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Sometimes, at the gynecologist’s or before a job interview, I get cozy with my iPhone, open iMessage — and swipe through emoji. Just swipe and look. Do we all do this? I like to think so. That slick red high heel. Those sweet little families. All so compact, so manageable.
One morning, the sky is gray and the news is tragic. Why not treat myself to a swipe-through, just for a minute? And this smoky déjà vu floats through me: I get vibes of Ross and Rachel, and Monica. And those people from Full House. Maybe Boy Meets World, too. But why?
The question dogs me. Why do emoji remind me of mostly white sitcoms from the 1990s?
So, later, I take a second look. And a third look. Okay, I just keep looking. It’s like eating Bugles or watching koala videos — you can keep going longer than is reasonable, longer than you want your neighbors to know.
It hits me. Part of the answer, at least, hits me.
That pleasant pink blouse? Those no-nonsense beige mules? And that woman, the recurring woman who says no, who pouts, who frowns, who gets pregnant, and who is helpful-slash-sassy? These Apple emoji have a ’90s aesthetic. They resemble the stripped-down, statement-free style of the sitcom characters that populated my weekends growing up. That polo is straight out of Full House. The man’s blue sweater and the woman’s purple one belong in Home Improvement. And that hair sure resembles Rachel’s more muted haircuts — swooping, glossy, perfect.
To be sure, not all clothed emoji, or emoji clothes, scream ’90s. There’s the kimono and the top hat, among others. The uniformed workers seem unattached to any time period, and the athletes look modern. Still, I see the ’90s reflected in emoji far more than I see other eras’ fashion reflected. We have three different ’90s-style handbags, but zero, say, septum rings (today’s fashion) or hoop skirts (antiquated fashion). What’s behind this?
“Many of the emoji came from the original Japanese sets,” the Unicode Consortium tells Racked. The Unicode Consortium is a nonprofit that ensures the uniformity of the representation of text in computers — including the friendly pandas and eggplants on your phone. As the organization explains, “Vendors may differ in their designs for emoji,” the reason an Apple taco emoji and a Google taco emoji look different — but both portray a taco, not a pupusa.
Down to the design level, Japanese emoji (a neologism from the Japanese e, “picture,” and moji, “character”) inform what pops up on our colorful keypads. “We actually used reference sets from the emoji designed by Japanese carriers to model ours on,” says Ollie Wagner, who created over 300 of Apple’s original set. Having a common model helps vendors keep the glyphs consistent, so that emoji from my iPhone land gracefully in your Android. (Ideally, anyway.) “Emoji is a font, so each character needs to communicate the same message,” Wagner explains. (Racked reached out to Apple about current designs, but has yet to hear back.)
So some beloved emoji are, in fact, descendants of early forebears. That red high heel? It’s derived from creator Shigetaka Kurita’s original set in 1999. As are each of those three handbags, all far more chunky and pixelated at their genesis. And the Woman Gesturing No was a Japanese pictograph before emoji were incorporated into the Unicode standard — in the early version, she sports a pink long-sleeve crew neck much like the purple sweater in my iPhone.
But did those early emoji more reflect ’90s fashion, or the time’s graphic limitations? My sense is they reflected both, as well as manga, dingbats, and other inspirations behind Kurita’s designs. To be sure, no one had the cast of Seinfeld in mind when crafting emoji. In any case, what fascinates me is that, despite evolution in both graphics and fashion, emoji still echo those simple early designs. Apple has received plenty of flak for what critics call hyper-realistic emoji, evolving, as BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel puts it, from “goofy yellow disembodied heads into increasingly lifelike, skeuomorphic three-dimensional characters.” And as Apple emoji grow more lifelike, they resemble Ross and Rachel (albeit with far more diversity than Friends ever had) more than the iOS 9 emoji did, and more than they resemble my own friends.
There are other factors, too. For Unicode emoji to translate across cultures and phone types, they can’t get too individualized — the Unicode Consortium instructs vendors not to deviate too far from any emoji’s “core shape.” This makes maintaining a normcore-like clothing style logical. Plus, on characters meant to embody us all, a nondescript look is all the better to project ourselves onto.
Still, I’ve found one reason for my sitcom déjà vu: the fashion really does evoke the decade of denim and Reeboks, minimalism and prep.
But I want to keep digging. There’s more to this.
Emoji are a big deal. They succeed Mesopotamian pictograms, hieroglyphs, and comic books in the long history of visual communication. Soon, these icons will number 2,382, including iterations such as skin colors. And the little dudes pack a communicative wallop, affording dexterity to the written word, clarifying some meaning and complicating others. They float around our lives like pixies, twinkling in work emails, across protest signs, on boxer briefs.
In short, they people our world — and they’re not even real people.
Can’t something similar be said of sitcom characters? Ubiquity and syndication made sitcoms integral to the cultural landscape. While our love for shows begins in front of the screen, “there exists a world of fandom and cultural resonance outside of the program itself,” says Mary Beth Haralovich, a film and television historian at the University of Arizona.
So it makes sense that sitcoms, like emoji, have interplay with everyday communication. (Case in point: reaction GIFs.) “Response from sitcom characters are like emoji; they encapsulate a reaction,” Haralovich explains. A response such as the classic “face palm” (the I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-that gesture common to TV and emoji) “expands the comic situation and invites an integration of audience — an integration into the pleasure of the sitcom format.” We’re invited to join in the buffoonery of sitcoms much the way we’re invited to join in the playfulness of widespread emoji use.
Like emoji, sitcoms at once simplify and exaggerate. They represent pieces of our world, but without messy complexity. “In Friends, the problems are all manageable,” says my real-life friend Jane. “And they’re usually resolved — by the characters — in 20 minutes.” Exaggeration extends to character flaws: We might see ourselves in Phoebe’s cluelessness and Chandler’s emotional distance, but we’re not that bad. Besides, their flaws are rendered lovable. Similarly, the parade of emoji, signaling emotions and concepts and objects, echoes real life, but they’re sillier and more compressed. Both emoji and sitcoms throw life back at us — but first, they make it more agreeable.
Isn’t it nice, viewing life as so tidy and bright?
Of course, with emoji, I lack the emotional bond sitcom fans have. My friend Rose says she loved the idea of chosen family and self-determination in Friends. “They are all very self-made,” she says, “and so it reinforces this hope of controlling the narrative without much respect to societal forces.” My favorite sweatered emoji lack that seductive power. They can be tools to tell stories, but aren’t stories themselves.
Doubtless, the ignorance that some ’90s sitcoms promoted can soil the experience. “When I watch [Friends] now I'm so horrified by the misogyny, homophobia, whitewashing, and fat shaming,” Rose says. Emoji, on the other hand, show strides, if imperfect, toward representing diversity.
And emoji are evolving. Come June, Emoji 5.0 will have gender-inclusive characters, breastfeeding women, and women with headscarves. In gender expression and cultural diversity, this set will better reflect my generation — and, actually, in aesthetic, too.
Last week, I watched Friends with my partner, who’s new to the show. Seeing a puzzled expression of Joey’s, he said, “That’s my face! That’s the face I make.” Then my partner broke into a Smiling Face with Squinting Eyes.
And it was, sort of, the face he makes. Comforting, to see it on the screen.
Comforting, too, to see that purple-sweatered woman on my iPhone. She’s like me, but more sensible and resilient, more endearing. More likely to have an unwrinkled shirt.