'Feels Good Man' Traces Pepe The Frog From Hate Symbol To Democracy Icon

Sep 4, 2020
Originally published on September 4, 2020 6:06 pm

You've probably seen him by now — the thin, red lips. The big, expressive eyes. The deep green skin. Sometimes he looks innocent and sweet, like a friend crashing on your couch. Other times he looks like a smugly grinning jerk. The thing about Pepe the Frog is that he can be whatever you want him to be — a stoner icon, a symbol of hatred and bigotry, a beacon of democracy.

The new documentary Feels Good Man traces Pepe through all these transformations, and follows the frog's creator, cartoonist Matt Furie, and his at-times futile attempts to try to control something inherently uncontrollable: memes. The movie attempts to set the record straight and make clear who Pepe is, but functions more as a case study in how we communicate now and the collateral damage that communication leaves behind.

Furie is a meek, soft spoken guy who feels more comfortable alone at a drafting table than at the forefront of online discourse. Pepe started as a character in Furie's 2005 small indie comic Boys Club. One comic in particular featured Pepe urinating with his pants pushed all the way down to his ankles, explaining to his roommate that it "feels good, man." It was a punchline that became a slogan for a certain carefree lifestyle that thrives in between beers and bong hits. From there Pepe was excerpted, repeated, excerpted, repeated — each time drifting further away from his original context, and away from Furie's hands.

"I didn't really have the resources to stop it, " says Furie in an interview with NPR. "Nobody really knew what the protocol was because it's all online." There's not much you can do about anonymous teenagers posting inside jokes online. And for a long while, it stayed that way — just jokes.

"It wasn't until it got really bad that I stepped up and wanted to try and take a stand," says Furie.

The documentary explains in detail how and why it got really bad (and it did), but the short version is: Pepe started getting so popular with mainstream culture that the original fans of this no-longer "inside" joke tried to push the normies away with even edgier versions of Pepes — racist Pepes, homophobic Pepes, anti-semitic Pepes. This coincided with President Trump's similarly trolling presidential campaign, and the then-burgeoning "alt-right" movement, and all of a sudden Furie saw his own creation end up on the Anti-Defamation League's list of hate symbols, with the normiest of normies, Hillary Clinton, explaining why Pepe was bad.

If this all feels a little stupid — that's all intentional. Through interviews with journalists and experts on extremism on the Internet, the documentary explores the well-oiled right wing propaganda machine built on bad faith arguments meant to make you feel unsure, and dumb, and ridiculous. If you go back and look at the plethora of interviews Furie did around the time of the ADL listing, there's a sense of wishful thinking on Furie's part: that this is just a phase, Pepe won't be a hate symbol forever. He tried working with the ADL and fellow cartoonists to flood the online space with "positive" Pepe imagery. He tried "killing" Pepe in one of his comics to wash his hands of it. Both fundamental misunderstandings of how the Internet works. But the documentary's director, Arthur Jones says those were the tools Furie had available to him.

"Those were his earnest attempts to try to express the true intentions of Pepe as a character," says Jones.

During the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Pepe became a symbol of resistance.
Mohd Rasfan / AFP via Getty Images

In the corners of the Internet where racist Pepes run rampant, earnestness doesn't count for much. Lawsuits, on the other hand, do. The wins Furie collects under his belt in the movie are mostly legal ones, using copyright law to issue take down notices, file suits, etc. Which he was only able to do through the help of a law firm working pro-bono. See, cartoons taken out of context aren't new, nor solely relegated to the Internet. Stroll down any boardwalk and you'll eventually catch some bootleg Minions merch. But these are mostly kept in check through legal actions by people who can afford them.

"[Furie] doesn't have this multi-million dollar conglomerate behind him pushing the character and the branding of Pepe," says the documentary's producer Giorgio Angelini. "So in that void, the collective consciousness of the Internet creates that brand."

And as the Internet has shown time and time again, if you allow its collective consciousness to fill a void, that void will get filled with Nazis.

But Furie wasn't wholly wrong when he said that the link between Pepe and hatred would last forever. Pepe showing up at the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 took the filmmakers by surprise. Elsewhere, on the popular live streaming platform Twitch, Pepes are thrown around in the chat apolitically, mostly devoid of the problematic baggage he was saddled with four years ago. But who knows how long this will last. With another presidential election in just a few months, the meme wars will only continue to heat up, and phases do tend to repeat themselves given a long enough time.

