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The internet’s fight over dinosaur emoji

Emoji might not be 66 million years old, but they are pretty much everywhere. Join Ben and Amory as they explore the history of dinosaur emoji in LGBTQ+ communities and their more recent use as an online dog-whistle for anti-trans activists. What happens when one symbol is used for conflicting reasons? And can the dinosaur emoji avoid redefinition — or extinction?

Thanks to Dane Grey for this week’s artwork. You can find more of their work on Instagram or Redbubble.  

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Ben Brock Johnson: All right, so Amory, can you read this incredible piece of literature?

Amory Siverston: We’ve got a telephone little dude making some kind of expression with his mouth open, but I can’t really see what the eyes are doing. Got a sailboat, little whale. And…

Ben: Just just for the record, just for the record, I’m not asking you to literally repeat the emoji. I’m asking you to read this. Because it is an incredible piece of literature.

Amory: Well, the first line of it looks like Moby Dick.

Ben: Hmmm! How would you translate it?

Amory: First line says, “got a bad phone call, I got to get on a boat and go see about a whale.”

Ben: So this is what you are looking at right now, Amory, is an excerpt of a translation, an emoji translation of the Herman Melville classic Moby Dick or The Whale.

Amory: Hmm. Mm-hmm.

Ben: And it’s called Emoji Dick.

Amory: (Laughs.)

Ben: This was admittedly years ago. And the book was translated by people all over the world. And what’s interesting here is that they actually translated some of the same words differently in emoji. Like Queequeg or the whale or the sea. And you know what this is like. Like, so do you know the hot and sweaty, red-faced emoji with its tongue out?

Ben: What does that one mean to you?

Amory: That, to me, is it’s a it’s a hot day and you’re cleaning out the garage and you’re like, Oh, this sucks, I’m so hot and I hate this so much.

Ben: I’m pretty sure that’s not how the kids use it.

Amory: Oh no.

Ben: I think the kids used that emoji as in like “this makes me horny.”

Amory: What?! It’s not the way we did it in my day.

Ben: So I want us to explore this. This specific thing that is happening with this specific set of emoji that’s really become this heated debate involving who gets to own the meaning of symbols, specifically the symbols that we all use to make meaning on our phones.

Ben: And the specific emoji that I want to talk about today, Amory, is not the eggplant emoji. Not the hot and bothered emoji, or cleaning out your garage.

But I want to talk about the T. rex and brachiosaurus emoji.

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson.

Ben: I’m Ben Brachiosaurus Johnson. And … from WBUR, Boston’s NPR Station … you’re listening to Endless Thread.

Amory: 2022 BABY!

Ben: And we’re gonna start with this one: The saga of those innocent little dinosaur emoji that ended up getting used for something not so innocent.

Amory: And what the tug-of-war over the meaning of these dinos … the tiny-armed green tyrannosaurus … and their goose-necked sidekick and prey, the blue brachiosaurus … or brontosaurus … or apatosaurus … WHAT the meaning of these dinos tells us about how we use symbols.

Ben: So, to understand this dinosaur emoji story, we thought we should start with a little dinosaur knowledge. So, Amory. Join me on this chopper to Isla Nublar?

Amory: (Sings.)

Ben: (Sings).

Amory: When did you first become interested in dinosaurs?  

Ben: Was it the Cretaceous or? 

Riley Black: I’m 38, so going backwards that would be… (LAUGHS) 

Amory: This is Riley Black.

Riley: I’m a science journalist and author. I’ve written books like Skeleton Keys and The Last Days of the Dinosaurs

Ben: Riley LOVES her some dinos.

Riley: Big and loud, for whatever reason, was my jam. 

Amory: Like when she was five and visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Her first encounter.

Riley: at the time, it was very dark and it was dim, very moody. And just seeing these skeletons that were so much bigger than I was, you know, seeing them in that kind of ghostly light and thinking about what did they look like, what did they sound like, what did they eat? I remember being very struck, standing in the shadow of a brontosaurus skeleton thing. Like, what did it sound when it breathed that sound of just like life coming out of this animal out of these old bones?

Ben: Now, she digs for fossils professionally. She writes about it and tweets about it. Online, she exists in multiple worlds. And multiple dinosaur communities.

