On the heels of the Clinton campaign putting out a primer on Pepe the Frog, the Southern Poverty Law Center has likewise designed the comic book frog as a hate symbol. It has been a strange year.
As often happens when people not ensconced in a subculture attempt to talk about it, discussion of Pepe the Frog by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Hillary Clinton campaign lacks nuance. Perhaps it is also the case that nobody wants to expound at length about a crudely-drawn cartoon frog best known for expressing whether he feels good or bad. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) for you, dear reader, I have the time to kill.
Pepe the Frog is older than the alt-right he has recently come to symbolize. Creator Matt Furie first presented the character on MySpace (remember MySpace??) in 2005, who soon debuted in a comic series drawn by Furie called Boy’s Club, which is more or less about anthropomorphic animals living a stoner lifestyle. It was the mid-aughties; I guess you had to be there.
The comic panel which skyrocketed the amphibian to memetic fame sees Pepe and Landwolf playing a video game. Landwolf says, “hey pepe–i heard you pull your pants down all the way to go pee.” Pepe responds, “feels good man”. And so a meme was born. Some enterprising memester carved out Pepe with his “feels good man” word bubble, and the Internet would never be the same. Versions soon emerged that were colorized, had the word bubble blanked out so humorists could add any text they wanted, and before long even further manipulations appeared, including the almost-equally-famous “feels bad man” version, in which Pepe’s smile is turned upside down and he is no doubt lamenting the taste of meme exhaustion.
Pepe memes first proliferated on the 4chan imageboard website in 2008. You are probably familiar with 4chan, but if you aren’t, just imagine a bulletin board where people can post images and comments about them, then imagine that there is purposefully little to no moderation of content. 4chan is not one board, though, but many, with topic areas from various kinds of pornography to bodybuilding, politics, anime, music, and other pop culture interests. Pepe became a popular reaction image all over 4chan, and because 4chan is heavily influential of Internet subcultures, it spread from there.
It’s hard to explain why Pepe makes for such a versatile meme, or why so many different versions have been created. Popularity tends to feed on itself, I suppose, and over time Pepe became an ingroup signifier–those familiar with Pepe would understand a Pepe image without explanation, whereas those not in-the-know would be baffled as to why they’re seeing a cartoon frog. Indeed, it was exactly the latter reaction that prompted the Clinton campaign to issue their Pepe explainer, since Pepe was heavily used in meme images referring to Clinton’s “deplorables” comment.
Somewhere along the way, obviously, Pepe came to be associated with the alt-right, or if you prefer less obtuse terminology: racists, Nazis, white supremacists, and other assorted bigots. Some sources claim that Pepe first appeared in alt-right memes in 2015, but in truth Pepe has been utilized in virtually every kind of sundry unpleasantness one could imagine, arguably so much so that being “reclaimed” by white supremacists makes about as much sense as them reclaiming the word “Internet.” Pepe appears in so many different contexts that his ubiquity is practically the entire joke. Why is there a random image of Pepe on a bike, or smoking weed, or holding a gun? Because we can. Because the “normies” don’t get it.
It’s interesting that the SPLC mentioned the (((echoes))) symbol alongside Pepe, too. If you’re not familiar with that one, either, it’s actually pretty simple: there was a trend begun among anti-Semites on Twitter who started putting the names of known Jews and suspected Jewish-controlled institutions in parentheses as a subtle signal to fellow travelers. But it wasn’t long before others caught on and started using the same technique in an ironic manner, including Jewish Twitter users putting the parentheses on their own Twitter names, sometimes using several extra sets as if to signify how extra Jewish they are. At this point, the original intended usage is almost completely drowned out by the ironic, mocking usage.
Pepe’s trajectory has been almost entirely the opposite. Like most art originating from Internet subcultures, his existence as a meme has always been absurdist and ironic in character. The character in his original comic strip presentation couldn’t really be construed as political–the antics of the Boy’s Club animals are pointless and irrelevant, at best, and Pepe is no exception. To take a meme all but deliberately designed to be nonsensical and repurpose it for racist propaganda is disappointing.
It would be entirely fair to say that 4chan users themselves are largely to blame, though. 4chan’s political forum, known as “/pol/”, isn’t so much a venue for political discussion as it is a haven for white supremacists and assorted bigots. While the discourse is superficially civil, instances of racial slurs appear quite frequently, and the subtext of almost all comments fixates on the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of all others. (The forum used to be much more openly hateful until media attention and resulting moderation changes drove such tendencies underground and to other venues like 8chan and Reddit.)
Is there a point to all this? I’m not sure. I’ve long been fascinated by Internet memes and their significance. They are often packed with non-obvious information about the people who create, share, and enjoy them. They represent a peculiar form of communication. A trend I have noticed recently is the posting of an image with the word “same” as the sole comment on it. The meaning is self-evident: the poster identifies with the sentiment of the image. While there is a long history of people communicating their feelings by sharing writing, music, and other art forms they identify with, nothing quite matches the stark efficiency of an image accompanied by the word “same.”
Pepe helped shape that movement, too, thanks to the meme’s endless versions, remixes, and edits. The meme’s origins really have nothing to do with white supremacy or bigotry of any kind, but the development of the alt-right and its intersection with certain Internet subcultures has birthed a strange combination: the Donald-Trump-as-Pepe meme. Google it if you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.