Infantilize Myself for $1.99? Yes, Thank You
A Feminist Defense of Mommy Emoji
The first I heard of EmojiMom, an app that adds a couple hundred “mom-themed emoji” to your keyboard, was in a tweet. Specifically, Anne Helen Petersen, a culture writer for BuzzFeed, typed, “these ‘real Mom emojis’ oscillate between truly disturbing and disgustingly cloying.” While I personally think that if the tiny images of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting are conveying “disturbing” and “cloying” they are doing their job just fine, I’m pretty sure that tweet was not intended to be a kudos.
Now that the Hairpin has published Julianne Tveten’s “Infantalize Yourself for Just $1.99” I’m going to do like the NYT Style Section and declare a trend of smart feminist writer-types characterizing, however obtusely, EmojiMom as embarrassing and vaguely Bad for Women.
Well, since nobody asked me, I’m going to take a Bold Internet Stand on this one and say, You know what? I kind of like these. (Not the fruit ones, though. Those are just dumb.) They are funny and sort of horrifying, as childbearing and child rearing often are. Are the images sanguine and cute-ified? Sure, but so is literally every other emoji. I mean, you’ve seen the emoji for shit? It’s smiling. All emoji have a sanitized aesthetic. The “leaking milk through my shirt” emoji no more infantilizes women than the squid emoji infantilizes cephalopods.
EmojiMom isn’t misogynistic or retrograde or infantilizing but the impulse to mock images depicting the parts of motherhood typically shielded from public view (in particular, the “truly disturbing” parts) maybe is.
Let’s take a look at how Tveten introduces the app creators — and, look, I realize that it’s not incidental that they are mothers and that it is not unreasonable for a writer to efficiently call attention to this fact. Still, it burns my fur to read this opening line: “Earlier this month, a trio of mothers — Sarah Robinson, Natalie Ralston, and Hannah Hudson — released EmojiMom, a $1.99 iOS keyboard containing 250 parenthood-themed emojis.” A trio of mothers. While technically accurate and better, one presumes, than calling them a gaggle of mommies, it’s a little cute. I have trouble imagining anyone (ever, but especially in an article about a product or business they’ve launched) referring to three male business partners as “a trio of fathers.”
I don’t know if Julianne Tveten or Anne Helen Peterson have children or not and I don’t think it matters (personal experience has never been a requisite to forming an opinion, and, besides, I am totally willing to accept that other people’s experience of pregnancy and birth might be way less filled with self-alienation and trauma than my own) except for my sneaking suspicion that what its critics find off-putting about EmojiMom is less about the signifiers and more about the referents (i.e. women and their disgusting bleeding procreative bodies). A (male) Tweeter replied to Petersen asking if he was correctly reading one of the images as “a still attached umbilical cord taped to the Mom’s back.” He was not. The image is of an epidural, a procedure in which a thin, flexible tube is inserted into the the lower spine to deliver anesthetic during labor and is taped down to keep it in place. If you’ve never seen one yourself, you could do a lot worse than to look to the epidural emoji for a visual. Yet the image, which is neither graphic nor especially cutesy, of this common procedure, to Petersen, is “STILL NOT OKAY.”
Like the male tweeter, Tveten, the author of the Hairpin piece, in trying to point out how disturbing — or in this case, infantilizing — the EmojiMom emoji are ends up revealing her own blind-spot, certainly in terms of certain technical aspects of modern reproduction and possibly in terms of a more beneath-the-surface bias. Tveten writes, “While EmojiMom is admirable in theory, it’s bizarre at best, and condescending at worst, in practice.” She offers as evidence for this claim, “One of its icons depicts a needle permeating an egg in a Petri dish above a dark-blue label reading “IVF”; its friendly, glossy roundness befits a Pixar scene.” Which, I guess? It’s also a fairly accurate image of what IVF looks like under the microscope.
Look, I get that that Tveten’s point isn’t really about EmojiMom. She’s saying something about cute tech and emotional manipulation and the dumbing down and brandification of personal expression in a bigger and more general way. But EmojiMom is a weird place to start. She asks, “Is it right to capitalize on the momentum of a cartoon-as-word trend within a context as complex, and as physically and emotionally daunting, as pregnancy and motherhood? Should profound levels of joy, fulfillment, pain, and anxiety find digital representation in doe-eyed faces and soft pastels?” I don’t know. But I do know that while motherhood can be daunting and profound it can also be boring, amusing, surprising, funny, mundane, a bit gross, etc. It might take a personal essay for me to navigate the competing claims of being a caretaker and a breadwinner, but if I just want to express the momentary high-octane frustration at knocking over a bottle of pumped milk, an emoji will do just fine.
We all use language to navigate our way between the idiosyncratic specificity of our own minds and bodies and the universal, communally shared understandings implied by a common vocabulary. Motherhood, with its body horrors and its loss of control and its moments of deep wonder and love, may sometimes feel so singular to us as to be freakish, but it is among the most common experiences in the world. A mesh hospital panty is as common as a gas pump, a breast pump is as common as a file cabinet, mastitis at least as common as a dragon. For better or for worse, emojis are part our language now, and I’m in favor, always, of women wresting control of language, bending it and expanding it, to serve their needs and express their experiences.
Tveten concludes that, “parenting — and the autonomy, resilience, and judgment it demands — warrants more nuanced recognition.” But elevating (or cloistering) mothering doesn’t typically and hasn’t historically done much to give voice to women’s actual experiences. We don’t need to reserve talk about the daily experiences of motherhood for registers so subtle nobody can hear them.