Riley: A lot of it is very professionalized people talking about their new papers and new studies coming out in their latest field expedition. There’s also a broader community of dinosaur and paleontology enthusiasts, people who just like to know more, or they were inspired by Jurassic Park, and they want to find out the real stories behind these animals. And the number of paleo-artists on social media right now is astounding… 

Amory: If you look through some of this paleo art, it is astounding. Some of these things look real. A feathered sinosauropteryx, which kind of looks like a lemur-duck hybrid and it kinda looks like it was caught on camera.

But within this group of dinosaur artists and enthusiasts — or, overlapping with this group — there’s another subset of people.

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Riley: Many people who are queer, whether they are trans or some other form of gender, queer or whatever it is…We love dinosaurs.

Ben: Along with being a dinosaur expert, Riley is, herself, transgender. And according to Riley, there is a whole community of genderqueer dinosaur enthusiasts online. We had no idea. So we checked it out. Sure enough, they’re there. We found dozens of paleoartists online that identify as queer.

Amory: Type “dinosaur” into the LGBT subreddit. Hundreds of results, with pride dinos, rainbow dinos, dino moms, dino dads, and a LOT of puns. Like, Ally-saurus.

Ben: Trans-ceratops.

Amory: In 2018, the Twitter account for SUE the T. rex — one of the world’s most famous dinosaurs, held at the Field Museum in Chicago — that account updated SUE’s bio to include the dinosaur’s pronouns: they/them.

Trans pride dinosaur by Dane Grey. You can find more of their work on Instagram, @danegreyart.
Trans pride dinosaur by Dane Grey. You can find more of their work on Instagram, @danegreyart.

Ben: What’s the connection between people who identify as genderqueer and dinosaurs?

Riley: I am not entirely sure why this is an aspect of social psychology. I think that has not been plumbed as yet. 

Ben: Social psychologists, please get plumbing. Because we’re not sure why either. Dinosaurs have been around for a while…just like the LGBTQ community.

Amory: And, if you remember your elementary school science class… or Jurassic Park … you’ll recall that dinosaurs are all around. Because birds are dinosaurs. And Riley says that fact may be part of the draw for transgender people.

Riley: And I think that aspect of falling into more than one category at once and some of these threads of sort of transformation through time are just naturally appealing to people like me and other people in the trans community. 

Ben: This community might not be gigantic. But it is strong and undeniably present. And along with art and expressions of pride, you will definitely see dino emoji.

​​Ben: Were you using the dinosaur emoji relatively frequently before all of this stuff happened?  

Riley: Yeah, I mean, I would use dinosaur emojis for emphasis just to share things I was excited about, especially when paired with other emojis like I have a book that’s coming out in April about the extinction of the dinosaurs that occurred 66 million years ago. Whenever I talk about it, I use a little dinosaur emoji, a comet emoji, a plant emoji and a raccoon emoji to kind of tell that story of like the dinosaurs going extinct and plants and mammals coming back afterwards and just having fun like with storytelling. 

Amory: But a few months ago, Riley started to see dinosaur emoji that weren’t so fun.

Riley: I think my initial knee-jerk reaction, um, was just like, Well, you can’t have them. Like dinosaurs are ours.  

Ben: The T. Rex and brachiosaurus were showing up in the profiles of a different online community. Kind of as a badge. A dog whistle to say to others within that community: I’m one of you.

Riley: It really just made zero sense to me whatsoever in terms of like, you know, they could have picked anything else and it might have made a little bit more sense to me. 

Amory: Riley refers to the group of co-opters as TERFs, as in T-E-R-F. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, who call themselves “gender critical.” In other words, anti-trans.

Broadly speaking, TERFs promote the idea that trans women are really men—that, unlike cisgender women, trans women have benefited from being a part of the patriarchy and thus are a threat to cis women. Above all, they say that, unlike sex, gender identity is an ideology and is not grounded in science. We’ll come back to this.

Ben: You may recall the most famous or infamous person associated with TERF ideology is J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author. Among other things, in 2020, she published a 3700-word essay defending her belief that the term “‘woman’ as a political and biological class” was being “eroded” by people who refer to trans women as women.

Anyway, TERFs using dinosaur emoji was a problem for Riley.

Riley: To see, you know, our social enemies for lack of a better term taking, you know, these symbols and trying to use it as their dog whistle, it was something where it’s just like, Where’s this even coming from? This makes zero sense. And also dinosaurs are ours. I hate to speak for the entire trans or genderqueer community but, like, no. We’ve already been wondering about them and drawing them and interested. 

