Feels Good Man: Can a Hate Symbol be Transformed into a Symbol for Love?
Battling for control over his creation ‘Pepe’, Matt Furie confronts 4chan, Alex Jones, and the ADL.
What is Pepe to you?
Pepe is many things. Pepe is a meme, a hate symbol, a cartoon, and an icon that seems to have an attachment to social uprisings and conflicts. My first experience with Pepe was during my early years of college when memes began to exponentially circulate on the internet through Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other social media platforms.
The meme that I saw showed a sad Pepe with a 1700s sailing ship in the background with a caption in impact font that read ‘You were born too late. You will never explore Earth. Feels bad, man.’ Another Pepe, wearing a spacesuit this time, was pictured right below the first image. This time the caption read ‘You were born too early. You’ll never explore the galaxy… Feels bad, man.’ And the final image at the bottom showed a blotter of acid in the background and a smiling Pepe in the foreground with eyes that were swapped out for an optical illusion. This one read ‘You were born just in time. Explore reality… Feels good, man.’
As a college student, I found it to be hilarious. There was something behind Pepe’s expressions, the simplicity of the image, and the general laid back message of the meme that stood out to me and made me laugh. His sadness conveyed something as well. Those eyes said more about feeling bummed out than anything else had at that particular time.
For me, and apparently, for hundreds of thousands of other people, it was easy to relate to this cartoon frog. A part of this was probably the fact that Pepe sprung out of Matt Furie’s comic strip Boy’s Club: a strip that explored the lives of four 20-somethings slacker roommates indulging themselves in hedonistic past times. Within Feels Good Man, we get an idea of what Pepe means to its creator. We also begin to understand just how much power a simple icon can have.
What is the documentary all about?
Feels Good Man, a documentary that is set to be released on September 4th, explores the inception of Pepe as an internet icon and the entire journey of his image thus far. The film was directed by Arthur Jones and produced by Giorgio Angelini. It covers Matt Furie’s view on the rise and fall of Pepe, as well as the perspective of several other people. This includes 4channers, the ADL, Furie’s close friends, and several others. It quickly became intoxicating to learn how a simple green frog had impacted the lives of so many different people.
Despite being a documentary about a social phenomenon, the film respects that it is also exploring the impact of art. With that in mind, the film is animated gorgeously and the sound design is superb. It is immediately engrossing and easy to get into. You don’t have to be an internet historian or self-proclaimed meme lord to watch this documentary and understand what’s going on. There’s always this worry about sounding out of touch or misinformed when covering internet culture especially, but I’m glad to say that this was never an issue in Feels Good Man.
At the beginning of the film, Furie talks about how Pepe originated in the Boy’s Club comic strip. The ‘Feels Good Man’ motto was quickly spreading on Myspace and other internet forums at the time. There’s a guest in the movie that describes the Pepe meme as the ‘alpha’ in the evolution of ideas and trending internet culture. In the same way that we’ve kept chairs, certain hairstyles, and phrases around in our physical world, Pepe has survived for so long in the digital because of its impact, allure, and alterability.
This then veers into the downfall of Pepe as he made his way onto the 4chan message boards. Although it was innocent and playful enough at first, 4channers became frustrated when ‘normies’ would steal the memes from 4chan and post them on other social media platforms. This turned into a contest to make the meme as offensive as possible in order to prevent ‘theft’.
From there, it’s a roller coaster of cryptocurrency, the 2016 election, and Furie’s journey to reclaim Pepe from the grips of the alt-right. All the while, the film made me laugh, despair, and regain hope. Much like the frog that it is covering, the film brings all sorts of emotions out in the watcher.
Can a hate symbol be transformed into a symbol for love?
As of today, Pepe the Frog is still classified as a hate symbol by the Anti Defamation League. Although ADL and Matt Furie teamed up in 2016 to start a #SavePepe campaign, it can be difficult or near impossible to change the way that people are using a particular image. Because of the simplicity of Pepe’s design, it was altered thousands of times to become the sort of hate symbol that it is today.
However, that did not stop Furie from attempting to change the image of Pepe. At one point, he even goes as far as killing his own creation. Although he was mostly unsuccessful in stopping the use of Pepe as a hate symbol, the weaponizing of Pepe in the United States as a hate symbol did not stop the adaption of Pepe’s image in another context.
In Hong Kong, Pepe became a symbol of resistance and pro-democratic values. Often being portrayed as a journalist or construction worker, Pepe became a different frog altogether. Transcending his stoner roots, and his awkward adolescent alt-right upbringing, he grew up to become a symbol of unity and hope in the face of adversity.
That isn’t to say that alt-right groups are suddenly going to stop using Pepe as a mascot. It’s never that simple. But it does point to a conversation that we need to have around how much power we give certain symbols. It also empowers us to consider how these symbols can change and how we can be the ones to facilitate those changes.
Nazis stole the swastika from Buddhism to suit their agenda. Pepe was taken from the internet and used to promote a strikingly similar agenda. For some, Pepe will always be the meme stoner frog that enjoys eating pizza and hanging out with his bros. For others, he may remain to be used as a means to promote hate and intolerance.
Symbols are complicated. I’m not sure if Pepe will always remain a hate symbol in the United States. I’m not even sure he’ll be around for that much longer (he’s fifteen years old!). However, I do know that the potential is there. And if the potential is there with Pepe, who's to say it isn’t there with other symbols?