Last November, 22-year-old Khiry Johnson took the stand on the syndicated daytime television show Divorce Court and accused his significant other, Erin Rodgers, of being sextually untrue. “We both have iPhones, and we both have emojis,” Johnson testified. “Now, I feel like certain emojis shouldn’t just get sent to anybody. I’m referring to emojis with the heart eyes. Blowing a heart kiss. … Even the eggplant that some people refer to as male genitalia.”
“I hadn’t heard about the eggplant,” Judge Lynn Toler interjected. “There’s an eggplant?”
“Yes. An eggplant emoji,” Johnson replied. “But it’s referred to as male genitalia … in … conversations.”
Move over, banana: The eggplant has risen to become America’s dominant phallic fruit. It wasn’t too long ago that comparing a penis to an eggplant inspired associations with horrific, intimate trauma. But now, the eggplant readily connotes a quite healthy package. When nude photographs of Chris Brown leaked online in January, the gossip site Media TakeOut tagged them “EGGPLANT PICS.” And when a Chinese panda named Lu Lu broke the record for longest panda sex session this week, an observer on Twitter described the feat as “giving panda eggplant.” The Instagram account @eggplant has posted just one innocent photo of the fruit, and amassed 1,500 tittering comments from browsers in the know. (“Big as mine,” one male commenter weighed in.) When Billboard asked Diplo to name his favorite emoji in February, he replied: “The eggplant one. It’s code for stuff.”
The actual squat, pear-shaped fruit found in the typical American produce aisle does not scream “stuff.” But the eggplant emoji that pops up on iPhone keyboards—it’s nestled between a roasted sweet potato and a tomato—is an elongated, almost muscular specimen. Perhaps the Japanese origins of emoji can help explain the shape shift: Willem Van Lancker, a designer who created the bulk of emoji characters that appear on Apple devices, says that the tiny graphics were originally crafted exclusively for Japanese iPhones before they spread around the world. And as Time magazine informed American eaters in 2013, Japanese eggplant are “typically longer, thinner and a bit more corkscrew-shaped than the eggplant you may be used to.” The Japanese eggplant is “noticeably less plump.” It’s undeniably more phallic.
It’s not clear when the eggplant emoji first launched into our collective sexual imagination. The Unicode Consortium, which sets global standards for characters so that they can work across various operating systems, incorporated emoji into its Unicode Standard in 2010; Apple began outfitting American iPhone software with easily-accessible emoji keyboards in 2011. (The phenomenon is iPhone-specific: There’s nothing phallic about the fat, lavender rendering of the eggplant emoji that appears on Android devices.) Andima Umoren, a digital media manager in Washington, D.C., says that she and her friends started using the eggplant emoji privately, in texts and GroupMe messages, not long after. “It just made sense,” Umoren told me. “It’s the right shape.” Once linguistic influencers started passing it around—“You see it a lot on black Twitter, and among teenagers,” Umoren says—the think pieces weren’t far behind. Fred Benenson, editor of the Herman Melville emoji translation Emoji Dick, recommended the eggplant for “sexual innuendo” purposes in January 2013. That summer, Complex included the eggplant in its slideshow of “Emojis to Send While Sexting.”
Then, in March of last year, video artist Jesse Hill restaged Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” in emoji form, and made hot and heavy use of the eggplant. “It just seemed the best thing to represent Jay Z’s penis,” Hill told me. The video ended up being “huge in spreading the usage of the eggplant,” he says.
Another tipping point hit last December, when the rapper-producer B.o.B. posted a now-infamous selfie to Instagram. In the shot, B.o.B stands in the kitchen. Two eggplants are snuggling on the counter. In the crotch of the rapper’s gray sweatpants, the unmistakable outline of a penis can be seen. The image is tagged #EggplantFridays.
Soon, the #EggplantFridays hashtag became such a popular dong repository that Instagram administrators were compelled to shut it down in an attempt to enforce the network’s strict nudity ban. Now, even the simple #eggplant hashtag has joined the likes of #porn and #penis on the network’s list of unmentionables. #EggplantFridays has survived, however, on more permissive platforms, like Tumblr, where pages like Eggplant Fridays solicit photos, Vines, and GIFs of naked men. To some, the eggplant’s sexual connotation has now grown so strong that it no longer needs to refer back to the phallic emoji to sustain it. “It’s near impossible to hear or see the word eggplant without thinking of a penis,” the 22-year-old Miami guy behind the Tumblr told me. I asked him if spotting an eggplant in the grocery store was enough to direct his mind into the gutter. “Unfortunately, yes,” he replied.
Meanwhile, the banana—the preferred phallic stand-in for sex ed condom demonstrations in America’s most hands-on high school classrooms—just doesn’t do it for him. “The [eggplant emoji] is now highly recognizable and is often associated with larger penises,” he told me. “I believe that if a [banana emoji] was used, people wouldn’t think ‘big,’ if they even associated the emoji with a penis at all.” Another upside of the eggplant is its color scheme. The banana emoji, presented midpeel, is yellow and white. The eggplant is deep purple. It’s both erotic and ethnically ambiguous. No phallic emoji—not the cob of corn, the telescope, nor the rocket ship—can compete.
In February, Asmus Freytag, a Seattle-based co-author of the Unicode Standard, alerted Unicode’s public listserv to the sexual connotations the eggplant emoji had unexpectedly acquired in an email titled “sex and emoji.” Berkeley linguist Anshuman Pandey seemed skeptical: “Never would have imagined ‘sex’ and ‘Unicode’ in the memetic scene,” he wrote to the list. San Jose engineer Shervin Afshar countered with recent scholarship showing that people who use emojis have more sex. And Antoine Méric, a French IT security consultant, floated the idea of adding a bonafide “phallic representation” to the Unicode Standard. Until then, the eggplant satisfies.