Amory: No matter who you are, if you see something beloved taken over by someone else, that can be hard. Suddenly, genderqueer fans of dinos everywhere felt under attack as TERFs kept dropping the emoji into their feeds.

Ben: And we know how these things go. Just think of Pepe the frog. Or the Punisher skull. Or the swastika. When outsider groups latch onto a symbol, that symbol is often changed. Irrevocably.

But emoji rex and brachiosaurus? It’s more complicated. Because Riley and others refused to let go.

More on that in 66 million…microseconds.

[SPONSOR BREAK] 

Ben: It’s not clear if TERFs knew they were co-opting something beloved to this slice of the genderqueer community. As far as we can tell, dinosaur emoji began showing up in anti-trans Twitter bios around October of last year.

And the catalyst may have been the UK’s Parliament… which reminds one of Muppets in more ways than one.

David Lammy: Denied their rights in this country under her watch. (Hearrr.)

Lammy: Once enslaved, then colonized, then repatriated. (Hearrr.)

Lammy: When will Black lives matter once again? (Hearrrrr.)

Amory: David Lammy is a liberal MP. He’s also a shadow secretary. His job is to criticize the conservative government. To stir up controversy, in a way. He’s good at it.

Ben: And back in September, Lammy was asked in a meeting about transgender rights. So, he responded … calling out his colleagues on the right and in his own party for being anti-trans. He called them dinosaurs. As in, behind the times.

Amory: This was not big news. Except on Twitter, where a little pocket of the internet was blowing up. TERFs were offended by the analogy. And then, they embraced it.

Like one person who goes by the handle @LilyLilyMaynard. She started tweeting videos of her fellow TERFs outside the Labour Party’s headquarters.

Ben: They’re dressed in cheap, inflatable dinosaur costumes, singing off-key about genitals, which, we’re not going to play for obvious reasons. But if you Google “Labour Party Head Office,” the main image representing the building is of these dinosaurs. It would be comical… if it weren’t in service of one group rejecting another’s identity.

Jeremy Burge: I feel like the first time we really saw the double meaning of the emoji has to be the eggplant.  

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Amory: There is one guy you have to call if you want to understand emoji.

Jeremy: They felt like an odd choice to put on the emoji keyboard, so people kind of immediately saw that and said, “That’s funny. That now means a penis.”

Ben: Say hello to Jeremy Burge.

Jeremy: And I’m the founder and chief emoji officer at Emojipedia.  

Ben: What does that mean?

Jeremy: That’s a good question, what does it mean? Emojipedia describes every emoji, what it looks like, what it looks like on all platforms. And for me, I oversee a small team of people who do exactly that describe how people use emojis and how they evolve over time. 

Amory: We asked Jeremy, how common is this? Emoji double-meanings used like a badge…

Jeremy: These days, we have plenty of alternative meanings that you do see Twitter bios, people put an emoji up. There is sort of an identity. You’ll see the American flag is quite popular among generally conservative Americans. There’s a rose emoji which fans of Bernie Sanders and sort of us style democratic socialism in general. You’ll see them put that in their Twitter bio, and then you get other really niche sorts of ones in Australia. That was a big water scandal, and people started putting a water drop in their Twitter bio, and I don’t know. You find that maybe a more aggressive group of people start using it and then you can’t use that in your bio anymore because you feel like you’ll be grouped in with people you don’t want to be. 

Ben: Amory did you know about all those?

Amory: Ben, did I know about any of those?

Ben: Well I’ve got news. Jeremy had like…SO many more examples. And most of them are…not surprisingly…related to sex.

Jeremy: The ear of corn. It rhymes with porn. 

Jeremy: The bowl of noodles gets used for sending nudes.

Ben: Some of this stuff is just silly… And sometimes it’s about getting around censorship on platforms or apps like TikTok. But it can also be about things that are more insidious.

Jeremy: I think one big topic in the last few years has been the what the OK hand sign.

Amory: The one with a thumb and index finger forming a circle meaning “All is well.” In 2017, some 4chan users created a hoax falsely claiming that the emoji had been co-opted by white supremacists. And then… it was. White supremacists really did co-opt the OK symbol.

Jeremy: It evolved and became real. And then you have to make a decision along the way. If we are Emojipedia, do we say this does or doesn’t mean white supremacy? And there’s no good answer to that. 

