'Feels Good Man' Traces How Pepe The Frog Morphed In Meaning Pepe the Frog is one of the most prolific images on the Internet. A new documentary follows the frog's creator, cartoonist Matt Furie, as he fights to regain control over his character.
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'Feels Good Man' Traces Pepe The Frog From Hate Symbol To Democracy Icon

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'Feels Good Man' Traces Pepe The Frog From Hate Symbol To Democracy Icon

'Feels Good Man' Traces Pepe The Frog From Hate Symbol To Democracy Icon

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Pepe the Frog is an Internet meme that looks exactly like what you would think - big eyes, green skin. A new documentary called "Feels Good Man" traces Pepe's symbolic path from lovable loser to hate figure to icon for democracy. NPR's Andrew Limbong reports.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Matt Furie, cartoonist and creator of Pepe the Frog, has a tentativeness to his voice. You can hear when he talks in the documentary about the inspiration for his most popular comic.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FEELS GOOD MAN")

MATT FURIE: I remember when I was in second grade and I went to the bathroom alongside my cousin Davey (ph).

LIMBONG: The cartoon shows Pepe urinating with his pants down to his ankles - something his cousin Davey did, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FEELS GOOD MAN")

FURIE: It seems like it would feel really good, so I wanted to make a comic about that.

LIMBONG: Furie gave Pepe a punchline that would become a catchphrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FEELS GOOD MAN")

FURIE: Feels good, man.

LIMBONG: By 2008, the Internet was still in relatively early stages of sharing memes online, a harbinger for how we communicate en masse now. On sites like 4chan, users were altering Pepe's feels good man vibes to reflect their feelings - feels bad, man; feels sad; feels angry. Arthur Jones directed the documentary.

ARTHUR JONES: What we really wanted to do was tell the emotional story of the Internet. He's really an avatar for people who are anonymous online.

LIMBONG: Then Pepe's popularity started reaching into mainstream culture. This bothered 4chan users. In the documentary, one named Mills characterized the wave of normies (ph) coming over to their turf like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FEELS GOOD MAN")

MILLS: They started making, like, a migration over to 4chan. Young women in particular downloaded Pepe images, using them for their own likes.

LIMBONG: To fend them off, Mills and his cohorts started making more reactionary, edgier Pepes glorifying racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. Director Arthur Jones says this coincided with Donald Trump's campaign for president.

JONES: Pepe became weaponized in a very, like, conscious way in 2016. You know, people who are white supremacist did see the popularity of Pepe, and then they decided to pick him up as a symbol.

LIMBONG: It got so bad that the Anti-Defamation League put Pepe on a list of hate symbols. Reporters started asking Matt Furie, what's it like to have made a hate symbol? And over and over again, he said it was just a phase, that it'll go away on its own. Looking back on it now, Furie tells me that the moment concerned him as an artist.

FURIE: You know, you think about what you're putting out there into the world and what is going to outlast you.

LIMBONG: And he didn't want it to be this. Furie naively tried getting his cartoonist friends to flood the internet with positive Pepe memes. Then he tried to wash his hands of the whole thing, killing Pepe in a comic. Neither stopped the glut of offensive Pepes. Director Arthur Jones again.

JONES: I think it's kind of easy for people to maybe criticize those things, but the reality was those were the tools that he had as an artist.

LIMBONG: Then a couple of copyright lawyers came to Furie's rescue. Through lawsuits and takedown notices, Furie started to get back some control over his work until it happened again. But this time, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong were using Pepe as an icon for their fight, seemingly unaware of Pepe's baggage in the U.S.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: It's all been through the power of Matt's artwork that people just connected to the emotionality of Pepe as a character.

LIMBONG: Giorgio Angelini produced the documentary, and he says something about Pepe, with his big eyes and dumb grin, taps into a feeling of discontent that's universal.

ANGELINI: I think that's really the story that we would like Pepe to carry on.

LIMBONG: As for Furie, he's gone through cycles with his creation. He's been tired of Pepe, defensive of Pepe, fed up with Pepe. And as an artist, he's moved on from the frog. But when I talked to him on Zoom, there was a Pepe plushie hanging just over his shoulder. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILD NOTHING SONG, "PARADISE")

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