Documentary on Pepe the Frog resurfaces big questions about cyber communities and the rise of alt-right
What can the history of symbols solve regarding the current legal contest in which a cartoonist claims the intellectual rights of a symbol were hijacked by alt-right?
As new as one may be in the business of social media, they've likely seen iterations of Pepe the Frog. Older people may no longer remember where they first saw it, as is often the case with memes.
What is less known, is that the original drawing belongs to Matt Furie, a cartoonist who has been doing children's drawings for years and who never imagined that one of his drawings for a series of youthful humor would be added to a list of hate symbols in 2016.
After obtaining the special mention by the jury at the Sundance Film Festival 2020, the documentary Feels Good Man — the debut of filmmaker Arthur Jones — will now be at several international festivals, many of them broadcast online.
In the movie, which immerses us in the style of Furie's drawing, the director also traces the history of the image and how it was incorporated as a meme of online communities full of trolls and extremists.
One can check Furie's psychedelic drawings, or the last kids album he worked on to understand how cruel it can be for an artist to have his work used by neo-Nazis.
In an interview for The Guardian he was optimistic despite not having drawn comics properly for a decade.
"You just gotta be yourself and be positive," said Furie
The documentary recaptures the moment when he introduced #savepepecampaign to the world by inviting people to make their own versions of the frog and ends with his decision to fight to remove the drawing from the list of symbols of hate in court.
However, the viewer is left with a paradox: the struggle to remove the symbol from the hate symbol category could only lead to its use again.
Beyond the lesson of dignity of a cartoonist who tries to convey positivity, the film also functions as a spearhead for a much deeper debate.
How quickly did we categorize the youth of other nations when they were throwing themselves into digital mischief? And how slowly are we to react as a society to when symbols get turned into hateful images?
The issue of digital, disconnected youths or those dedicated to a new supremacy, was widely addressed by Angela Nagle in the book. Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, published in 2012. The themes were also discussed at length in the French documentary, The Russian Post-Truth (2018). It is a first introduction to the themes through one of the symbols in the trenches of the ongoing, digital culture wars.
To go back to Pepe the Frog, Jones' documentary, like all of its kind, manages its own progression.
The moment Chinese students appropriated the frog for their own purposes is experienced as a relief from the darker plot.
Between the filming of the documentary and the present time, there have also been more attempts, apart from Furie's campaign, to take over the symbol. On TikTok, it also appeared alongside the hashtags #frogtiktok that were linked to #gaytiktok and #nonbinartiktok.
Between the origins and present time, there is also a broad presentation of the use of symbols throughout history. Various historians interviewed for the film say have their own, inner life.
The symbol of the cross likely had pagan origins and survived through musical tradition in the same vein virgins sent to the forest to mate with nature gods and goddesses were sung about.
In this struggle between ideologies for the control of the historical power that symbols represent, there are many cases of appropriation by the extreme right, always attentive to the attempts to take over the genealogy of powerful images. For example, the swastika has an Asian origin, and also the ruins that are used next to the black sun were previously Nordic.
The question then arises that if we view the same historical struggle when considering the case of Pepe the Frog, will it garner much interest?
The drawing has a very similar use to the symbol of the "black heads" described by Rene Guénon and used by the Ethiopians. The symbol had nothing to do with the color of the complexion and was used much earlier in China, under the reign of Emperor Shun (2317-2208 B.C.). The "black head" was a symbol of the whole community.
Pepe is the mask used by the new digital tribe. By changing the intensity of the symbol, they not only intended to define themselves politically, but above all, they were trying to make the community see themselves.