Pepe the Frog originated from the comic book Boys Club created by American writer and illustrator, Matt Furie (“The Transmogrification”, 2020). Before Pepe’s extensive history of symbolic change, Furie created Pepe along with three other colorful characters – Brett, Andy, and Landwolf – in which the quartet were made to portray young “dude”
roommates living away from home for the first time and experimenting with their freedom (Jones, 2020). Pepe is a half human, half frog who has
signature green skin, bulging eyes and red frog-like lips. The features that Furie paints of Pepe hint to the connotation that Pepe’s exterior appearance is made for viewers to feel the cringe-worthiness sometimes associated with the coming-of-age experiences young men go through once they leave home. This is highlighted in the comic with Pepe going through awkward social interactions, experiments with psychedelics, and he can’t seem to keep his room clean or afford healthy food. The following paragraphs will assess how Pepe the Frog went from a coming-of-age character to a symbol of extremism and anti-culture.
What first made Pepe hit the mainstream was not the 2005 comic book itself, but a screenshot from the book of Pepe saying, “Feels Good Man” that went viral on platforms like 4Chan, 8Chan and Reddit (“Pepe the Frog”, n.d) (see image A).
From this phenomenon forward, Pepe became an iconic reaction image before he became a meme (“Pepe the Frog”, 2015). Reaction images are when images or gifs are used in a similar manner as emojis to respond to comments and posts of others on social media platforms (“Reaction Image”, 2011). Initially, it became popular on workout forums on 4Chan in which young men would upload post-gym photos with Pepe’s “Feels Good Man” image (Jones, 2020). Pepe as a reaction image ignited a revolution involving more active platforms with increased dialogue between users, creating a shared “inside joke” among some online users.
Eventually, through memes, many aspects of Pepe evolved, too. For example, in 2010, a user modified the original caption to read instead “Feels Bad Man”, turning Pepe’s awkward, yet encouraging character into what later became known as “Sad Pepe” (“Feels Bad Man/Sad Frog”, 2011) (see image B).
Sad Pepe has watery eyes and frowning eyebrows that denote an expression of failure or dismay. Sad Pepe became popular among young men attempting to create a symbol against the hegemonic masculinity portrayed by the bodybuilding community (Jones, 2020). Instead of being seen as a motivational figure, Pepe began to represent the experience and struggle of self-admitted unconfident, anti-social men. This dichotomy online parallels that noted offline of the “jock versus nerd” conflicts depicted in popular high school dramas.
Between 2011 and 2013, a new version of Pepe – Smug Frog – begins to appear as an antagonist or abusive version of Sad Pepe (“Smug Pepe”, 2015) (See image C).
Smug Frog maintains the signature characteristics of Pepe; however, his grin is somewhat self-satisfied and deceptive. Although many other versions of Pepe popped up around this time, Smug Frog has been most associated with “Netizens” (those actively involve in online sub-communities) who became annoyed with “normies” (those partaking in mainstream culture) using Pepe memes out of context. Ironically, this is what brought Pepe to the mainstream of pop culture yet also pushed him to the fringe corners of social media forums (2015). The evolution of Smug Frog has been associated with adaptations of Pepe as an effort by Netizens to keep Pepe anti-mainstream. Much of the imagery resulting from these adaptions is considered hate speech that has been fuelling alt-right platforms.
By 2015, when former president Donald Trump was running for office, supporters began creating Pepe memes associated with him (“Pepe the Frog”. 2015). This eventually led to adapting Smug Frog into a Trump-like figure, leaving all key features, while adding Trump’s signature combover and his red tie and suit combo. When we observe the political climate Trump was brewing through the promotion of campaign cleavages such as stricter immigration policies and the subliminal meaning of “Make American Great Again”, illustrations of ‘Smug Trump’ began to appear more in relation to bigoted messaging and imagery (Jones, 2020). In image D for example, we can see that there is an over dramatization of a Mexican family attempting to cross the U.S. border; however, because there is a fence, ‘Smug Trump’ has a devilish smirk insinuating his “Build a Wall” campaign strategy was a success.
As Trump’s problematic rhetoric towards marginalized groups intensified over his presidency, so too did the intensification of Pepe memes encouraging anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and White Supremacist messaging, to name a few (2020). This popularity was not just experienced in America, but throughout the globe.
To elaborate, let’s examine image E for further societal context as to how Pepe continued down this notorious spiral. There are two main symbols in this image that can be interpreted from an intertextual perspective to identify Pepe’s symbolic messaging used by extremists:
1) Make America Great Again (MAGA) Hat – This hat may have a double meaning. Although the individual wearing this hat may just be a Trump supporter, the meaning of this infamous and aggressively red hat may be decoded as a symbol of intolerance by certain populations.
2) Green Lives Matter Sign – this sign is somewhat like culture jamming for it is attempting to infringe on or mimic the symbolism and text associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. From an American context, this symbolizes that the individual holding the sign is against or creating a mockery of a movement seeking to mobilize disenfranchised Black communities. Additionally, the individual chooses to use Sad Pepe knowing that he would be interpreted in a connotative way to those aware of its association with extremist views.
To conclude, Pepe’s symbolism may have manifested into something more sinister than what Matt Furie had anticipated; however, Pepe remains dynamic. Furie has attempted to create a campaign called #SavePepe to “take Pepe back” by encouraging creators to create positive memes of the frog as a way of deterring extremist rhetoric (Jones, 2020). Although there is no way of telling what Pepe’s future may hold, with a shift in societal knowledge and the uprising of present social phenomena such as cancel culture, there is hope that his present-day associations with extremism will be a memory of the past.
Feels Bad Man/Sad Frog. (2011). Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/feels-bad-man-sad-frog
Jones, A. (Director). (2020). Feels Good Man [Video file]. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11394182/
Pepe the Frog. (2015). Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/pepe-the-frog
Pepe the Frog. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/pepe-the-frog
Reaction Images. (2011). Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/reaction-images
Smug Frog. (2015). Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/smug-frog
The Transmogrification of Pepe the Frog: Poison frog.(2020, Oct 26). The Economist (Online), Retrieved from https://login.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/magazines/transmogrification-pepe-frog/docview/2454447401/se-2?accountid=14701