Pepe the Frog (shown here) is a friendly sort – big-eyed and green (as are many frogs) and casual.
He’s also been co-opted by alt-right and white supremacist groups. The Anti-Defamation League included him in its hate-symbol database.
That combination confounds Pepe’s creator. “It is hard to control anything on the internet,” Matt Furie recently told the Television Critics Association in a virtual session.
Now his story is told in a fascinating documentary. “Feels Good Man,” a Sundance Film Festival award-winner, will be 10 p.m. Monday (Oct. 19) on most PBS stations (check local listings), under the “Independent Lens” banner.
The League “never has declared a meme a hate symbol before,” said Arthur Jones, the filmmaker. “So it was a process for Matt to figure out how to handle this.”
Jones dug into a sub-culture of internet “trolls” – angry young men who attack the “normies” who have steady jobs, families and homes. By that measure, Furie is a normie – maybe to his own surprise.
“I went through a Goth phase and listened to Nine Inch Nails,” he said. “I would go to graves and take pictures of myself and look over gravestones with hair over my face …. I went through a raver phase. It was a long evolution for me to become a normie.”
But he is one now, at 41, with a house and girlfriend. During the pandemic, he said, “I have just kind of been building castles with my daughter and teaching her how to roller-skate and stuff.”
Furie grew up in Columbus, Ohio, graduated from Ohio Wesleyan in 2001 and began a life as an artist. In 2005, he created “Boys Club,” showing the casually hedonistic life of four friend who happened to be a dog, a bear, a wolf and a frog named Pepe.
“Boys Club” began as a homemade “zine” – a Kinko’s project for friends, he told one interviewer – and gradually got a publisher. “I was a ‘Boys Club’ fan from back in the day,” Jones said. “I bought the zine probably at Quimby’s Books in Chicago.”
Then if moved to the internet and began to catch on. “There’s not really any money that has ever been spent in marketing Pepe, … but it resonates with kids all around the world,” said Giorgio Angelini, the film’s producer-writer-cinematographer.
And then Pepe went out of control, passed around to trolls and Trumpites and more. As the 2016 election neared, Hillary Clinton condemned Pepe. At the time, Furie told an Atlantic interviewer that “it’s just a phase” that would disappear after the election.
It didn’t. Since Pepe is free on the internet, Furie makes money only from the side products – books and shirts and such. Then the image soured; the film shows when new Pepe shirts were scuttled.
“They were ready to (be) made available on a pretty big scale throughout America,” Furie said. “That’s right when Pepe kind of became politicized. When it was added to the hate-symbol database, the major distributor of the shirts decided to pull it.”
Even Pepe’s creator was reluctant to wear him. “I was wearing one of the shirts in the Taco Bell drive-through and I was asked about my affiiliation,” Furie said. “It just got awkward.”
Eventually, he struck back. The film shows the gradual process of lawyers fighting Pepe mis-use. Jones even sees hopeful signs, including Hong Kong protesters using Pepe as a symbol for freedom. “That was just an extension of the character’s popularity throughout the rest of the world.”
Even a hedonistic frog, it seems, can turn semi-normie.