How Pepe the Frog Morphed From a Goofy Cartoon to a Hate Symbol

An entertaining new documentary helps explain the strange visual alchemy of the internet — and how a goofy cartoon of Pepe the Frog became, despite its creator's opposition, a mascot of the postmodern right's virulent reactionary politics.

Still from Feels Good Man.

In 2005, cartoonist Matt Furie uploaded an iteration of his comic Boy’s Club to the then-popular social media site MySpace. The cartoon in question had only six panels, little dialogue, and a playfully juvenile conceit — depicting Pepe, an anthropomorphic frog character created by Furie, pulling down his pants to urinate and being caught in the act by a friend who opens the door behind him. In the cartoon’s final panel, a third character says: “hey pepe — i heard you pull yer pants all the way to go pee” to which Pepe, grinning with contentment, replies: “feels good man.”

Drawing its title from the since viral comic, an entertaining new documentary from director Arthur Jones tells the strange story of Pepe’s journey from puerile internet meme to far-right icon, chronicling Furie’s creation of the character and its subsequent transformation into a postmodern hate symbol popular among internet trolls and white supremacists.

Though Pepe has been a subject of endless discussion thanks to its association with the 2016 Trump campaign — featured in a segment of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and inspiring a somewhat cringeworthy explainer posted on Hillary Clinton’s official website — the film nonetheless makes a good case for its story even if you don’t buy, as some liberals and alt-rightists do, the idea that it helps explain the 2016 election result.

That story, in brief, runs as follows.

Having created the now iconic image of Pepe peeing, Furie was surprised to find versions of it popping up in the unlikeliest of places: the picture and its accompanying slogan proving a more or less instant hit and beginning to take on a life of their own outside the world of Boy’s Club from which they’d originated.

For those interested in how and why the internet can suddenly imbue random symbols and images with meaning, this will be by far the most memorable section of the film. Some of the reasons for Pepe’s meme-ability are, of course, perfectly obvious. Easy to draw and therefore easy to replicate, he had the necessary prerequisites for virality. The basic paradox of any meme, however, is that the broadness required for mass appeal must carry enough specificity to actually, well, mean something.

What did Pepe mean to its friendly and mild-mannered creator? As Furie explained in a 2015 interview with the Daily Dot:

My Pepe philosophy is simple: “Feels good man.” It is based on the meaning of the word Pepe: “To go Pepe.” I find complete joy in physically, emotionally, and spiritually serving Pepe and his friends through comics. Each comic is sacred, and the compassion of my readers transcends any differences, the pain, and fear of “feeling good.”

The simple notion of “feeling good”, paired with the image of a carefree cartoon frog, apparently hit the sweet spot between popular empty signifier and substantive symbol, soon finding its way onto image board website 4chan where it gained special currency among downwardly mobile and socially checked-out young men.

Pepe’s ascendence on 4chan, as the film explains, occurred at a particularly formative moment: when the web culture of the mid-2000s was being replaced by its more professionalized, commodified, and social media–driven successor. With bland positivity and airbrushed images of personal success becoming the new visual lingua franca (particularly on sites like Instagram), the character soon acquired a cache as a symbol of semi-anonymous emotional dissent — morphing into new iterations like the Sad Frog.

Thanks to its association with 4chan, the basic conditions for Pepe’s embrace by the far right were now in place. But it was, ironically enough, the character’s sudden entrance into mass culture that precipitated its final capture by online reactionaries. Following posts from Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, it was quickly appropriated by young women and the internet mainstream. The reaction from 4chan’s self-identified beta males was swift and ugly by design. As the film explains, the basic reflex of the anonymous posters who had claimed Pepe as their own was to alter his image to such an extent that it could no longer be invoked by normies. As a 2016 essay in the Baffler explained:

On men’s rights sites and in some geeky subcultures, “beta male” is a common term of identification, one of both belonging and self-mockery…. In his original cartoon form, Pepe was a sad sack, prone to bouts of humiliation. But as his froggy visage got meme-fied on 4chan, he took on a distinctly more menacing aspect. Pepe became a favorite icon of last-straw ranters spewing extreme misogyny, racism, and vengefulness. Much to the irritation of geeks, Pepe also became popular among normies, which is why you can find videos on YouTube of angry Pepe in a red rage accompanied by variations of the male scream, “Normies! Get the fuck off my board!

Though there’s good reason to doubt it had any impact on the outcome, there’s no denying that this new and uglier incarnation of the character reflected something very real about the cultural schism laid bare by the contest between Clinton and Trump. In an election that pitted the smuggest strain of patrician liberalism against a conservative court jester doing everything he could to provoke, offend, and transgress, Pepe’s newly repugnant connotation made him into a kind of digital wedge similar in many ways to the Republican nominee himself.

A version of The Daily Stormer’s style guide acquired in 2017 by the Huffington Post underscores how a deliberate kind of ironic layering paired with a “kidding, not kidding” schtick was key to Pepe’s reactionary appeal: “The tone of the site should be light,” the guide read. “Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred. The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not.”

Much like Trump’s own rhetoric, Pepe proved an effective tool for internet trolling precisely because he was a cartoon and it was almost embarrassing to take him seriously (Clinton’s 2016 explainer, which included the sentence “That cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realize” being a case in point). Attempts to do so, moreover, only seemed to bolster his symbolic power. When Clinton opted to denounce the alt-right in a speech, its members naturally welcomed it as a victory.

The latter part of the film concerns itself with Furie’s own, increasingly fraught relationship to the character and his sympathetic battle to divest Pepe of its reactionary connotation. With the help of copyright lawyers, Furie secured legal victories against both Alex Jones (who was selling a poster featuring the frog for $29.95) and the author of a racist children’s book called The Adventures of Pepe and Pede. The film ends on a somewhat ambiguous, if hopeful note — Pepe having taken on yet another life as a protest symbol popular in Hong Kong.

Entertaining, informative, and often surprisingly pleasant viewing (given its subject matter) thanks to beautifully animated versions of Furie’s cartoons and the artist’s own quiet charm, Feels Good Man is a must-see documentary for anyone interested in understanding the peculiar visual alchemy of the internet — and the strange, postmodern character of the contemporary right that has weaponized it so skillfully.