Pete Davidson’s penis gets most of the credit for putting big Big Dick Energy on the map, but the phallic phrase was coined by Toronto-based writer Kyrell Grant two weeks prior as a tribute to the late Anthony Bourdain. “We’re talking about how Anthony Bourdain had big dick energy which is what he would have wanted,” Grant tweeted on June 8, 2018, from the @imbobswaget handle. Her followers enthusiastically agreed (one posited that “they’re going to use 2 coffins at his funeral”) or said that it was too soon after his suicide for jokes. The conversation petered out. Then Ariana Grande posted about Davidson’s member on June 22 and BDE went global as over 180,000 Twitter users retweeted or favorited @babyvietcong’s post claiming Davidson “exudes big dick energy.” By June 24, Big Dick Energy was bigger than anything the Saturday Night Live cast member could contain in a pair of shorts.
Social scientists commented on it. Ariana Grande referenced it in a music video. My 62-year-old mother called me to talk about it. BDE became a cheerful celebration of a specific type of fearless — if haphazard and poorly planned — masculinity at a time when men are rarely celebrated for displays of swagger. BDE presented a happy solution to the problem of so-called “toxic masculinity” and an understated vision for the future of straight-maleness.
BDE was the most important meme of 2018 because it was an explicit representation and celebration of the male identity that everyone could collectively stomach. Not everyone has Big Dick Energy, but the viral phenomenon of the phrase allowed the Internet to celebrate those that do or did. Jeff Goldblum, Mr. Rogers. Oscar the Grouch. The “Trivago Guy.” Bruce Springsteen. Frank Ocean. Paul Giamatti.
“BDE is a quiet confidence and ease with oneself that comes from knowing you have an enormous penis and you know what to do with it.,” Allison P. Davis wrote in a BDE FAQ for The Cut. “It’s not cockiness, it’s not a power trip — it’s the opposite: a healthy, satisfied, low-key way you feel yourself.”
But Davis argued convincingly that BDE was not exclusively a male trait. Rihanna. Cate Blanchett, Chrissy Teigen, Cardi B, and Lady Gaga were said to have it. And that makes sense. Each of those women has a particular sort of attractive swagger. They seem fine with themselves. They seem comfortable in the world. They seem like if they had penises, they wouldn’t be insecure about them.
And, yes, it matters that the Big Dick Energy is, on some level at least, about big dicks. Penis size may not matter to most women as much as heterosexual men think, but there’s a growing amount of evidence that how men feel about their penises matters a great deal. Studies show men who believe they have large penises are more likely to be… cocksure (though women general say the ideal penis size is about 6.1 inches, over an inch smaller than men’s 7.27- inch aspirations). Overconfidence is often seen as a negative, but research and anecdotal evidence supports the idea that it’s actually a net positive. Precarious Manhood Theory, proposed by psychologists Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson in 2008, theorizes that there are generally two types of men — those who see masculinity as an arbitrary construct or a more stable quality of the self, and those who this it can be constantly threatened and taken away. The notion that manhood is inherently unstable has been linked with a preference for sexist and homophobic humor, domestic violence, sexual assault, and likely all things Small Dick Energy.
“Since large penis size is tied to testosterone, cultural stereotypes about masculinity, and overall body confidence, it’s reasonable to speculate that men who think their penises are larger than average might pursue more sexual opportunities,” David Frederick, an assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University, told Inverse about men who might have BDE. (Alicia Walker, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Missouri State University, recently attempted to investigate the link between penis size and self-esteem, only to be shut down after reports of the professor sourcing thousands of “dick pics” across the country were treated like a joke.)
However, psychologist John D. Moore argued that BDE not about dick size at all, but something deeper and more intrinsic.
“It’s about independence and personal strength. It’s the person, man or woman, who follows the lead of Teddy Roosevelt, who famously coined the saying: ‘Walk softly and carry a big stick,’” Moore told Fatherly. “People with BDE are metaphorically doing that. And their stick isn’t their anatomy. It’s their presence.”
The one thing academics, Ariana Grande, and pretty much anyone with a Twitter account could agree on is that Big Dick Energy was a trojan horse for positive masculinity that arrived at a time when it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between masculinity and toxicity. A comparably catchy phrase, “toxic masculinity” has had as big of a year as BDE. The difference is toxic masculinity has been on the map for decades, mostly confined to academic circles before becoming mainstreamed by the #metoo movement and the predatory behavior the precipitated it. Proponents of the term toxic masculinity argue that the term is used to describe a specific, oppressive strain of masculinity, that reinforces norms such as dominance over women, repression of emotions, aggression, and violence. Such a construct has made it possible to attach and any terrible behavior to masculinity, as long as a man is behind it. Still, social scientists say that insecurity about masculinity, not masculinity itself triggers problematic behaviors.
Masculinity isn’t the problem. Specific men are. And those guys don’t have BDE. Men walking around with pride in their pants are less likely to feel insecure and less likely to lash out. The implied connection between Pete Davidson’s package and his sartorial choices drawn by the BDE meme is not just humorous — it’s actually supported by research.
If some men need to perform, prove and defend their masculinity more than others, Big Dick Energy subversively presented them with a much needed alternative path. Empathy, curiosity, and the ability to be a good listener were all positive masculine behaviors Grant attached BDE during its genesis. The capacity to truly love another person with enough confidence to not worry about reciprocation was similarly celebrated as a manly aspect of BDE, as was the willingness to prioritize their partner’s sexual satisfaction over their own. Big Dick Energy sent a message to men that if it was OK if they did not make a ton of money, or excel at sports, or even possess a big dick, they could still develop the confidence, charisma, and psychological strength that come with it. As a result, the could assert their masculinity in healthier and more sustainable ways.
There’s no doubt that 2018 was a dick measuring contest in many ways. For the first time in history, people were talking about the President’s mushroom dick. Penises made appearances in countless news stories about celebrities using them as weapons for harassment. Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel made a campaign promise to not whip out her dick on the job because she does not have one. On some level, the virality of BDE may have been at attempt to make nice with penises wielded responsibly and thank them for their service. To call Big Dick Energy a meme fails to do it justice. It was a sex-positive meme that instructively objectified men in order to give them a non-invasive model for sexuality. BDE told them that the less effort they put into proving themselves as men, the bigger their Dick Energy might be. And perhaps for the first time ever, it proved that ultimate performance of masculinity is one that’s so subtle and self-assured that it doesn’t matter if others see it.