by Olivia Pym: Everything is melting, including your face…
Every so often a piece of art comes along that captures a moment in history, and in 2022 the hieroglyphic on the cave wall is undoubtedly the melting face emoji. Recently I was having dinner with friends and making the case for why, week after week, it was my most used emoji. Like the best of them – the upside-down smile, the face with no mouth – it has taken on a life outside of my phone. I have started to have moments where I actually feel like the melting face. I can’t remember if I did before the emoji came along or if the emoji created that feeling in me, I explained to my friends, whose own faces were starting to melt.
According to the authority on these matters, Emojipedia, the melting face, “Can be used literally to talk about extreme heat” but also “metaphorically to talk about embarrassment, shame, or a slowly sinking sense of dread.”
That slowly sinking sense of dread may sound familiar. Everything is melting. The government, which looks set to collapse in the next 48 hours or so, is melting. Democracy in Iran and China are melting, and in America and Britain too, in a way that’s harder to notice but still going drip, drip, drip. In the last three years our collective health, wealth and prosperity have all melted. The planet is quite literally melting.
This week the Prime Minster sat behind the dispatch box looking every inch the melting face emoji, as her credibility melted around her. At Venice Film Festival last month, the cast of Don’t Worry Darling, lined up as a row of melting faces, contractually obligated to walk down the red carpet together despite a schism so dramatic that most of them were no longer speaking. The melting face emoji is knowing that things are bad and choosing to ignore them, which sounds like a reasonable response to being alive at the moment.
The melting face comes in several guises. Facebook and Google’s versions are like warped waxwork faces dripping to the floor; the Microsoft version comes cross-eyed. WhatsApp and Apple’s are midway through puddling into the ground, the smile half dissolved in a “here I go” kind of way. In their own way, each version has both the high art gloominess of a Francis Bacon painting, and the ‘it me’ moment of recognition you feel seeing the “This is Fine” meme of a dog inside a burning building. The beauty of the melting face is that it captures the full range of uncomfortable feelings, from despair to annoyance, whether in response to a map showing which bits of London will be underwater in 30 years, or the moment you notice that you dropped chili sauce into your lap.
“Emojis aren’t inherently deep,” Erik Carter, the graphic designer behind the melting face emoji told the New York Times last year. Though he did go on to add (fairly deeply), that “Sometimes it does feel as though the best we can do is smile as we melt away.”
While making the case for the melting face at dinner I found myself trying to pull that beautifully deranged expression but instead facing the limitations of my own face. The melting face, I realised, is an inward sinking that occurs below the surface and can’t truly be seen from the outside. It is puddling in shame and stress while pretending to be fine. Or that’s what I thought, as I pulled a lopsided, desperate grin. I’m told it really did look like my face was melting.