Pepe the Frog ended up as the darling of both anarchists and the alt-right. A documentary tells the surprising true story of the super-meme and its creator
21 October 2020
Feels Good Man
Ready Fictions, streaming; BBC 4 Storyville, 26 October
OVER 25 years of the internet, memes have evolved from a one-note online sight gag – a dancing baby, say, or a cat with an irreverent caption in Impact font – to a muscular means of communication, capable of nuance and complex irony.
Yet no meme has had as strange and storied a journey as Pepe the Frog. The laid-back amphibian from cartoonist Matt Furie’s cult hit Boy’s Club was wrested from that context to become the face of anarchic bulletin board 4chan. The beatific Pepe of Furie’s comic, with his catchphrase “Feels good, man”, became sorrowful (“Feels bad, man”) and then, unexpectedly, fascist.
Feels Good Man, Arthur Jones’s debut documentary, follows Pepe from the web to Donald Trump’s White House as a smirking alt-right symbol, and Furie’s battle to reclaim him.
As 4chan’s meme culture spilled over into the mainstream internet, with pop stars Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj sharing Pepe memes, the community set out to ward off appropriation by “normies” by making Pepe as shocking as possible.
During the contentious 2016 US elections, Pepe became so associated with racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry that both Hillary Clinton and the Anti-Defamation League defined him as a hate symbol – much to 4chan’s glee at being taken so literally.
Yet in among the juvenile provocation (4chan’s founder was a 15-year-old boy), there was a strand of sincerity. Pepe, like Trump, was being embraced by a fringe but growing far-right movement that masked its intent with irony online.
Furie’s attempt to capitalise on his creation’s ubiquity came too late: there is a scene in Feels Good Man where he looks over thousands of dollars’ worth of Pepe merchandise that can’t even be donated, lest it end up with white nationalists.
At the film’s heart is Furie’s relationship to his creation as it is repurposed as a hate symbol, collectible art, occultist iconography and even as a cryptocurrency by an implacable internet. Against that, Furie stands as a quirky, quietly principled figure, resolutely trying to “save Pepe”. However, as the film’s coda reveals, the frog’s emergence at Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests last year shows the hunt for its meaning continues.
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