The new documentary Feels Good Man, directed by Arthur Jones, tells the strange story of how an otherwise obscure and innocuous frog cartoon character became a symbol of hate. The frog in question is named Pepe, created by an unassuming, otherwise unknown and (at times frustratingly) low-key San Francisco artist named Matt Furie.
What happened to Pepe is a deceptively complex question, and really understanding it requires some knowledge of media literacy, critical thinking, folklore, social media, memes, popular culture, and politics. Feels Good Man is about many things, and Jones sets the stage early in the film by introducing the audience to the concept of memes. The term, first coined by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, refers basically to an idea or behavior that spreads between people within a culture. (Full disclosure: I know Richard, have met him several times, and we have both been guest speakers on the same conference program. Also, of course, he is a Board Member of the Center for Inquiry, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine.)
Dawkins does not appear in the film, but Dr. Susan Blackmore does. She is a psychologist and author of many excellent books, the most relevant of which here is The Meme Machine, which analyzes memes as the subject of study (memetics). In a TED talk and elsewhere, she has described and refined the idea of memes as ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain, much like a virus, and often change in the process. (Full disclosure: I know Sue, have met her several times, and am a huge fan of her work on a wide variety of topics ranging from psi research to near-death experiences. And no, I don’t know anyone else in the film.) Some memes are images, and they’re very common on social media: The internet is full of them, ranging from adorable to wildly offensive: Captioned photos of Grumpy Cat. The Distracted Boyfriend photo. What The Most Interesting Man thinks. The anguished blonde yelling at a pissy white cat seated at a table in front of a plate of salad. Kermit the Frog sipping tea while dispensing some pithy wisdom. And so on.
Pepe was one such meme. As is always the potential fate of anything online, the image was soon adopted (or co-opted, depending on your point of view) by others. The film meticulously charts Pepe’s transition from slacker cartoon frog to hated white supremacist and right-wing icon. It didn’t happen overnight, and Feels Good Man documents the main turning points. In 2005, Furie drew a crude-but-cute frog for a comic series he created called Boy’s Club. It was about the wacky antics of four anthropomorphic animal roommates, several of whom are stoner-slackers, and one of whom was Pepe, a bug-eyed, heavy-lipped green frog.
In one panel of one of the cartoons Pepe looked sad, and, for whatever reason, that became a popular “sad frog” image on the notoriously toxic anonymous message site 4chan, typically populated by racists, sexists, misfits, and plenty of trolls. Trolls are people who, typically anonymously, delight in provoking arguments on the internet for their own amusement. “Nothing should be taken seriously” is the unofficial troll mantra. Trolls see themselves as taboo smashers whose real message is that the online world is populated with politically correct, easily offended ninnies who should lighten up.
In her book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, Prof. Whitney Phillips notes that “Trolls are keenly aware of how their behaviors impact others, and know exactly which issues will get the greatest rise from their chosen targets. From race to class to everything in between, trolls have their fingers on all kinds of powder kegs—all the better to troll you with” (p. 35); indeed, “trolling has a way of snapping its audience to attention, either by activating emotional investment or by forwarding a claim so outrageous that one cannot help but engage in a dialogue” (p. 159).
Trolling is inherently antagonistic arguing for the sake of arguing, pissing people off simply for the fun of it. The more vile, nasty, offensive, and outrageous the comment or image, the more successful the troll is by their standards. The troll is successful in part because his or her status is, at least initially, ambiguous. Do they genuinely endorse the venom they share, or is it all a joke? Just as Pepe is ambiguous—just a sad frog, after all—so is the message he carries.
Pepe’s forlorn expression resonated with legions of lonely, cynical, nihilistic, and disenfranchised slacker youth who felt alienated for whatever reason. This is nothing new, of course; a generation earlier, Beavis and Butthead had become a huge hit touching on similar themes, as did punk music a generation before that. There’s nothing new under the sun; most young people will at some point or other identify with the sneering rebel, the misunderstood outsider for whom adulthood and responsibility—not to mention civility—are unreasonably onerous demands. There’s a reason why the heroes of countless films are the nerds, punks, and outcasts while the jocks, beautiful people, and rich snobs are the Establishment enemy. In this context, it’s not surprising that Pepe became an underground icon among those who hated “the normies.” Most people who initially used and shared Pepe memes were drawn to its Rorschach-like appeal of expressing sadness or sorrow, but the many trolls among them saw the potential to push it a step further, placing Pepe in increasingly inflammatory contexts.
Soon part of the trolls’ mischievous mission was to make the Pepe image go mainstream, such as by tricking huge celebrities into sharing or referencing their images, symbols, or messaging. Several stars, including Katy Perry, shared Pepe images, surely unaware of his increasingly toxic and hostile connotations on the darker parts of the internet. In October 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump retweeted an image of him as Pepe—much to the delight of his young supporters, many of whom were very much aware that the image was associated with everything from Nazis to pedophiles. This part of the film offers an interesting, if not wholly convincing, argument that 4chan trolls played a significant role in electing Trump.
Pepe is only one of several similar troll memes that celebrities have unwittingly endorsed. In September 2008, for example, during an Oprah Winfrey Show about online predators, Winfrey referenced a troll meme named “9000 Penises,” allegedly written by someone online claiming to represent a group of 9,000 predators. One popular meme analysis website described the reaction: “Shortly after the episode’s airing, the ‘Over 9000 penises’ segment was quickly uploaded to YouTube, where it was identified by internet users as an obvious troll. Following much mockery, Harpo Productions, Oprah’s production company, had the video taken down and removed all references to the quote on Oprah.com.”
