How a Slacker Frog in an MS Paint Zine Became a Villain for the Alt-Right

In the new award-winning documentary "Feels Good Man" filmmakers Giorgio Angelini and Arthur Jones carefully examine Pepe the Frog’s fraught and fascinating legacy.

by Paige Katherine Bradley
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Sep 18 2020, 9:30am

Where did you first encounter Pepe the Frog? Answers would understandably oscillate wildly depending on one’s age, level of online engagement, and whether or not one lived with their parents in the timeframe of about 2008–⁠2016. Some knew Pepe as a chill indie comic character with a lax approach to toilet hygiene, others met a sad frog on Myspace, while another group might recall only a racist, anti-semitic symbol of the alt-right breeding across all major social media platforms circa the 2016 U.S. presidential campaigns. But on the other side of the world in Hong Kong last summer, people embraced him as an icon of their protest movement. How could all of this be true?

Directed by Giorgio Angelini and Arthur Jones, Feels Good Man poses such a question and explores answers to several more, including, “What should an artist do when their work is hijacked?” Or, “Does any image have inherent meaning in a world where pictures can be endlessly changed and circulated?” And if conservative reactionary Andrew Breitbart was correct in his assertion that politics is downstream from culture, how might we understand the drift of American politics over the past decade by looking at the culture that grew up around a cartoon frog?

Feels Good Man starts off like a biographical documentary on artist Matt Furie, who originally created Pepe the Frog as one of four anthropomorphized animal characters who liked to hang out together in his black and white comic strips—eating pizza, getting stoned, playing video games, and the like. On a brief tour of a thrift store in San Francisco that Furie worked at when he was in his twenties, he wistfully remarks, “I basically just want to be young again.” The first appearance of Pepe was for a comic made in Microsoft Paint titled Playtime; by 2005 it had evolved into Boy’s Club for a series of self-published zines and posts on Myspace. The page that first started Pepe’s migration into the wider slipstream of culture was one in which our froggy friend dropped trou to relieve himself, explaining to his pal walking in on this: “Feels good man.” That became a catchphrase commonly appearing as a caption on bodybuilder photos on Myspace, before leapfrogging into a blizzard of different memes.

When the narrative curves into a deep dive on the evolution of Pepe internet memes, the focus on Furie as an artist with his own interests and intentions begins to wane and give way to a more complicated excavation of how many artists putting their work online will at some point probably have to negotiate side effects of bringing art—an enterprise where meaning arguably resides mostly in context—into a context-free chaotic churn. It’s not until Furie decides to enforce his copyright against such low characters as Alex Jones that he really breaks into the film as a sympathetic protagonist who’s finally growing up and fighting back.

4chan became the main community where Pepe took on a new life beyond Furie’s scope. Anonymous users upped the ante by making memes of Pepe piloting a plane towards the Twin Towers, Pepe tattooed with swastikas, or Pepe as Donald Trump himself, which the then-Republican primary contestant retweeted on October 13, 2015. Pepe became a perpetual copy in motion. Of the site’s multiple message boards, the /b/ board, which is themed “Random,” was key to the spread of Pepe image memes and their far-right ideological connotations, ushering the green guy towards hate symbol status. 4chan boards are structurally set up to create Darwinian competitions of social dominance: whoever’s post gets the most replies floats to the top of the page. And the more outrageous or offensive one is, the more likely attention gained. Sound familiar? There’s a traceable line from this to the “hot take” online discourse that runs through the arteries of platforms like Twitter, which was created in 2006. 4chan even predates Facebook’s founding in 2004.

Why this frog? Why not this frog? He was there for the taking by trolls who were making a coordinated effort at sabotage, which the Trump campaign was savvy enough to realize. A sobering highlight of the doc is an interview with Matt Braynard, Trump’s former campaign director of data and strategy, about the “Great Meme War” to support his candidate’s insurgent, unpredictable path to the presidency: “It gave people who had never really been involved in politics before a way in. The best memes, usually the most effective ones, are just some person who has no power at all, they have no influence, they have no money and no connections but if they can make one good meme they can take off and go viral.” You might hate the player, but Braynard’s clearly no fool, and likely correct about some new rules of engagement for reality and political campaigning. Truth is stranger than fiction, and it doesn’t feel good, but that’s the way it seems to be going, man.

Feels Good Man is now available for sale and rental on multiple platforms.

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Tagged:
the internet
Pepe the Frog