Pepe the Frog: How A Funny Meme Became A Hate Symbol


Ribbit, ribbit. 

When you think of cute frogs that are not on the internet, do you think of this?

Yep. Perfectly cute. Perfectly carefree. But, alas, this is the internet, so that's not what we're talking about here.

We're talking about Pepe the Frog. This frog, specifically:

We're sure you've seen that good ol' green face before. 

Pepe the Frog first appeared in 2005 in a comic by Matt Furie, called "Boy's Club." The comic goes through panels of the lives of Pepe and his friends, also various humanized animals. Their adventures mostly involve video games, eating, releasing bodily fluids, and doing other such things that boys might do in a boy's club.

Pepe's catchphrase was taken from a particular panel that Furie uploaded to MySpace.

Yeah. Charming origins. A little juvenile, but totally harmless.

Since 2005, Pepe the Frog swam his way all across the internet. Deemed to have a "highly photoshoppable face," he appeared in endless forms.

No matter the character, there's probably a Pepe the Frog version somewhere out there.

The catchphrase "Feels Good Man" also spread across message boards in a joking way as a means to explain certain behaviors, good or bad. 

Furie even went on record to say that his favorite version of the meme and phrase were the John Goodman iterations.

So, what is Pepe the Frog up to, here in 2020? We hate to be the bearers of bad news...

But. Pepe the Frog has died. After years of living harmlessly on the internet, a group of people out there effectively killed him off, and Furie even created a comic of his own funeral. 

Enter the "alt-right." This movement is made up of extremist ideology of individuals sometimes described as white nationalists. Their main MO? They choose to reject political ideas and viewpoints, and try to evoke extreme reactions from people using the internet to push out intentionally offensive or controversial content.

So, Pepe the Frog was not safe from the alt-right. In fact, with his widespread popularity and photoshoppable qualities, it was only a matter of time before they came for him.

Pepe has been unfortunately transformed in many ways, depicted wearing a Hitler mustache, wearing a white KKK costume, or dressed like a traditional Orthodox Jewish person in front of the Twin Towers in NYC. 

Why, you ask, out of all the frogs, all the creatures, and the entire world of the internet did the alt-right decide to target Pepe?

There are all sorts of esoteric explanations behind why the alt-right might have picked Pepe, but none have been confirmed. Some theorize that the themes explored in the comic strip, like drinking beer, eating pizza, and hanging with the boys display a certain level of masculinity that the alt-right clung to.

It's also possible that the movement saw similarities between Pepe and Kek, a frog-headed god dubbed as the deity of their sarcastic religion. Why Kek, you ask?

In the World of Warcraft games, members are only allowed to chat with their own factions. When messaging, members of their own faction will see normal text. Members of a different faction will see an encrypted message based on the Korean language. This made it so whenever a player would message "LOL," the crypt would translate to "KEK." It just so happened that a froggy Egyptian god named Kek already existed for them to seize a strange opportunity.

It also could simply be that the group saw a popular comic online, and decided that twisting a meme with such widespread recognizability would have the largest impact.

No matter the real origins of the reasoning behind selecting Pepe for these derogatory images, in late 2016, the Anti-Defamation League officially declared Pepe to be a hate symbol.

Feels bad, man. 

The offensive utilization of Pepe the Frog naturally came as a big blow to creator Matt Furie. This led to the ADL teaming up with Furie in an attempt to reclaim the meme for what it was intended to be: a silly image of a sad frog, not a racist hate symbol. 

“Once again, racists and haters have taken a popular Internet meme and twisted it for their own purposes of spreading bigotry and harassing users,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “These anti-Semites have no shame. They are abusing the image of a cartoon character, one that might at first seem appealing, to harass and spread hatred on social media.”

Along with the hashtag #SavePepe, the ADL is encouraging people to repost only positive Pepe memes. Their hope is to overwhelm the negative images with positive ones, and turn the tide so the frog is once seen as a funny and innocuous again.

Back in 2016, Furie wrote an article for the New York Times describing his feelings about what had happened to his harmless illustration:

"The problem with Pepe is that he’s been stamped a hate symbol by politicians, hate groups, institutions, the media and, because of them, your mom," wrote Furie. "Before he got wrapped up in politics, Pepe was an inside-joke and a symbol for feeling sad or feeling good and many things in between. I understand that it’s out of my control, but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love."

In 2019, the documentary Feels Good Man was released, explaining the ups and downs of Pepe's life. It appears as if the alt-right has slowed down on using the frog's image, but it hasn't resurfaced as a popular choice for meme users either. In another unexpected twist, Pepe the Frog popped up in Hong Kong in an entirely new way — as a symbol of resistance for protestors fighting against the authoritarian state. Pepe was selected not for his initial comic purpose, not for his politics, but, seemingly somewhat randomly, during a pop-up Pepe the Frog merchandise event.

An unassuming comic. 

A nation hate symbol. 

A sign of resistance. 

Has one meme ever been so many different things? 

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