Ben: No good answer because, as Jeremy sees it, if the *official encyclopedia of emoji* doesn’t recognize sinister double-meanings, then it’s ignoring reality. … Like if the dictionary only defined “swastika” as a religious icon. But if Emojipedia does, then it could legitimize how hate groups use emoji … and permanently ruin them for everybody else.

In the end, Jeremy did update the definition of the OK emoji and said it could be used as a symbol of white supremacy, “depending on context.”

Amory: Jeremy’s job as the founder of Emojipedia has landed him another job. As a voting member of the Unicode Consortium, the group of tech companies and organizations that decide which emoji get added…and which get changed.

Ben: Can you go back to the beginning like the Big Bang of emoji?

Jeremy: Uh, if you cast your mind back to the late 90s, we didn’t have smartphones. They were all basic feature phones. Most of them were black and white. And this is the same in Japan. But they realized that, hey, we could send a bit more information. And they were mostly used the original emoji sets we’re talking 1997 through 1999 here. The first one we could find is a heart, and then it evolved to be things like clocks for timetables and weather icons.

Ben: Over time these emoji have grown as a set of characters. And they’ve conveyed even more meaning and emotion. The Unicode Consortium by the way was founded even before emoji were invented…back in 1991. And in my opinion, the Unicode consortium has had a massive impact on how we communicate. Because its work, really, is to standardize characters in software on computers everywhere. So that around the globe, we can communicate–no matter who we are, where we are, and what language we speak. Emoji are a part of this slow global standardization of computerized communication. Which is relevant when you realize that, even still, eggplant isn’t actually what someone means when they use the eggplant emoji.

Amory: Sooooo, back to the dinosaur fight, which may have been particularly poignant because Unicode has always struggled with emoji that suggest gender identity.

Jeremy: It’s been a big issue where a lot of the original emojis were men. If they had jobs and then the ones that didn’t do anything meaningful, that sort of had, they were doing gestures, were mostly women. 

Ben: I.E. Police-MAN. Or WOMAN getting a haircut.

Jeremy: and there were a few, I don’t want to say missteps, but in retrospect, there was a lot of early attempts to fix this by adding counterparts. Where, for instance, there was a princess but no prince. So that was sort of a binary added where if there was a woman, you’d get a man. And if there was a man, there was a woman. But we were left with this position where you couldn’t just say, I’m going to the doctor and send an emoji of a doctor you had to pick. Is it a woman doctor or a man doctor? Which it was well-intentioned, I think. But it ended up with us having to say, well, what is the gender of everyone with an emoji? 

Amory: Unicode added a gender-neutral, gender non-conforming person to its emoji set in 2017. That was the same year that Unicode received its first proposal for a transgender flag emoji.

Jeremy: There was a petition about the fact that the lobster emoji had been approved and why was there no trans flag emoji as in sort of implying that, you know, why should lobsters get their own emoji when transgender people can’t get their own emoji? 

Ben: There were a handful of proposals for the transgender flag, actually. One was finally added in 2020. Bisexuality, asexuality, and lesbian flags have yet to appear. But while Unicode can add or change an emoji … it can’t tell people how to use it.

Ben: Back in October, Queer Twitter refused to let dinos go the way of the OK hand sign. Almost immediately, the community bombarded TERFs with takedowns and messages of trans pride.

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Amory: One tweet seemed to bring this fight out of its bubble. It came from a pro-trans cis woman named Courtney Milan. She’s a romance writer. But she also dabbles in creating emoji. And in a blow to the TERF community, she tweeted a simple message:

“These emoji dinosaurs ?? are both trans, I know this because I wrote the proposal to the Unicode Technical Committee asking for them.”

Ben: The Unicode Consortium doesn’t simply make emoji. People propose emoji. It’s a very official process.

Jeremy: they are technical documents and they are trying to make the case for an emoji, but there’s often little over-emphatic language, often used about why it’s essential this emoji be added and what the real thing is.

Amory: Courtney Milan proposed the first *set* of dinosaur emoji back in 2016. A T. rex, a brontosaurus, and a triceratops. Her proposal is eight pages long, with charts showing how often people search for dinosaur emoji online. Or how many books are about dinosaurs. (There are about 500 identified as “Dinosaur Erotica.”) It includes potential meanings for the emoji … including, interestingly, someone who has “failed to adapt to the times.”

