In 2005, artist Matt Furie published the first edition of Boy’s Club, a comic book starring four friends living in the hedonistic and aimless haze of their post-college, early-20s. There was Landwolf, the party animal; Andy, the prankster; Brett, the dancer—and then there was Pepe, a super chill frog who, through a series of twisted events, would eventually become the mascot of the alt-right and provide a substantial boost to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Pepe’s journey from lovable anthropomorphic amphibian to an official hate symbol registered with the Anti-Defamation League is chronicled in the new documentary Feels Good Man.
In tracking Pepe’s co-option, director Arthur Jones unveils a broader story of how tribalism in internet culture can vastly distort reality to a disturbing, and sometimes lethal, extent.
“Pepe is this really unique case study where you can talk about the tragic story arc of the silly, stoned cartoon frog, but you can also talk about the larger story arc of trolling,” Jones says. “The aesthetics of trolling, the culture jamming of trolling, the gaslighting of trolling, all moved off of these message boards and then out into the mainstream of our politics and the mainstream of our social discourse.”
The radicalization of Pepe can be traced to the controversial message board 4chan where he became a popular symbol for NEETs, a term meaning “not in education, employment, or training” that describes people who, whether by choice or circumstance, have no ambition to be in school or hold a job. When Pepe memes began to seep into mainstream pop culture with “normies” (i.e., “normal” people) and celebrities like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj posting memes, people on 4chan retaliated by making extreme and violent depictions of Pepe.
“It’s like a classic punk response,” says Dale Beran, author of 4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump, in the doc. “It’s so offensive it can’t be co-opted.”
Pepe was being transformed into a terrorist, a Nazi, and a skinhead. In 2014, when Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree near the University of California, Santa Barbara, that left seven people dead, including himself, people on 4chan began incorporating images of Pepe with Rodger in “heroic” and “vigilante”-like scenarios. Upending the status quo became part of Pepe’s lore in 4chan—and that directly spilled into the 2016 presidential race. As images of Pepe with Trump or as Trump began to circulate, his campaign latched on to that momentum in their favor.
And so began Pepe’s full tilt into the alt-right.
In the wake of Trump’s election, Jones felt there was “sensationalism of the provocateurs of the alt-right movement” in the media and in documentaries that he aimed to sidestep in Feels Good Man.
“Instead we wanted to show the people that the provocateurs of that movement sought to exploit—those people who’d been using Pepe online to express anger and aggrievement,” he says.
Jones also wanted to give Pepe his own redemption arc.
Throughout Feels Good Man, there are animated interstitials of Pepe acting out or responding to various issues brought up in the film. Those moments illustrate Pepe as he was intended: a good-natured, easygoing frog—not a champion for divisiveness and hate speech.
“We figured that one of the reasons that Pepe became so easily remixed and co-opted and warped on the internet was because people didn’t really understand the source material,” Jones says.
He mentions that there are, of course, other cartoons that people have imbued with extremist propaganda, like memes of SpongeBob as a Nazi.
“But you’re well aware that SpongeBob is a show on Nickelodeon. When you see the racist version of SpongeBob, you’re aware that that’s a derivation,” Jones says. “But when you see Pepe, you weren’t aware of Boy’s Club. And so hopefully, the movie will at least help people understand Matt’s true intentions and the nature of his original artwork.”