The Emoji Movie: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition

Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on What Went Wrong (besides everything) in The Emoji Movie!

Written by: Alec Opperman
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar

The Emoji Movie: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition

Hey Wisecrack. Disembodied Jared here. I’m here today to talk to you about an issue of grave importance. A dark stain on our generation. The Emoji Movie. Now, you probably know most of the reasons to hate the Emoji movie: it served as a family-friendly vessel to cram as many shameless product placements as 90 minutes could fit. It’s also predictable, painfully unfunny, and tries to convey a moral message as gracefully as this. But there’s another reason you should hate the Emoji movie its politics. And that’s because, while it tries to tell a story about inclusivity, it’s so poorly thought-out that it manages to not only fail at being inclusive, but accomplishes the exact opposite- presenting us with a hopeless, totalitarian nightmare. Seriously. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Emoji Movie. And just in case anyone gives a s***- spoilers ahead.

But first, a recap. The Emoji Movie takes place in Textopolis, a city of sentient Emojis inside some kid’s named Alex’s phone. Gene, a “meh” emoji, decides to stop mooching off his parents and get a job: emoting for his human overlord. Problem is, he has trouble maintaining his meh-ness, expressing a range of emotions instead… But since being “meh” is his function, he fucks his job up, gets labeled a malfunction, “If you have expressions other then meh, what you are is a malfunction,” and evades deletion from the textopolis fuzz. As the movie drags on, his antics threaten to kill him and everyone he loves once Alex tires of his s***. “Wireless Wireless how can I help you?” “I’d like to make an appointment. It’s like this phone is playing games with me.” His escape is assisted by a princess-turned-hacker and a high-five who loves to dance. Alex decides to wipe his broken phone, “Are you sure you want to delete everything?” “Do it.” and as Gene witnesses the deaths of all his friends, which is definitely his fault, he manages to malfunction with confidence and grace, allowing Alex to properly mack on some girl.

In the end, Alex is happy with his broken phone because it’s made him a mack-daddy and Gene gets to express himself however he pleases. The Emoji movie is certainly trying to espouse a noble message: that we are not bound by tradition or birth and can become whatever we want. It’s not a new trope: the nobles overcome their birthname for forbidden love a warrior who wants to fight in spite of societal expectations or pretty much any story where someone packs their bags to escape their small town existence for the big city lifestyle. It’s an easy enough concept, a concept you’d have to try really, really hard to botch. And with that, the movie botched literally every. single. opportunity. to sell that message. So much so it’s worth discussing before we get into the totalitarian stuff. First, there’s Jailbreak. A princess emoji by birth, she’d rather do cool hacker stuff, like wear beanies and watch Mr. Robot, instead of doing princess stuff. Throughout the film, she assists Gene in escaping to the cloud and evading deletion. She eventually saves the day by throwing away the hacker costume, everting to a princess, and whistling for the Twitter bird.

In other words, you can grow up to be anything you want, but when push comes to shove, you’re going to have to sacrifice who you are in order to become what society always expected of you. It’d kind of be like the plot of Mulan but if Mulan saved the day by going home and cooking her father a nice dinner before folding his laundry. Then there’s Gene, who was born a “meh” emoji, but is capable of laughing, and screaming, and having sweet glasses. He faces discrimination by not falling in line with the identity society has put out for him. But a conversation between Gene’s parents reveals that his father has the same malfunction: suggesting that Gene’s malfunction is GENEtic – get it? Regardless of whether or not Emoji’s have DNA , the idea that Gene’s whole identity is inherited further undercuts the message that society and birth shouldn’t dictate what we aspire to be. And, because bad decisions come in threes, to further cement the message that we all contain some innate, inescapable nature by birth, the hi-five emoji reminds us why he has to press buttons “I’m a hand it’s a big red button,” and eventually saves the day by performing the task he was born to do. “Hand, button.”

Now, that’s not to say the movie can’t be trying to teach people to have confidence in the things they can’t change about themselves, but it also manages to more or less demonstrate that “You can achieve greatness if your genetics allow it.” It also manages to turn internet trolls, who, in real life are horrible people by their own volition, into an identity one is born into, and therefore cannot choose. So instead we get the equivalent of a racial underclass subject to constant denigration. So much for inclusion. But even if we wanted to concede that the Emoji movie really was about being comfortable in your identity, there’s another, scarier, problem: it offers us a vision of the future, that, to paraphrase George Orwell’s 1984, is pretty much a “boot stamping on an emoji face, forever.”

On one level, The Emoji Movie shows us a authoritarian nightmare and its emphatic fuhrer: Smiler. Emojis are put into the service of the messaging app, and anything that interferes with the functioning of that app must be eliminated. While Gene supposedly overthrows this order by flaunting his God-given talents, what can we infer really happened to Textopolis afterwards? To figure that out, we need a little help from German philosopher Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer wrote extensively about an idea called “instrumental rationality,” or “instrumental reason” and believed it played a crucial role in the domination of humanity throughout the 20th century, especially in totalitarian regimes.

