Back in 2005, cartoonist Matt Furie created Boy’s Club, a deadpan cartoon about four roommates (Andy, Brett, Landwolf, and Pepe) getting into all sorts of mischief in the midst of drug-fueled stupors.
Years later, one of the cartoon’s four leading characters, Pepe, has been transformed into a symbol of hate used by the bigoted alt-right. How did this happen? How did Pepe, a semi-innocent stoner frog from a cartoon about pizza and beer, get turned into a symbol that inspires fear and disgust among the general public? Poor Pepe, he just wanted to get high with his friends, man…
The story of Pepe the frog is the story of a harmless character that an online community of racists perverted to fit into their own skewed ideologies, thus making this adorable frog cartoon into a symbol of hatred and bigotry.
Since then, Pepe has been appearing all over alt-right forums accompanied by some very terrifying words. Pepe memes have depicted the frog wearing a KKK robe, dressed as Hitler, saying anti-Semitic words outside of a synagogue, and standing in front of the World Trade Center as it burns down. It’s hard to tell exactly why these twisted communities have latched onto this character, but one thing is for sure: Pepe the frog is no longer just an innocent cartoon character.
Let’s look at the history of how the Pepe character was created and subsequently became a poster boy for alt-right bigots around the globe. Today, the Pepe cartoon has drawn the attention of big-time politicians and has been declared a symbol of hate by the Anti-Defamation League. This is not just a stupid meme, but rather has become a widely debated and universally recognized emblem.
Pepe the Frog Is Born
As I mentioned previously, the Pepe character was created by Matt Furie as part of the Boy’s Club comic strip in 2005. Furie illustrated the comic using Microsoft Paint and originally released it on Myspace. In the comics, Pepe’s classic move was to pull his pants all the way down to his ankles. When asked why he would pull his pants all the way down, he would utter his catchphrase: “Feels good man.”
Images of Pepe accompanied by his catchphrase started circulating around the internet, simply as innocent (if childish) pee jokes at first. For a while, these memes circulated around the internet harmlessly until, that is, they got picked up by one notorious alt-right forum.
4chan Picks up Pepe
It’s believed that the first time Pepe appeared on 4chan (an anonymous imageboard website and a known breeding ground for hateful ideologies) was in 2008. The original image of him was scanned and uploaded to the /b/ board, the first board ever created on 4chan, and this board soon became considered the meme’s “permanent home.”
Many variations of the Pepe meme soon started appearing on 4chan, each of them containing different captions and displaying Pepe in a variety of different situations and displaying different emotions. Color was even added to the image, which was originally black and white, giving Pepe green skin and brown lips.
From then on, genuinely horrific memes featuring Pepe have circulated around 4chan targeting minority religious and racial groups, propagating harmful conspiracy theories, and generally just breeding hate.
For a while, it was just within these message boards that this perverted version Pepe lived. However, eventually, Pepe was even acknowledged by some of the most powerful people in the world, thus validating the awful belief systems that he had become associated with.
Pepe Goes Alt-Right
In the midst of the United States presidential election of 2016, Pepe the frog became heavily associated with the alt-right movement and the campaign of Donald Trump. In 2015, Donald Trump himself tweeted a meme that looked like a Pepe the frog representation of himself, which was drawn from a video titled “You Can’t Stump the Trump (Volume 4).” Months later during the same election, Roger Stone and Donald Trump Jr. shared a parody movie poster from The Expendables on Twitter and Instagram with the title “The Deplorables.”
When these spotlighted politicians began promoting the Pepe the frog ethos, the meme really became a topic of conversation. In response to all this, the Anti-Defamation League claimed that Pepe was an anti-Semitic symbol. Around the same time, Hillary Clinton’s campaign website made a post claiming that Pepe the frog was “a symbol associated with white supremacy” and denounced Trump and his colleagues for promoting the meme.
Matt Furie, the original creator of the frog character, was not thrilled by what was happening to his funny frog cartoon. During an interview with Esquire, Furie commented on the perversion of his cartoon, saying, “It sucks, but I can’t control it more than anyone can control frogs on the internet.”
Indeed, there was really nothing that Furie could do to reclaim his character and clean Pepe of his associations with the alt-right, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy. It seems that Pepe, who was intended to be nothing more than a drunken anthropomorphic frog, had been turned to the dark side without any possibility for reclamation.
Things worsened when a “children’s book” titled The Adventures of Pepe and Pede was released. The book was a racist, Islamaphobic piece of trash that only furthered the perception of the Pepe cartoon as a symbol of hate. Then, in 2019, a video game titled Jesus Strikes Back: Judgment Day was released that allowed players to play as Pepe and murder feminists, minorities, and liberals. Horrifying stuff. Naturally, both of these disgusting pieces of media sparked multiple lawsuits.
Furie has described the entire saga as his “worst nightmare.” He’s also been quoted saying, “Hate and racism couldn’t be further from something on my radar. I try to focus on positivity and nature and animals.” It’s safe to say that, apart from all of the minorities that have been victimized by the perversion of Pepe, Matt Furie is also a victim in this story.
Feels Good Man
If you’re interested in learning more about the tragic saga Pepe the frog, check out the PBS documentary Feels Good Man that was released to the public in 2020. The film documents exactly how the Pepe the frog cartoon was co-opted by the alt-right and turned into the symbol of hate that it is today.
Director Arthur Jones does a great job of detailing the journey of Pepe through the internet forums and into mainstream media, and also sheds light on the horrific ideologies of those responsible for the frog’s co-option.
The story of Pepe the frog is difficult to understand because it’s largely nonsensical. The fact that this specific frog cartoon was adopted by alt-right racists seems very arbitrary and random. However, it sort of goes to show how these people considered themselves to be anti-establishment and contrarian.
Among forums like 4chan that featured Pepe memes, there was an aura of taking back this symbol of Pepe for the “common people.” And the more people tried to rid the world of these racist Pepe memes, the more of them appeared online.
Hopefully, one day, Pepe can go back to just being a fun-loving frog with no political agenda. And, even better, hopefully, these bigoted alt-right meme-creators can reform themselves and learn to love their fellow human beings rather than perpetuating racism.