The dark side of the internet meme ‘Pepe the Frog’ has been pushed into the spotlight with its classification as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Pepe the Frog began life in Matt Furie’s comic Boy’s Club in 2005 as someone who enjoyed peeing with his trousers round his ankles with the catch phrase “Feels good man”. Since then, he has been adopted by a whole new “boy’s club” – the alt-right – and dragged through the murky waters of anonymous forums.
Perhaps Pepe’s most common usage online has been on 4chan, where various renditions of the cartoon character are used to start threads. Pepe has been manipulated to express some of the innocent feelings of the 4chan usership, but also for rather more sinister purposes, such as threads about shooting up schools, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and rape.
Pepe’s versatility coupled with the computer savviness of the alt-right has made this once innocent frog the chosen icon for a deeply sinister movement that is rallying behind candidate Trump as the man to make America great again. Like many pieces of hate iconography, Pepe started life as innocuous, but last week his notoriety came to a head; Pepe was added to the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols. This came after Trump retweeted an image of himself as Pepe and his son posted a picture that included the same image as one of “The Deplorables” on Instagram. It took a message from candidate Clinton’s team to point out that “that cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realize.”
Whilst it isn’t particularly hard to believe that the Trumps are comfortable with being slimy half-humans, it is incredible to see how this cartoon frog has been appropriated to become something so hateful. This has come as a result of the online alt-right’s efforts to “reclaim Pepe from the normies”, as an anonymous white nationalist is quoted as saying by the Daily Beast back in May. What is lost on the alt-right, however, is that they are a group devoted to reclaiming a country that wasn’t really theirs to begin with trying to reclaim a meme that wasn’t really theirs to begin with.
Whilst the ADL have pointed out that “The mere fact of posting a Pepe meme does not mean that someone is racist” it does seem that Pepe the frog has found a new home in the swamps of online culture.