Ambiguity of these signs, symbols, and messages is part of their power. In 2018 during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, rumors circulated that that a lawyer sitting behind Kavanaugh, Zina Bash, was caught on camera flashing a white nationalism sign with the fingers of one hand as her arms crossed. Memes shared on social media “revealed the truth” about what she was doing; some took it seriously, some as a joke, while others smelled Grade-A trolling. Many wondered why the Mexican-born, half-Jewish lawyer would be signaling to the world her sympathies with white nationalists.
When Bash did it a second time, it seemed to confirm the worst fears. However, as The Washington Post reported:
Taylor Foy, a spokesperson for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said there was another, innocuous explanation for this second “Okay” hand sign: the signal was aimed at a judiciary staffer who fulfilled a request for the judge. Bash texted a staffer during the hearing “to request a water glass for the judge,” Foy said. “Once it arrived, she was simply communicating her thanks.” In CSPAN’s archive of the hearings, Kavanaugh turns around and speaks to Bash at one point. There’s a coffee cup, but not water glass, on the desk. Bash and the man sitting next to her appear to discuss whatever the judge said as Bash texts on her phone. About a minute later, Bash looks straight ahead and appears to mouth the word “glass.” Then, she gives the OK hand sign. Shortly after that, a water glass is brought to Kavanaugh’s desk.”
According to this explanation, it was an “okay, thanks, everything’s good” symbol, and linked to some external issue going on at the time or just before, not a sign of her support of racism. (Others in the public eye have also been accused of flashing “secret” signs, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama and Beyonce.)
Feels Good Man then chronicles Furie’s largely fruitless attempts to rebottle the genie. He did, after all, create the character and could easily prove that he owns the copyright to the image. But copyright only takes you so far; people can legally use and share works, especially if they change it in some way and thus make it eligible for protection under the Fair Use doctrine, which generally allows for the unlicensed use of works in cases such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Satire, for example, is generally considered to be Fair Use, which is why Weird Al Yankovic isn’t required to (though he does) seek permission from original artists when making his parody songs. When someone uses a copyrighted image to sell an item, however, that’s a different kettle of stoner frogs—as conspiracy peddler Alex Jones found out when he used Pepe in a poster he sold (the film includes excerpts of Alex Jones under oath in Furie’s successful lawsuit).
The story of Pepe the Frog is in some ways a microcosm of social media, including its reliance on outrage, clicks, and attention as the main metric of what’s valued. Neither truth, nor accuracy, nor fairness but what will get people to Like and Share—what will make algorithms push one meme to the top of the search engines and “Now Trending” lists, providing social currency (“internet fame”) for the creators and real currency for advertisers. It’s a race to the bottom, an appeal to what will get people riled up—but, as before, it’s nothing new. Jerry Springer and many others exploited this formula three decades ago on their talk shows.
The paradox Furie faces is clear: the more he tries to fight the misuse of his beloved Pepe, the more attention he draws to it, and the more incentive and fodder he provides trolls to perpetuate it. On the other hand, ignoring the problem isn’t ideal either, and the film gives the sense that Furie was a bit too late in recognizing what was going on.
Furie and the film make the argument that intent and context are important to consider when interpreting usage of these symbols. Some argue that anyone who share memes like Pepe should by default be assumed to have knowledge of the freight and meanings associated with it, thus removing the cover of plausible deniability for trolls. After all, by 2021, surely few people are unaware that Pepe became associated with hate groups (regardless of his innocuous origins or other uses). But the inherent nature of symbols is that it’s often difficult or impossible to know what others mean when they share ambiguous images (a cartoon of Pepe wearing a Nazi swastika would of course not be ambiguous, but the classic drawing of him crying is).
One argument is that trolls should not be given the benefit of the doubt when they claim they don’t really agree with the racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable messages they create and share. The argument is that these memes and messages are so toxic and malicious that even if they are joking, the fact that they’re joking about such issues is itself problematic and evidence of—if not agreement with, at least tolerance of—the intolerable. Examples include the West Point cadets who, like Zina Bash, were accused of flashing white nationalist signs on camera during an Army-Navy football game in 2019.
Feels Good Man makes a compelling argument that such a position doesn’t solve the problem but merely moves the crux of it one step further because the motive of the person sharing a meme still must be determined to know whether he or she is a troll. As we have seen, many troll memes are shared by presumably sincere and genuine non-trolls (such as Oprah and Katie Perry, not to mention Furie himself). Assuming that anyone using or sharing the Pepe meme is racist (or at best indifferent to racism) results in many false positives and false accusations—playing right into trolls’ hands. (A West Point investigation concluded that the cadets at the football game did not in fact make any white supremacy signs but were instead playing a common game with each other and were unaware they were on camera). The last scenes in the film reveal an interesting and surprising twist in the effort to reclaim Pepe the Frog. There’s no simple solution to the problem, and one can’t help but feel sorry for people who have a tattoo of Pepe (one is seen in the film) who are likely to be mistaken for a racist because of it.
Pepe’s arc is unusual in some ways but typical in others. There’s no clear formula for a quirky viral hit; for every clever meme that survives and thrives in the social media ecosystem, tens of thousands dies in obscurity. There was no malicious mastermind who intentionally plucked Pepe off the couch playing video games with his buddies in Boys Club and put him in a Nazi uniform to troll, horrify, and amuse. It was instead an incremental (and partly random) series of steps and decisions by different people at different times with different agendas. Feels Good Man is a fascinating story with a few surprising twists along the way. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when an artist loses control over his work, and an enlightening case study in how social media trolls operate.