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RIP laugh-cry emoji: why millennials care so much about that TikTok debate

On TikTok, Generation Z is saying the laugh-cry emoji isn’t cool anymore, along with side partings and skinny jeans. And it has hit millennials like Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray very hard indeed…

Back in the heady pre-Covid days of 2015, Oxford Dictionaries picked the “face with tears of joy” as its word of the year.

Why? Well, because they believed this little emoji best represented “the ethos, mood, and preoccupations” of the people. We were happy back then, apparently. Brexit was but a twinkle in Boris Johnson’s eye, we were all giggling over the outlandish idea that Donald Trump could ever become president, and Drake’s Hotline Bling was an oh-so-GIFable mood.

Elsewhere, sex toy sales were rocketing thanks to Fifty Shades Of Grey’s big blockbuster moment, our beloved Adele was still making music, a new show called Hamilton was making a buzz on Broadway, and Game Of Thrones was still delivering the goods with its cliffhanger endings (did anyone really believe Jon Snow was dead forever? Really?). 

Best of all, though? Well, there was no global pandemic, so we were able to go to the cinema, hit the pub after work, go on actual dates with actual people in the actual real world, and, if we wanted, we could see Taylor Swift in concert (2015 was, after all, the year of The 1989 World Tour). 

We could go and do book clubs IRL and pore over The Girl On The Train. We could go shopping and browse the sales racks for hours, if we wanted. We could go outside and hang out with our friends, all without worrying that a) we might infect anyone, and b) we might be arrested.

Oh, how things have changed.  

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It makes sense, when you think about it, that the laugh-cry emoji has died a sad little death and been replaced with an ever-so-appropriate skull. Because the world has moved on. We’re trapped in a dystopian pandemic nightmare and we can’t get out. 

I get all of that. And I get that saying “I’m dead” is the natural linguistic evolution of “I’m dying of laughter,” too, I really do.

But also… well, I can’t stop feeling really, really bitter about the fact the laugh-cry emoji isn’t cool anymore.  

Skull Emoji (as seen in WhatsApp)
Forget the laugh-cry emoji; nowadays, it’s the skull or nothing, apparently.

Everyone knows by this point that an increasing number of TikTok users have been making fun of millennials a lot of late, most recently for our overuse of the aforementioned emoji.

“I stopped using it a while ago because I saw older people using it, like my mom, my older siblings and just older people in general,” Walid Mohammed, a 21-year-old Gen Zer, told CNN.

It’s not just the laugh-cry face, though; we’re also being roasted for our love of side-partings, skinny jeans, Harry Potter, 90s nostalgia, pizza (pizza!), wine, avocado toast, and the word “adulting”.

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Essentially, we’re not cool anymore. And even though we all suspected this might happen someday (apparently it’s an inevitable part of growing older), it stings particularly badly because… well, we never believed this would happen to us. Not like this, anyway. Not when we’re all trapped indoors, and stuck on TikTok, and unable to do anything even remotely cool.  

Woman and dog sitting in sunny window
Lockdown has made us all too aware of the passage of time.

I hold my hands up and admit that I’ve definitely lost a lot of so-called ‘cool’ points over the last year; I don’t go out anymore, my spiky little pixie has grown out into a bob, I don’t see anyone except my dog and my boyfriend, I live in baggy sweaters and leggings, and I still keep forgetting to unmute myself on Zoom. The other day, in fact, I accidentally started sharing my screen in a meeting without realising and had to be talked through turning it off (spoiler: it was mortifying).

So, yeah, I’ve long had a niggle at the back of my mind telling me that I’m not cool. In fact, I’ve started to suspect that I’m slowly turning into my mum. Because I remember making fun of her attempts to use Facebook when I was young. I remember rolling my eyes (behind her back, obviously; I’m not a monster) when she stuck her music on in the car and not the 90s/00s tunes I wanted.

I remember, too, wearing the baggiest pair of dungarees I could find and laughing when she told me that she wore something similar when she was young. So, when my immediate response to the Gen Z trend was “pah, we wore middle partings and baggy jeans all the time when we were teens,” it made me feel ancient

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A year has gone by in lockdown. Since this Covid-19 situation began, I’ve watched the magnolia tree outside my window explode into pink blossoms, then vibrant green leaves, then become an explosion of red, then fade to brown, then lose its leaves entirely. Those pink buds are sprouting again, and I’ve lost a year of my life.

Time is marching on without me, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I can’t even laugh about it, apparently. I have to just… skull about it. Because I’m ‘dead’, apparently, and I’m dead inside, and this is life now.  

Thankfully, I ring my mum, and she has all the answers (after her initial response of “crikey, skulls? I only just got my head around emojis,” obviously).

“Things always go round in circles and come back in fashion,” she reassures me. “It’s just the natural order of things. Youngsters need to have a way to feel cooler than the next generation up, so let them get on with it.

“I can remember my mum laughing at me when I asked her how she knew the words to a song I was singing, and she told me it was donkey’s years old. I thought it was fresh and special and just for me, but it was just a remix of something she knew. Nothing is brand new.” 

Sensing that my soul is sagging over the phone, she adds: “If you’re trying to be cool, you’re not living your life and being true to yourself.

“And you’re only ‘cool’ when you’re 15 really, but that’s only because you have no life experience. So let them sit around at home in their baggy flares sending their skulls, and stop caring what a load of teenagers think about you. Because that really isn’t cool.”

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She’s right, obviously. Of course she’s right. And, with her words ringing in my ears, I’m going to stop trying to make the skull emoji happen for me (much like ‘fetch’, it never will) and go back to my semi-ironic use of the laugh-cry emoji.

Because, in a few years time, people will be making fun of Gen Zers for using skulls and wearing baggy jeans and opting for Cher from Clueless centre-partings. The cycle will begin all over again. 

And I, for one, promise to be here to make like my mum and talk them through their hurt when it does.

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