Ben: Courtney was arguing that because she created these dinosaurs, she determined their gender. And she determined that they were transgender.

Does Courtney’s original proposal say the dinos are, in fact, trans?

Jeremy: No, I didn’t see anything in the proposal, that really makes that case. 

Amory: But that doesn’t mean the person proposing can’t declare they are. We’ve tried to ask Courtney about this. She hasn’t agreed to talk to us yet. Riley, for her part…wants us to remember that whatever we may think about the gender or sex of dinosaur emoji on Twitter…we should remember that the millions and millions of years of evolution in biological nature on planet Earth…tells a story that is a little more nuanced.

Riley: So we don’t know what determines the biological sex of non-avian dinosaurs as in like Triceratops and T. Rex, the ones that we love that went extinct 66 million years ago.

Ben: Right.

Riley: Because we don’t have the genetics, so we don’t know whether it was genetically determined or today, for example, some of their closest living relatives, like alligators and crocodiles, have temperature-dependent sex determination, so the temperature of the nest determines whether more males or females are going to be born. There are some birds that might have hormonal shifts during their life that make them present and behave differently. And the relevance there is that tells us that what we think of as biological sex isn’t binary, and it’s much more malleable than we ever really understood. 

Amory: In other words, in Earth’s larger history, non-binary is way more common than people think.

Ben: Speaking of which, one of the sickest burns made in the Twitter battle, pointed out something else the TERFS should maybe remember when they post their dinosaur emoji.

Amory: This is the Jurassic Park plot point that I have to say. I completely forgot about that. Yeah, I don’t even remember. 

Ben: It’s so awesome, though it’s it is. 

Amory: It is, but I don’t. I don’t. I don’t remember the discussion of the dinosaurs changing sex.

Ben: Well, if you don’t remember, Amory, hold on to your butts.

Riley: Oh. 

Ben: The people who open Jurassic Park, in an effort to prevent the breeding of the dinosaurs…make all of the dinosaurs female.

But in their DNA cocktail when they’re genetically engineering the dinos…they splice in some Frog DNA. And some frog species, well … they can spontaneously change sex.

Riley: Even though it might be a little bit annoying sometimes to have people relate the transgender experience to animals that just happened to switch sexes for whatever reason. You know, we do joke around that like those are trans dinosaurs. That’s a major plot point of that movie is that they change sex and wreak havoc. And the sense that, you know, we’re this trans menace in this current political moment where all this attention is being put on us and we’re treated with so much distrust and sort of suspicion that it’s a way to jokingly lean into that. I think a little bit and say, OK, like if you think I’m basically a monster, I might as well be, you know, a toothy monster and run amok in some degree and the few bits of sort of representation that that we got become very dear to us. 

Amory: Unlike so many other failed attempts to save a symbol, the push against anti-trans use of the dinosaur emoji…it seems to have worked.

Ben: Some TERFs still have dinosaurs in their profile, sure. But there are so many other people pairing the dinos with messages of pride … or just using them in the most literal sense. And you know you might have something very specific to the TERFs who tried to use the emoji as a symbol of trans hate.

[Ian Malcolm: Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.]

Amory: And that might suggest that in the continuing evolution of the meaning of the dinosaur emoji—let alone broader opinions—people who try to use the symbols of dinosaurs for hate might be right in one way.

Their attitudes might be in  store for some extinction.

Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.

Ben: Want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content, Amory’s T-Rex impressions? My Brachiosaurus fanfic? Join our email list! You’ll find it at wbur.org/endlessthread.

Amory: This episode was written and produced by Dean Russell and Ben Brock Johnson. We are co-hosted by us… Amory Sivertson …

Ben: And Ben Brock Johnson. This episode was edited by Maureen McMurray.

Amory: Mix and Sound Design by Matt Reed. Original music in this episode also by Matt Reed.

Ben: Special thanks to, and additional production work from, Nora Saks, Kristin Torres, Quincy Walters and Rachel Carlson.

Amory: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and a just huge huge pile of triceratops poop. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email [email protected]

Ben: (Dinosaur roar.)

Amory: That was pretty darn good.

Ben: Thanks!

Amory: I could give it a go but don’t–

Ben: You can do it.

Amory: I think I’m more of a velociraptor.

Ben: Let’s hear it.

Amory: (Dinosaur squawk.)

Ben: That’s good. I’ll take it.

Amory: Yeah.