Instrumental rationality is the kind of reason we use to achieve a particular end. If I’ve decided the Wisecrack team needs eat 50 pounds of pizza, instrumental reason can help me figure out the best, most efficient way for them to fill their bodies with regret. Drink lots of water the day before, go for toppings with high water content, and smoke lots of ganja. But instrumental rationality is dangerous because it doesn’t ask bigger questions like: why am I trying to destroy my body, or, why did I just spend $300 on pizza? And while Horkheimer wasn’t talking about pizza or other everyday uses of practical reason, he noted that modern society was fueled by this flawed kind of rationality. Always figuring out the fastest way to get somewhere, never trying to figure out if it was even worth it all.

Textopolis seems to be run on this kind of instrumental rationality. The whole society is organized for one purpose: to deliver Alex the emojis he selects. “Here each of us does one thing, and we have to nail it every time.” There are never questions like: Why does Alex get to pick the emoji
or, hey, isn’t this technically slavery? And there’s good reason: If they go on strike, Alex will probably uninstall the app and murder them all. This is the problem with anthropomorphizing utilities in films where there are humans present. It’s cute at first, but when you think about it, it gets horrifying. The problem with instrumental rationality, for Horkheimer, is that it aids in the domination of humanity.

Since it’s concerned with questions like “efficiency” and “usefulness,” both nature and humanity become inputs in the assembly line of society. “As we reduce our inner nature to instrumental functions, we lose any strong sense of self, and thus lack the inner substance in a manner that makes us, metaphorically, into nobodies.” And when everyone is reduced to a use value, things can get even scarier. It’s for this reason Horkheimer and his fellow Frankfurt School thinkers characterized the totalitarianism of the 1930s as the ultimate danger of the instrumental rationality that pervades our modern world. We see the totalitarian danger of this everywhere in the Emoji movie. Society is organized based on how individual emojis can be instrumentalized in the service of Alex.

Emojis who are used often get to go to the cool parties, are popular with their peers, while those unused get sent to the loser lounge. And those that disturb the peace, as with Gene, get liquidated. And while the existential threat of getting deleted may sound like a good rationalization for killing Gene, it’s also worth noting that most authoritarian regimes sell their message through existential threats. You know, the whole “It’s either this or the demise of the German people” schtick. So was Gene’s victory in the climax of the film a blow against the authoritarian terror of Smiler? Well, no: While, Gene is a revered hero, Hi-Five is popular again. “Back on top of the hand pile,” and the exclusive VIP parties of the old-regime are now open to all. “From now on, everyone is welcome!”

However, in the after credits scene, we see Smiler relegated to the loser lounge, confirming a still-existing hierarchy between usable and unusable emojis. But for Horkheimer, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. As he writes, “What is usually indicated as a goal—the happiness of the individual, health, wealth—gains its significance exclusively from its functional potentiality. ” In other words, the happiness of everyone in Textopolis is only significant in that Alex’s texting app still works. Nothing is solved in regards to the extreme instrumental rationality of Textopolis. Emojis are still instrumentalized for Alex, and if Gene’s malfunction is now popular, it is only by the whims of their human overlord.

We even get an Emoji dance where emojis are seemingly free to emote as they please, but this expressiveness is only permissible insofar as it doesn’t threaten Alex’s social prowess. And because the film hints that Gene’s malfunction is inherited, the implication is a new dystopia where those with a quasi-genetic mutation can better serve Alex while those born of lesser genes can still be discarded. So while we may have thought that the end of Smiler’s regime would have meant the liberation of emotions in Textopolis, the fact that Alex is the ultimate judge of functionality means nothing has changed. Basically- the emojis still live under the iron fist of Alex, and because nothing has been done to undermine their instrumentalization, what will become of Gene when Alex tires of his ultimately meaningless emoting. One day he may decide to do away with whatever money eyes slash kissing face slash sunglasses emoji means and go straight for the eggplant emoji. As if to foreshadow this, Hi-Five tells us early in the film: “What you need are fans! They give you complete unrelenting support as long as you’re on top.”

And here’s the issue with making emojis, which are things with an actual function, a metaphor for humans, who are more than a utility on a smartphone app. It makes a lot more sense to delete an emoji for not doing its job than murdering a human for not doing its job. In Textopolis, if the system truly goes too far, Alex can just get another phone. That’s not exactly how human civilization works. And here we can see the shift in how domination happens. Whereas a hundred years ago the system enforced its rules with repression like Smiler’s, our modern societies strengthen their rule with liberation- or at least, liberation within bounds. As fellow Frankfurt Schooler Herbert Marcuse wrote, many of the freedoms afforded to Western civilization only served to make the repression of those societies more efficient. We’re given the freedom of how to exist within the system, but never the freedom to escape the system. The post-almost-apocalypse world of Textopolis certainly seems more permissive. But what has been omitted from the story is the possibility of escape. Jailbreak once resisted the system by escaping it, living outside the app, but now she’s back in Textopolis, and in full Princess attire.

The Cloud, then, represents the ultimate resistance to the system, which has been brushed aside by the film. And Gene’s heroics have only served to perpetuate this cruel system. Is the ultimate message of the Emoji Movie: resistance is futile? We’re either subjugated by a strict totalitarian regime, or we get to express ourselves freely, so long as it serves the same master. In either cases, freedom is an illusion and you ‘re inescapably a pawn in the system. Gee, f*** you all and thanks for watching. Peace!

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