By Jessica Pereira
Pepe the Frog is an anthropomorphic frog that became a viral internet meme. It was created by Matt Furie in 2005 in a comic named Boy’s Club. Pepe the Frog is one of the teenage monster characters among others named Brett, Andy and Landwolf in said comic. However, this character became famous in 2008 on 4chan, after having taken down its pants to urinate. This picture was accompanied by the caption Feels good man. From 2008 on, the popularity of this meme grew steadily.
In the beginning, the Pepe the Frog meme was mostly used in its original Feels good man version on 4chan and on Myspace. However, in 2009 a new version was born with the caption Feels bad man as a reaction to the Body Building Forums on 4chan, where a large online community shared NSFW content. In 2011, Furie talked about his character’s origins in an interview that was shared on Know Your Meme. Quickly, Pepe the Frog became famous all over the Internet and therefore in 2014, it was seen on an Instagram feed, circulated in a subreddit and on Tumblr as the PepeTheFrog blog as well as on a Facebook page called Pepe the Frog. Not only did this meme travel all over the Internet, but its premise also changed. As explained, there are many variations, including Sad Frog with the aforementioned Feels bad man caption, Smug Pepe, or Angry Pepe.
However, this meme has had a controversial journey with many difficulties. Pepe the Frog was not solely used as a funny reaction meme online because its purpose also changed as it became the face of several political leanings. It found itself at the center of several lawsuits with Furie trying to save his character after being repeatedly wrongfully used by the alt-right movement in the United States or in France and thus acquiring a hateful and negative meaning.
Among these controversies, Jessica Logsdon was sued by Matt Furie after she sold Pepe the Frog paintings on eBay. There was the Zara Skirt Controversy, where in 2017 the retailer Zara started selling denim skirts with frog patches on them that resembled Pepe the Frog. Zara then took the skirt off their website. In 2018, Furie also sued Infowars founder Alex Jones, a right-wing figure, for using Pepe the Frog without Furie’s permission on a poster sold on their website.
In 2016, Matt Furie expressed his discontent concerning the misusage of his cartoon character. Later in the year, the Anti-Defamation League, an organization created to fight all forms of hate, started a campaign to help Matt Furie #SavePepe by mainly sharing positive versions of this meme. In 2017 Matt Furie released a comic showing Pepe the Frog in a casket at its own funeral, meaning that Furie had killed off his character. Later that year, Furie launched a campaign on Kickstarter, a funding platform, and received about 20000$ in support of resurrecting Pepe the Frog, showing his continuous popularity.
How do different nations use Pepe?
There are a few instances where Pepe the Frog was used for political purposes. In 2015, a Donald Trump-looking Smug Pepe was posted on 4chan. Pepe is, in this instance, looking at Mexicans presented as the Feels Guy at the U.S. and Mexican border. The Feels Guy or Wojak is another internet meme used to express melancholy. Afterwards this meme’s presence online kept increasing when Donald Trump retweeted a representation of himself as Pepe the Frog. Then, in 2016, this meme was quickly appropriated by the American alt-right movement and by Trump supporters, therefore acquiring political significance. Consequently, it was declared by several news outlets, such as NBC News, a white nationalist symbol.
Continuing in 2016, far-right groups in France also started using the cartoon character for their political purposes. Thus, a subreddit for supporters of the French party called National Front and their head Marine Le Pen, was created. Shortly after, similarly to the aforementioned case of Pepe Trump, Marine Le Pen was represented as Pepe or Pepe Le Pen to build support for her campaign. In this instance, Pepe the Frog is seen with long blond hair and a dark blouse in front of the French flag. In other instances, this meme also portrays Jean-Marie le Pen, French far-right politician, former president of the National Front, and Marine Le Pen’s father.
More recently, in 2019, Hong-Kong protesters used this meme as a symbol of resistance against police brutality as part of a pro-democracy movement. In this instance, the Pepe the Frog meme is used as a mascot to fight an authoritarian state by spray-painting it on walls or by sharing this meme online. Furie responded positively to this usage of his cartoon character, as it is in line with his beliefs.
Why is Pepe the Frog an interesting viral phenomenon?
Pepe the Frog went from being a harmless internet meme to a political symbol. This meme is an interesting case because the character easily lends itself to any adaptation. As mentioned, there are multiple variations of this meme, where Pepe the Frog is angry, sad, or smug and American, French, British, or Danish. Pepe the Frog is also transformed into other cartoon characters or is used to post NSFW content. Most of all, it is weaponized to soften radical political views and to defuse criticism concerning these views. It is also used to reach a younger audience and to spread political views in a relatable manner. People truly identify with it. Jessica Logsdon, for instance, during the lawsuit with Furie, claimed that she was exercising her religious freedom as a Kekistani, a fictional country whose people worship a deity called Kek, meaning LOL. This fictional country was created online as part of the alt-right’s movement to mock liberals or as the symbol of chaos. In this instance, Pepe the Frog embodies Kek.
To go further…
- Jones, Arthur, Pepe the Frog: Feels Good Man, Wavelength Productions, 2020.
Online newspaper articles
- Tual, Morgane, Pepe The Frog mis à mort par son créateur, in : Le Monde, (online), URL : https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2017/05/11/pepe-the-frog-mis-a-mort-par-son-createur_5126253_3232.html, 11.05.2017.
- Watercutter, Angela, Can Pepe the Frog Ever Be Redeemed?, in: Wired, (online), URL: https://www.wired.com/story/get-wired-podcast-pepe-feels-good-man/, 16.11.2020.
- Pettis, Ben, PEPE THE FROG: A Case Study of the Internet Meme and its Potential Subversive Power to Challenge Cultural Hegemonies, presented to the School of Journalism and Communication and the Robert D. Clark Honors College in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, 2018.
- Lobinger, Katharina & Venema, Rebecca & Krämer, Benjamin & Benecchi, Eleonora, Pepe the Frog-lustiges Internet-Meme, Nazi-Symbol und Herausforderungen für die Visuelle Kommunikationsforschung, Herbert von Halem Verlag, Köln, 2019.