the explosion. Those bits of emoji skull resemble nothing so much as a shattered shell, and yet there is no neural tissue in sight. The implication seems clear: Apple’s emoji faces, these characters we know and love, are as hollow within as painted Easter eggs. In this, there is a paradox of sorts: How can your mind be blown if you have no mind to blow?
Zombies serve many functions in our culture, but at best they are manifestations of pure, appetitive Id. They are hungry for our brains because they, monstrous embodiments of ugly drives that they are, have no mind of their own. How strange, then, that Apple’s zombie seems almost tentative. He reaches out, yes, but there’s something plaintive the way his eyes roll upward, as if he were asking your permission to come closer.
Here, I think, we learn the real lesson of Exploding Head. As he joins the pack, this zombie knows that he is already among his kin. In Apple’s emoji, there are no brains to eat.