Talking to Furie over Zoom, there was a Pepe plushie hanging on a wall over his shoulder. Furie has at times been sick, defensive and exasperated with Pepe. But as much as the Internet can separate Pepe from Furie, Furie can never really separate himself from Pepe — and so clearing Pepe's name is just as important as clearing his own.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Pepe the Frog is an Internet meme that looks exactly like what you would think - big eyes, green skin. A new documentary called "Feels Good Man" traces Pepe's symbolic path from lovable loser to hate figure to icon for democracy. NPR's Andrew Limbong reports.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Matt Furie, cartoonist and creator of Pepe the Frog, has a tentativeness to his voice. You can hear when he talks in the documentary about the inspiration for his most popular comic.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FEELS GOOD MAN")

MATT FURIE: I remember when I was in second grade and I went to the bathroom alongside my cousin Davey (ph).

LIMBONG: The cartoon shows Pepe urinating with his pants down to his ankles - something his cousin Davey did, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FEELS GOOD MAN")

FURIE: It seems like it would feel really good, so I wanted to make a comic about that.

LIMBONG: Furie gave Pepe a punchline that would become a catchphrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FEELS GOOD MAN")

FURIE: Feels good, man.

LIMBONG: By 2008, the Internet was still in relatively early stages of sharing memes online, a harbinger for how we communicate en masse now. On sites like 4chan, users were altering Pepe's feels good man vibes to reflect their feelings - feels bad, man; feels sad; feels angry. Arthur Jones directed the documentary.

ARTHUR JONES: What we really wanted to do was tell the emotional story of the Internet. He's really an avatar for people who are anonymous online.

LIMBONG: Then Pepe's popularity started reaching into mainstream culture. This bothered 4chan users. In the documentary, one named Mills characterized the wave of normies (ph) coming over to their turf like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FEELS GOOD MAN")

MILLS: They started making, like, a migration over to 4chan. Young women in particular downloaded Pepe images, using them for their own likes.

LIMBONG: To fend them off, Mills and his cohorts started making more reactionary, edgier Pepes glorifying racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. Director Arthur Jones says this coincided with Donald Trump's campaign for president.

JONES: Pepe became weaponized in a very, like, conscious way in 2016. You know, people who are white supremacist did see the popularity of Pepe, and then they decided to pick him up as a symbol.

LIMBONG: It got so bad that the Anti-Defamation League put Pepe on a list of hate symbols. Reporters started asking Matt Furie, what's it like to have made a hate symbol? And over and over again, he said it was just a phase, that it'll go away on its own. Looking back on it now, Furie tells me that the moment concerned him as an artist.

FURIE: You know, you think about what you're putting out there into the world and what is going to outlast you.

LIMBONG: And he didn't want it to be this. Furie naively tried getting his cartoonist friends to flood the internet with positive Pepe memes. Then he tried to wash his hands of the whole thing, killing Pepe in a comic. Neither stopped the glut of offensive Pepes. Director Arthur Jones again.

JONES: I think it's kind of easy for people to maybe criticize those things, but the reality was those were the tools that he had as an artist.

LIMBONG: Then a couple of copyright lawyers came to Furie's rescue. Through lawsuits and takedown notices, Furie started to get back some control over his work until it happened again. But this time, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong were using Pepe as an icon for their fight, seemingly unaware of Pepe's baggage in the U.S.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: It's all been through the power of Matt's artwork that people just connected to the emotionality of Pepe as a character.

LIMBONG: Giorgio Angelini produced the documentary, and he says something about Pepe, with his big eyes and dumb grin, taps into a feeling of discontent that's universal.

ANGELINI: I think that's really the story that we would like Pepe to carry on.

LIMBONG: As for Furie, he's gone through cycles with his creation. He's been tired of Pepe, defensive of Pepe, fed up with Pepe. And as an artist, he's moved on from the frog. But when I talked to him on Zoom, there was a Pepe plushie hanging just over his shoulder. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILD NOTHING SONG, "PARADISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.