Pepe the Frog falls from grace in ‘Feels Good Man’

Monday, September 14, 2020 - 10:42am

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This review has taken longer to write than I, or my editors, expected. In the last few days my time has been spent digesting the insidious darkness that characterizes “Feels Good Man.” This documentary follows the tale of Pepe the Frog and the character-turned-meme’s journey to become a symbol of hate. But it is also a tale of depravity fueled by anonymity, of how social media is both a reflection and a perversion of real social life, and a chapter in the grand history of white nationalism in America. The very sour cherry atop this sundae of reckless hatred is the man behind the meme — Matt Furie, Pepe’s own Dr. Frankenstein — whose innocent cartoon was bastardized by the internet, shattering his psyche. “Feels Good Man” is not for the faint of heart. I am left questioning my own “stamina” in the face of hatred. 

Furie created Pepe in 2005 for his “Boy’s Club” comic. The lanky frog was an innocuous character with one particularly peculiar habit: He peed with his pants around his ankles. When questioned about this idiosyncrasy, Pepe could only say “feels good man.” How did a cartoon frog’s bathroom habits make the character an icon for the alt-right? For that, we can blame the internet.

Pepe’s circuitous journey into internet hell really began on 4chan, where anonymous users jockeyed for a spot at the top of one of the site’s message boards by eliciting reactions from their peers. This feature of 4chan meant that provocativeness was valuable. To be number one, you had to garner attention and incite a reaction. This will spell Pepe’s downfall.

The documentary features a few 4chan users, who share that they saw themselves in Pepe; their own peculiar habits, embodied by the self-proclaimed moniker NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training), made them “feel good,” too. Pepe represented an internet counterculture, those who felt rejected by mainstream society.

The problems began when Pepe memes leaked out of 4chan and onto Instagram, Facebook and other mainstream social media. Pepe had been taken by “normies,” the socially well-adjusted people who are seen to represent the oppressors of NEETs, the relegation of the less well-adjusted to a lesser social status. So, while 4chan users had already been making Pepe a provocateur, to keep “normies” from stealing the symbol of the counterculture, and to prevent Pepe from gaining mainstream recognition, the memes had to be so offensive and distasteful that no one would dare touch Pepe again.

All told, a group of people who felt they were being actively kept at the bottom rung of society now had a tool to push back. And by pasting their virulent racist rhetoric atop a cartoon frog, they made real bigotry into a joke. Fighting Pepe would be farcical, because it was “just a meme.” Hillary Clinton was lambasted by the alt-right for doing precisely this. This twisted irony is at the center of Pepe’s most despicable associations.

When “smug Pepe,” a meme in which the frog touches his chin and dons a sinister smirk, made its rounds, people compared it to Trump’s mug on the cover of GQ in 1984 and the association between then-candidate Trump and Pepe was solidified. Trump-Pepe memes became more common, with Trump himself tweeting an illustration of himself as the racist frog. As Trump’s policies began to interact with the meme-ing provocateurs on 4chan, Pepe’s status as a genuine symbol of the alt-right was undeniable. 

One of the documentary’s more prominent interviewees is Susan Blackmore, scholar and author of “The Meme Machine,” a text exploring Richard Dawkins’s memetic theory. Blackmore believes, in short, that ideas are spread autonomously by human “meme machines.” Like evolutionary gene theory, in which the stronger biological traits outlast and supersede weaker ones, meme theory says that certain ideas will outlast and overpower others. Blackmore says that “culture … is more like a vast parasite growing and living and feeding on us than a tool of our creation.” In other words, culture is memes, shared by humans in the form of language, religion, art and Pepe. For Blackmore, memes share themselves. She doesn’t address this in the documentary; however, I am curious if she would ascribe any culpability to the millions of people who have created and shared offensive Pepe images in the decade or so since he took the internet by storm.

While images may share themselves by way of the human “meme machine” mind, this transmission can certainly be manipulated and directed. Another remarkable interviewee is a former Trump campaign official who spoke matter-of-factly about the campaign’s use of social media to win support. In criticizing Matt Furie’s #SavePepe quest in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League to reclaim the meme, this former campaign official suggested that Furie failed to understand the internet and its machinations. In many ways, this campaign official is right: #SavePepe backfired, and the Peace, Love and Pepe memes were co-opted and swiftly desecrated. 

In a September 2016 interview with Adam Serwer for The Atlantic (who is also featured in the film), Furie says “I think that’s it’s just a phase, and come November, it’s just gonna go on to the next phase … in terms of meme culture, it’s people reappropriating things for their own agenda. That’s just a product of the internet.” It seems Furie takes a view similar to Blackmore’s of memetics and acknowledges the entropic character of the internet. What’s unsettling, though, is Furie’s confidence that white nationalism would all go away.

If this country has seen anything in the four years since Furie’s interview with Serwer, it is that hatred is not “just a phase.” The very foundation of our society is constructed from inequity and bigotry. In this moment of reckoning, we must be hyper-aware of the “jokes,” because hatred masked as humor is insidious.

The film is not entirely without hope. Pepe has been taken up by protestors in Hong Kong as a symbol of love. Alex Jones of InfoWARS settled out of court with Furie after Pepe’s creator sued the vicious conspiracy theorist for copyright infringement. Furie, whose sadness and guilt are upsettingly palpable throughout the film, has moved onto new projects. His art is really something. 

Despite developments in Hong Kong, a recent expedition to 4chan showed me that in the U.S., Pepe is beyond salvation. But our democracy is not. As we continue to fight hatred in America, pay close attention to the potentially dangerous power of the meme, especially wielded by anonymous idealogues. This summer of organizing and resistance has shown that the internet can be a potent force for good and change. Let us embrace this in the hopes that we might shift the tide of memetics in our favor. And for the love of Pepe, VOTE.

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at rhorg@umich.edu.