In 2010, a team of psychologists published a paper introducing “power posing.” The idea was that adopting a physically confident stance — say, arms akimbo and puffing out one’s chest — produced bodily changes that literally made one feel more powerful. “High-power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk,” they wrote. In other words, free your body and your mind would follow. It was a seductive idea: simple, counterintuitive, and easily applicable, and it took self-help seminars and professional workshops by storm.
The original study, and the idea of power posing as a scientific phenomenon, have since been discredited. Scientists trying to reproduce the initial study’s findings were unable to do so, and one of the original researchers disavowed her own findings. Still, the concept looms large in the public consciousness. For instance, over the past few years, leaders of the Tory Party in Great Britain have adopted what is known as the “Tory power stance,” an awkward pose in which the person stands with his or her legs noticeably too wide apart. As the Independent put it in 2016, “Tories keep doing that incredibly weird thing with their legs.”
The Tory power stance may seem like an odd anomaly, but as one body-language expert told Vice, “like a lot of political ‘copied’ behavior, it does bear the hallmarks of being deliberately taught in the Tory Party.” However it’s being transmitted, the Tory power stance has become a meme, “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture,” according to Merriam-Webster.
Like dances, stances and poses can easily become memes. Perhaps the most famous meme stance to have emerged in recent years comes not from the United Kingdom but from Tampa, Florida. A man known as Lucky Luciano (a pseudonym, natch) struck a pose there that has become so infamous, so widespread, and gone through so many different internet wringers that it’s difficult to adequately sum up the meme’s arc, journey, and meaning. But we might as well try.
You know I had to do it to em.
In September 2014, Luciano (who did not respond to requests for comment) posted on Instagram a photo of himself standing on a suburban sidewalk, hands clasped, with the caption “Real men wear pink.” The post has nearly 294,000 likes, but it is not the source of the meme. Over on Twitter, Luciano posted the same image but accompanied it with a different caption: “You know I had to do it to em.” The tweet has been deleted for years, presumably because it was the subject of ridicule, but its legacy lives on.
Luciano is clearly flexing, proud of his outfit, trying to look cool (the “do it”) in order to make his haters (the “em”) jealous or desperate. There are plenty of obvious things to poke fun at in the picture. There’s the all-pink ensemble, the gaudy watch, the boat shoes, and the intense sock tan. There’s also the slightly try-hard captions. I don’t mean to sound derogatory, but I’m not sure how else to put this: He looks like a fuckboy. A viral tweet from July 2016, for instance, uses Luciano to represent a certain type of white guy: a fan of “real hip hop” and G-Eazy, the joke being that G-Eazy sucks.
But none of these aspects, individually, definitively explains why this photo has resonated so widely and become such a durable meme. The pose is not unique. Neither is the outfit, nor the captions. Even combined together, it all seems rather ordinary. Yet the meme is still broadly known. On Google Maps, “Where He Did It To Em” is categorized as a place of worship. Brands use the phrase to show that they are hip and with-it. Perhaps that itself is the joke: Luciano thinks he is notable yet is not particularly unique. Either way, the joke is at least partially on Luciano, but it seems he finally feels comfortable cashing in. His Instagram account features various examples of people spotting his meme in the wild, and he’s begun selling merch adorned with the famous photo and catchphrase. He’s got tens of thousands of followers, and after an arrest last year he ran a crowdfunding campaign to help defray the associated costs.
In order to try to understand Luciano better, I sent his photo to Traci Brown, a body-language expert, who articulated the hidden meaning in his stance. “What’s interesting is the way he’s holding his hands. He’s putting them as a barrier between himself and the rest of the world,” she noticed. “That’s not all that unusual. But then one of his hands is in a fist. That generally signifies anger. And the other hand is covering the fist. So he may be trying to hide the anger.” Imagine what could’ve been if Luciano had unleashed the full extent of his flex. Would anyone who dared gaze upon the picture even still be alive?
“His smile seems pretty relaxed and genuine,” Brown added.
The meme doesn’t really belong to Luciano anymore, though. Depending on the platform you see it on, the exact type of “You know I had to do it to em” meme you find can vary wildly. “You know I had to do it to em” has, mysteriously and without a clear catalyst, grown from a single viral post into an entire ecosystem. A meta-reflection on shitposting, pattern recognition, and scavenger hunt all in one. Across social media, Photoshopping new characters onto the sidewalk background has become standard, but each platform has also put its own unique twist on the meme in other ways too.
On Facebook, Luciano is a sort of unofficial mascot of Thot Patrol, a page devoted to shitposting — posting inscrutable, deep-cut in-jokes designed to confuse anyone without the appropriate knowledge base. It’s a “gang weed“–adjacent, supposedly-ironic-but-not-really type of deep-fried meme group in which Luciano’s form appears often (a “deep-fried” meme is one that is intentionally made to look sloppily made and heavily compressed, and thus more authentic). In September 2017, Thot Patrol posted a screenshot of my initial message to Luciano (he’d originally put it on Instagram) asking for an interview, and one user, Peti, decided to email me to explain the appeal of Lucky Luciano. “I am seventeen and know things about ‘memes,’” Peti wrote. “The real memes you journalists want to write sometimes about is just shitpost … its best not to take them seriously since as i just told before they are just shitposts.” In other words, it is pointless to get at the meaning of the meme because no meaning was intended when the meme was made. The page’s fans generally don’t overthink it. It doesn’t matter why you do it to em, only that you do it.
On Tumblr, Luciano has become remix fodder. Its users are less interested in making fun of Luciano than they are in trying to find increasingly elaborate ways to incorporate him into, well, everything. Luciano has been remade in The Sims (in the made-up language Simlish, his catchphrase translates to “ba groba naby dooni tudem”). In another image set, the Powerpuff Girls intro is remixed so that the Professor accidentally creates Luciano following a Chemical X accident. He’s been re-created in Minecraft and mosaic and edited into trippy GIFs. All of these posts rack up tens of thousands of interactions, likes, and reblogs. The cult of Lucky Luciano is strong.
Elsewhere on Tumblr, the joke has become to Photoshop Luciano into other photos unobtrusively. It is akin to rickrolling, tricking someone into looking at “You know I had to do it to em” without their knowledge or consent.
(Check the frame over Steven Universe’s bed.)
The pain of a Luciano intrusion also manifests on Twitter, where, in addition to elaborate remixes, the specter of Luciano looms over anyone who dares to adopt his stance. Tom Holland caused a fair amount of distress earlier this month when he did it to em at the Spider-Man premiere. Reggie Fils-Aimé did it to em at a Nintendo launch party. Rami Malek has done it to em. An M&M in the style of Dr. Phil does it to me in my nightmares.
These Luciano-alikes run in the same vein as memes like “Loss.jpeg,” the infamous four-panel web comic whose silhouette users now see everywhere — “Is this Loss?,” a user will ask themselves, squinting at an image. To recognize Lucky Luciano in a photo that he is not in is to accept that your brain has been forever corrupted by the internet. Is this photo of John Mayer an homage, a coincidence, or nothing at all? Everything runs together, and you can never escape it. Perhaps the best articulation of the high-level shitposting that Luciano has become an unlikely leader of is this video by Twitter user @califortia. The best viewing advice I can give is to let it wash over you.
To analyze each individual shot would lead to an infinite number of unanswerable questions. We should’ve seen this coming, we knew it had to be done, we were powerless to stop it.