For a long time, a taco was one of the planet’s most requested emoji. And last week, the Unicode consortium–gatekeeper of all standard emoji–made our dream come true. It released a hard shell taco emoji with shredded iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese, and tomato. It was a win for Taco Bell–who actually petitioned for a taco emoji–and Tex-Mex cuisine. But to the publication LA Taco, it was a snub to authenticity.
Where were the soft masa tortillas, cilantro, and onion championed by a more traditional Mexican taco? “This is almost like if Doritos Locos Tacos appeared in Webster’s Dictionary as an exemplary form of the dish,” they write.
It’s a little hilarious to see a fellow taco snob get up in arms about a hard shell taco, but LA Taco’s rant gets right to the heart of the biggest problem with emoji. They serve as logos for the things we all talk about–from poo, to sushi, to alarms, to crying while laughing, to ghosts who wear eye patches. But the very idea of a logo–one image to represent everything–is at odds with the diversity of the human experience.
Maybe this sounds like I’m taking emoji too seriously. But over the past few years, emoji have evolved. They’re largely cartoon jokes, sure, but they’re also a very real part of our vocabulary. And it’s not just about text messaging or Twitter. Last week, I witnessed a conversation on Twitter where a designer at the BBC expressed jealousy over BuzzFeed‘s slicker emoji integration. Heck, the NYT uses emoji in headlines now. Emoji have ascended to shape and depict culture at the mass media scale, just as the use of any word might.
What was unexpected, though, and so apparent in the LA Taco rant, is that we now look at the taco emoji in the same way we did a lack of same sex relationships or racially diversity in our emoji. Fundamentally, the complaint that “a hard shell taco doesn’t respect the culinary heritage of Mexico” is the same as “there’s no way for a Filipino dude to send a thumbs up without looking white.”
The solution that companies like Apple have adopted is to offer more options. Don’t just give us one family emoji. Give us a family emoji that can have a dad and a mom, two dads, or two moms. And then give them the option for one boy child, one girl child, a boy and a girl children, two boys, or two girls.
When I first pulled up these family emoji on my iPhone, I was so happy. What a moment for civil rights this was! And then directly after that I thought, what if a family has three kids? Or what if a family has just one parent? (I’d also add, or what if the family is of a diverse racial makeup, but iOS locks family skin color to universal Simpsons yellow, potentially to sidestep that very issue.) Herein lies the problem: Offering more emoji options will never respect every minority or subculture, yet in a sense, offering more options just makes the missing options that much more insulting.
Imagine if the NYT could use “same sex parents” in a headline, but not “single parent.” That’s the odd place we’re at with emoji today–in this chasm between universal logo and hyperspecific label. But now that the dam has been breached, and we’ve embraced a few specific emoji in the interest of inclusion, I say screw it: Let’s just draw every permutation and sub-permutation of emoji possible. Give me my hard shell gringo taco, my beloved corn tortilla filled with al pastor, my taco plate, and my enchiladas covered with Oaxacan mole.
Because everybody poops. But we all have very different and meaningful taste in tacos.