Pepe the Frog is a cartoon character and internet meme that has gone through many transformations since its creation by Matt Furie in 2005. Originally a green anthropomorphic frog with a humanoid body, Pepe appeared in Furie’s comic Boy’s Club as a laid-back and humorous character who liked to say “feels good man” while urinating with his pants down. Pepe soon became popular on websites such as Myspace, Gaia Online, and 4chan, where users posted various illustrations of the frog with different expressions and captions.
The Golden Age of Pepe
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Pepe was mostly used as a reaction image to convey various emotions, such as happiness, sadness, anger, smugness, and indifference. Some of the most iconic versions of Pepe include “Sad Frog”, “Smug Frog”, “Angry Pepe”, “Feels Frog”, and “You will never…” Frog. Pepe also spawned a subgenre of memes known as “rare Pepes”, which were intentionally made scarce and valuable by limiting their distribution and trading them like collectible cards.
Pepe was embraced by celebrities, musicians, and politicians, who shared their own versions of the frog on social media. For example, Katy Perry tweeted a picture of Pepe crying in 2014, Nicki Minaj posted an image of Pepe showing his buttocks in 2015, and Donald Trump retweeted a drawing of Pepe as himself in 2016. Pepe was also featured in various media outlets, such as The Daily Dot, Vice, The Guardian, and The New York Times.
The Dark Side of Pepe
However, Pepe’s popularity also attracted the attention of political extremists, who began to appropriate the meme for their own agendas. In 2015 and 2016, Pepe was associated with the alt-right movement, a loosely defined group of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, anti-feminists, and conspiracy theorists who used online platforms to spread their ideologies. The alt-right used Pepe as a symbol of their views, often depicting him with racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or violent imagery.
As a result of this co-option, Pepe was added to the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols in 2016. The ADL stated that most instances of Pepe were not hateful, but that some versions were used to express bigotry and hate. Furie, the creator of Pepe, expressed his dismay at seeing his character used as a hate symbol and tried to reclaim him by launching campaigns such as #SavePepe and #PepeForPeace. He also sued several organizations for using Pepe without his permission or for profit.
The Future of Pepe
Despite being tainted by controversy, Pepe has not disappeared from the internet. In fact, he has found new life in different contexts and cultures. In 2019 and 2020, Pepe was used by protesters in Hong Kong as a symbol of hope and resistance against the Chinese government. Unlike the alt-right’s use of Pepe, the Hong Kong protesters’ use of Pepe was not perceived as hateful or offensive by Furie or the ADL. Furie even welcomed the use of Pepe by Hong Kong protesters and said he was proud of them.
Pepe has also remained a recognizable and familiar sight on social media platforms such as 4chan, Twitch, Reddit, and Discord, where users modify him into custom emoji and stickers. Pepe has also inspired other memes and characters, such as Groyper, Apu Apustaja, Wojak (Feels Guy), and MonkaS. Pepe’s legacy is one of constant change and adaptation to different situations and audiences. He is a meme that reflects the best and worst aspects of human nature.
Pepe the Frog is more than just a meme. He is a cultural phenomenon that has evolved over time and across borders. He has been loved and hated, celebrated and vilified, appropriated and reclaimed. He has been a source of joy and pain for millions of people around the world. He is a testament to the power and complexity of internet culture.