I had no idea that the emoji lexicon had expanded to include one indicating small-sized penises, until I noticed a weird trending topic on Twitter’s “What’s Happening” sidebar. “Women in South Korea are mocking men’s penises and fuelling an anti-feminism movement”, the headline provoked. I ignored it for a whole day, hackles raised by the second half of the line. Women fuelling an anti-feminism movement? It’s not that it doesn’t happen. It’s just that when it happens, it’s usually other women who are the targets – not men.

When I finally did click on the link, it led to a paywalled article with a different headline. I gathered just enough to realise that this was actually a very interesting, and concerning, event. Some feminists had been using a symbol of a hand with an inch between the pointer finger and the thumb, before it became an emoji. It was also used in protests against gender-based discrimination and inequality. Subsequently, misogynist groups began to trace people and organisations that had used the symbol – to boycott, pressure into unemployment, and more.

I lack cultural or other contexts for this South Korean phenomenon, and what little I know of it is through English language conduits. But, it’s possible to have impressions rather than opinions, and let these impressions form the basis of developing opinions relevant to one’s own context. For instance, I don’t condone the mocking of physical features. I can’t agree with other feminists who use that emoji as part of socio-political expression. That said, I think this emoji has its uses in personal chats – as a response to unsolicited pornographic photos, and to malicious people who happen to have penises who threaten, extort, neg or shame the other party in an intimate conversation. As a quick comeback, it’s not entirely unfair. However, as part of broad political rhetoric or expression, it’s cruel and unproductive, and should have no place.

Body-shaming, like fraudulent use of anti-dowry laws or other gendered safeguards, isn’t a conversation that should be led by misogynists. It should be led by feminists of all genders, who can correctly contextualise the backdrop and the trajectory of a negative event. To paint the angered and wounded who do something less than perfectly fair as being purely in the wrong, without exploring and addressing the cause of their frustration, only fuels more retaliatory actions. A comprehensive set of solutions would hold space for it, but also address harm caused to the recipients of that frustration. It wouldn’t assume that all people of a certain category are alike. Misogynists, on the other hand, frame the issue from the start with their eye on the endgame – i.e. discrediting women. 

Some comprehensive solutions come from holding space for uneasy topics, without being poised to respond with the right jargon, template reactions, mean-spiritedness or an unquestioning allegiance to a worldview. We need to learn to do this in smaller ways first, and eventually this will create ripples in the larger social fabric and on public stages. It can be far more tempting to resort to a rude emoji or a biting retort, but this isn’t always useful. Context, as ever, matters.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 19th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.