Unless you have a small child and cater to their every whim, you probably didn’t see The Emoji Movie. Released last summer by Columbia Studios, it tells the story of Gene, a “meh” emoji who is terrible at his job and has to reckon with the consequences. It isn’t Gene’s fault, it’s the world around him, and in the end Gene is vindicated and saves the day. But this happy ending, which offers no real closure, caps off a wan, cynical film that comes to some pretty disturbing conclusions about labor, technology, and the role corporate interests play in our daily lives.
If no one had seen The Emoji Movie, its politics wouldn’t matter in the least. The problem is, a lot of people did. While The Emoji Movie was poorly reviewed—its Rotten Tomatoes score is a stunning 9 percent—it grossed more than $215 million worldwide in the theaters and continues going strong (as of this week, it was the 11th most popular movie on iTunes). For adults, The Emoji Movie was a throwaway. But its intended audience was the grade school set. When discussing cultural production, we often ignore media aimed exclusively at an audience this young—when, for obvious reasons, we have every reason to be concerned with what messages (no pun intended) they’re receiving.
The yellow creatures live together in Textopolis, an urban community where they are expected to always be “on” or in character.
The Emoji Movie paints a drab, if not quite bleak, picture of a working emoji’s life. The yellow creatures live together in Textopolis, a non-descript urban community where they are expected to always be “on” or in character. If they have any feeling that’s not in line with their identity—essentially, their vocation—they’re expected to suppress it. Any failure to abide by their designated emotional script is considered socially unacceptable and unprofessional. There’s an unsettling conflation here of vocational drudgery and broader social acceptance: the emojis all understand that their job is to be one-dimensional, and they’re only qualified for employment if they never break character. There’s a level of respect that comes with “making it” and the desire to gain this entirely other-directed brand of success permeates, even defines, their everyday existence.
Enter Gene, the misfit who doesn’t just feel a broad range of emotions. His appearance, i.e. identity, shifts from moment to moment—a condition that, in the world of emojis, makes him dysfunctional. His behavior on the street throws his peers into consternation, and when he finally gets a slot on the great social-media keyboard that distributes his surplus emotional labor value, he bungles it royally: instead of hewing to a strict identity and fulfilling his role, Gene spits back a mutant, multi-faceted emoji that falls outside linguistic bounds. For reasons that never really become clear, Gene’s sin threatens the entire community, and therefore he must be hunted down destroyed. If this sounds a tad melodramatic, it also points to just how hard emojis have it.
So far, The Emoji Movie is fairly benign. Following the script of many a kids’ film (or classic fairy tale, for that matter) it places individuality in opposition to community. This core thematic tension poses all kinds of problems—but it also stresses the pitfalls of alienated labor and, going one step further, its deleterious effect on life outside of the workplace. Gene goes on the run, joined first by Hi-5, a “waving hand” emoji whose popularity has waned, and then by the mysterious hacker Jailbreak, who turns out to be a princess emoji in disguise. Hi-5 belongs to an earlier era of communication and has aged out of the work force. He apparently has no better option than to tag along with Gene. The hacker, obviously, has rejected a role assigned to her based gender rather than her own distinctive skill set.
That central theme—of workers looking to escape a system that dehumanizes, even threatens them, for balking at the present order—is fine and good. (Indeed, since there’s precious little originality in the vast complex of kid-themed entertainment, you can readily see a far better treatment of the same themes in the 2014 blockbuster The Lego Movie.) But as the emojis’ self-rescue mission unspools, something very sinister happens: a light critique of capitalism becomes a full-throated endorsement of its wonders.
Gene’s goal is to reach The Cloud, where he can upload himself, escape the confines of the phone, and achieve immortality. With dark forces out to get him, uploading himself is the only way to guarantee survival. Of course, as we who are consigned to the drudgery-laden dependence on our own smartphones know, the cloud will save Gene’s ass in the event of any kind of deletion. But there’s a larger concern here. The panic in Textopolis stems from a fear that, if viewed as defective, the phone will be erased. Gene’s solution to his plight saves only him and does nothing to alter conditions for his would-be emoji comrades. It’s the opposite of solidarity and, if anything, looks a lot like Gene moving up in the world while leaving his fellow emojis behind.
From what we see of it, the Cloud is indeed a halcyon preserve of gadget-themed bliss, populated by more rarified iconographic beings of digital jouissance such as the Twitter bird. This cameo gets at what is plainly offensive about The Emoji Movie: The journey across the phone’s apps is a series of product placements. While Candy Crush is presented as potentially hazardous, at least for emoji who get trapped inside it, Spotify and Dropbox’s product benefits actually help. Spotify’s clear, discrete streams facilitate the urgent transportation of emojis away from more hazardous platforms, and Dropbox’s security protocols keep out the marauding robots out to get Gene. Never mind what these companies paid for these tacit endorsements and how such payouts must have shaped the film’s production and marketing. Consider instead the larger message of individual deliverance at the hands of digital monopolies. Yes, it’s true that the drone-like life of an emoji is entirely predicated on the Pavlovian scheme of emotional labor created by digital technology. But perversely enough, the young viewers of The Emoji Movie are told in no uncertain terms that for truly aspirational and success-minded inhabitants of this imaginary world—that is, for other sentient digital brands—technology isn’t the enemy at all. As both ideology and infrastructure, it’s the road to salvation.
The Emoji Movie ends on a deceptively rousing note. Faced with prospect of looming annihilation, the emojis get one last chance to prove their mettle—and mirabile dictu, Gene’s special gifts turn out to be the right fit at that pivotal moment. He’s finally recognized for who he is and becomes an example for others. But Gene hasn’t changed anything. The system has merely found a way to make him useful—and, in essence, to assimilate his inchoate critique of degraded emoji labor. Gene isn’t a rupture, he’s an update, an improvement on an existing form that plays very much into the phone’s functional needs. In other words, he’s spared because he’s become an asset rather than a liability. Emojis are no more empowered than they were before. If life changes for them, it will still be within parameters set by—well, whoever it is who ultimately lords over Textopolis. (Note: My money’s on the denizens of The Cloud.)
When Alex’s phone acts up, his social life falls into disarray. His interactions aren’t just mediated by technology, they’re dictated by it.
This may seem like an awfully cynical reading of a harmless bit of entertainment. But The Emoji Movie isn’t just allegory. The phone doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it belongs to a teen named Alex, and its functionality matters only insofar as it allows him to send cool texts that impress a girl he has a crush on. When Alex’s phone acts up, his social life falls into disarray. When Gene saves the day, Alex gets a date to the dance. His interactions aren’t just mediated by technology, they’re dictated by it, to the point where the two are inseparable and a phone with a “bug” also infects him as a person.
Against this backdrop, The Emoji Movie becomes truly sinister. The oppressed emojis, whether they realize it or not, determine this poor kid’s fate. And the same forces that control them and dictate their conditions also govern our behavior. A movie about apps may seem harmless. But that’s only because there are certain things we’d prefer not to admit about ourselves.
[*] A previous version of this article incorrectly described the emojis of The Emoji Movie as “limbless.” The characters do, in fact, have limbs.