Back in high school, my friends would lean over someone’s smartphone and laugh as they swiped through a gallery of photographs, each one a variation of some strange, anthropomorphic frog. The cartoon character, whose name I eventually learned was Pepe, came to consume a sizeable amount of my social media feed, where people used his image to express sadness, grief and stress.
At a very basic level, this phenomenon illustrates precisely how a meme works to permeate social dialogue, influencing how we express ourselves and communicate with one another. The image contains the power to redefine and perpetuate specific contexts, too.
Arthur Jones’ documentary “Feels Good Man” works to unpack the relationship between creating personal art and the troubles of watching the general public commodify it. Like Frankenstein and his monster, Pepe’s creator, Matt Furie, reached a point where he no longer held any authority, both artistic and legal, over his own creation. While Pepe the Frog operates as the documentary’s central focus, Jones appears interested in the broad implications of coopting an image as well.
Though Pepe first rose to internet stardom by way of Furie’s “Boy’s Club” comic series, the frog’s cultural identity gradually shifted into something less than desirable after the character fell victim to media platforms like 4chan.
When looking at the bulbous eyes and fat-lipped smirk, it’s hard to imagine the character would eventually spread to the reaches of numerous hate group websites. In 2017, white nationalist Richard Spencer even donned a Pepe the Frog pin before getting punched to the ground.
I remember when Furie published a comic to announce the character’s death. When he released the series back in 2005, the cartoonist likely did not expect his dorky, amphibious character, Pepe the Frog, to mutate into a hate symbol. This funeral was an attempt on Furie’s end to curtail a prejudiced internet movement led by Pepe-inspired imagery.
Furie grew up enamored of frogs, building them out of LEGO pieces and designing various mockups in his sketchbook. In blurry photographs, the artist is seen with a toothy smile and thick glasses; this tenderness does not escape the Furie depicted throughout the documentary, where his soft-spoken persona and thin frame undercuts any possibility of seeing the middle-aged artist appear angry or upset.
One of the first scenes follows Furie as he ambles around the edge of a swamp; bleating frogs accompany his journey around the landscape.
“It’s just been a slow drip of frogs throughout my entire life… Just one little frog after another”; Furie says this as one inches along his forearm. From the outset of the documentary, it’s difficult to visualize this same person originating a character that would ultimately make its way to the Anti-Defamation League.
Jones uses his directorial authority to differentiate between the originated character, Pepe, and the onslaught of appropriated, often offensive versions that communicate an alt-right agenda. At times, the narrative feels unbelievably farcical and senseless, but, on the whole, this approach aptly mirrors the lawless playing field seen on the internet.
“Feels Good Man” guides the audience through the frog’s rise, fall and subsequent vindication; intersections with the 2016 election or the more recent Hong Kong protests are not digressions, but rather the backbone of a winding tale.
Before Pepe could explode into cultural relevancy, users on 4chan had to labor and work to place him on the radar. For those unfamiliar with the platform, 4chan is an imageboard website where users can post on a variety of topics, be it film, politics or cartoons. This veil of anonymity primed the perfect stage for generating loudly offensive content.
Though the context is quite convoluted, I’ll put it in simple terms: 4chan users were drawn to Pepe for his inherent sorrow, leading numerous users to adopt the iconography as a means of exhibiting their own insecurities and discontent in the “real world.” Those unafflicted by experiences similar to their own were branded as “normies,” a phrase charged with spite.
Jones managed to nab an interview with one of these 4chan users, referenced in “Feels Good Man” as Mills, who breathes further life into the concept. He describes 4chan “like group therapy on the internet,” so, when general basic media users started to gravitate toward Pepe, 4chan users seethed and, according to Mills, “The Pepe defense was building.”
Writer and artist Dale Beran notes how “Whenever [4chan users] thought outsiders were stealing their memes, they would try and make them as offensive as possible.” The visual subject, with all his benign roots, then confuses the intention of any given post. For example, an anti-Semitic drawing of Pepe is, without a doubt, malicious and oppressive, yet manifesting these values in a cartoon frog undermines the subtext.
This grisly modification of Pepe manifested most prominently during the 2016 election, where 4chan users rallied in favor of Trump’s oppressive and intimidating platform. His own bullying antics actualized their inclinations to differentiate between the “winners and losers” of the social hierarchy.
Joel Finkelstein, director of the Contagion Network Research Institute, went on to explain how Pepe appealed to so many political sensationalists through the character’s visual imagery, specifically in how it “combines this impossible mixture of innocence and evil.”
Back in 2019, Furie even took Infowars to court over a print that featured his original character standing alongside Roger Stone, Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway and other notable personalities of the Republican Party. By no means would this settle the greater discourse around Pepe’s damning legacy but, within the political arena, Furie still tried to negate such connotations through legally challenging them.
“Feels Good Man” clarifies that the internet might be forever, but a cultural identity is capable of growth. Furie himself attests to this potential when he notes, “The positive notion of Pepe is the possibility that you can change again.”