March 7, 2021

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Pepe the Frog’s Disturbing Internet Journey Explored in ‘Feels Good Man’ Documentary

14 min read

Once shared on social media by celebrities such as Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, Pepe caught mainstream media’s attention when Donald Trump tweeted an illustration of himself as Pepe in October 2015. A year later, the Anti-Defamation League labeled Pepe as a hate symbol, noting though that not all Pepe memes were racist and innocent versions would not be subject to the hate symbol designation. Pepe continues to be a well-shared meme by the alt-right, white supremacist groups and Trump supporters, even making an appearance at the Capital riots in the form of Pepe masks and Kekestan flags.

Arthur Jones and Giorgio Angelini’s documentary Feels Good Man follows Pepe’s turbulent ride through the internet and shocking transformation from a goofy character to a symbol of hate, fueled by white supremacists and supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Jones and Angelini share their process to explore Pepe’s origination and transformation, explain meme culture, and above all, spotlight Furie’s journey to reclaim Pepe from the swamps of the internet.

As we start this interview, our country is still reeling from the Jan. 6 attempted coup by supporters of President Trump. Having worked on a documentary that explores Trump supporters and the alt-right, and how they operate online, what was going through your head as news broke about the insurrection?

ARTHUR JONES The story of Feels Good Man is about Pepe the Frog but the larger story of it is about how trolling, the aesthetics of trolling, and the tactics of trolling moved off of these fringe, online message boards and then worked their way into mainstream politics and were a force to get Trump elected in 2016. And now we have seen how this has played out four years later where Trump’s tactics of misinformation, the way his base has galvanized around all of these hyperbolic lies, conspiracy theories, all of this stuff, has created a coalition of radicalized people that really believe that they could go to the Capital, take hostages, convince them to put Trump in power for four more years and then could fly back home and just start life again normally, go back to work, go back to their families with no repercussions. And this happened because all of these people had been hanging out exclusively in these online platforms in which none of this was being questioned, where the reality was completely being shaped by the social media and the echo chamber that they were living within.

GIORGIO ANGELINI Yeah. To that end, Pepe is kind of this skeleton key in a sense for understanding the moment that it started… something as heinous and terrifying as thousands of people storming the Capital in some sense started with this stoned cartoon frog, that it’s demarcated this moment in our history where the culture online that tends to be rooted in absurdist behavior, trolling behavior specifically, that Pepe became the icon of that smug, trolling behavior of 2016. And it set into motion this new form of Republican politics that became wholly detached from any sort of intellectualized argument about policy and became exclusively emotional.

Memes are nothing if not super-efficient tools to elicit emotional responses. The repetition of seeing those images and the fact that they constantly mutate, you kind of mutate along with them. You dive further and further into this internet irreality. And what happened [Jan. 6] was the first time for a lot of these people to in a sense reality test these internet fictions. So you had this super surreal moment where, in one room you have a woman who traveled 3,000 miles across the country for an internet hoax who gets shot in the neck and dies, and 15 feet away, in another room, there’s a guy who goes by QAnon Shaman with a buffalo horn helmet screaming some sort of victory that I don’t think anyone there could have explained, and then a bunch of people recording live streams for their social media feeds. It is a world so depraved of humanity that it could have only been created on the internet and you’re seeing the physical manifestation of that internet irreality play out in real life.

Well, I think what you said makes total sense. That day was as if 4Chan came to life — if it just jumped off our phones and screens, that’s how it would manifest.

JONES Well, QAnon Shaman is a manifestation of 4Chan. QAnon started as a prank on 4Chan in the same way Pepe started out as a meme and a joke on 4Chan, and he has now basically become the Frankenstein monster of all of these different reactionary conspiracy theories and fictions.

ANGELINI But you’re right, it’s a reflection of these message boards because what you’re seeing is a mix of basically a bunch of people who are completely dissociated from reality, some of whom who are wealthy suburban real estate brokers, some of whom who are innocent, weird grannies who just wandered into the world and found it fascinating, and some of whom are actually, legitimately evil people looking to do real harm and are sort of the wolves cloaked in sheep’s clothing in this pack of, well, sheep to use their own terminology.

This documentary seems to have come at just the right time in terms of helping people better understand what is going through the minds of incels, the alt-right, white supremacists and Trump extremists. What was the initial inspiration or idea to do this? 

JONES My initial connection to the story was that I was a fan of Matt Furie’s comic books before Pepe had become a meme. So when I did start to see Pepe show up in 2015, that’s where I first saw him, as a meme, I felt kind of surprised, a little bewildered, a little confused as to why this cartoon character that a friend of mine created was all of a sudden becoming this cultural lightning rod.

Because there was this moment in 2015 where in a two week time span you had an incel shooter supposedly use Pepe when he was announcing that he was going to perform a mass shooting in Oregon and then two weeks after that, Donald Trump retweeted himself as Smug Pepe. It was something that I didn’t feel like the mainstream media was necessarily connecting. These two different things were being reported but Trump’s popularity was growing. The fact that he had retweeted this controversial image wasn’t hurting his popularity, it was helping.

But I’d never been on 4Chan before, I’m not a very online person, but while all of this was happening, I was observing my father, who was in his late seventies at that point. He’d gotten an iPhone and all of a sudden he was peppering my text messages with all of these wild memes. And when I would see him, he would be completely attached to his phone, completely attached to Facebook and Fox News. I saw that his level of fear and anger was growing and I realized that he was indicative of something else that was happening in the country. Giorgio and I had been working on a film that Giorgio directed called Owned: A Tale of Two Americas that was about the housing crisis. A lot of the political conversations we were having while he was making his film, we kind of carried over into the Feels Good Man experience.

How did you approach Matt Furie about the documentary? Was he apprehensive at all about opening up about Pepe’s transformation from a cartoon to a symbol of hate?

JONES It was a conversation that Matt and I had over a period of months. Matt and I initially met on a hiking trip and a campout. I think we just bonded over the things that we had in common — music and movies and this larger group of friends, who are mostly artists. Those kinds of conversations kept evolving as 2015 and 2016 happened and I saw what was going on with Pepe in the media and I saw how it was affecting Matt and his wife, Iona.  Initially, Matt and I thought about doing just a cartoon that would address what was going on with Pepe and tackle it in a very allegorical, artistic way. Then we realized that that wasn’t going to be the best move for us and so I pitched him the idea of doing a documentary. I think I won Iona and Matt’s trust slowly.

Since there was that friendly relationship with Matt, how did you navigate interviews in which people, such as former Trump campaign strategist Matt Braynard (who Furie even described as Lex Luthor), would say pretty negative things about him and his work? 

ANGELINI That was always the struggle with making the film was how to treat the darker aspects of the story and the characters we wanted to interview about those aspects, how to treat them with a level of seriousness and intentionality that didn’t also lift up the propaganda itself. Because Arthur and I started making this film in the wake of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally and there was a moment there where a lot of people were interviewing people like Richard Spencer, almost like as fashion subjects, or something. It was almost like a joke that they were outwardly calling for mass extermination essentially and then he’d be described as a dapper racist or whatever. So that was in the back of our minds.

But the truth is, to treat these people authentically is a slippery prospect because they themselves often deal in inauthentic ways. Matt Braynard, the guy you’re talking about, is someone who is acutely aware of how he is building a kind of persona online and the kind of media he does and the way he represents himself. I think he would be delighted to be described as Lex Luther. I think that is very directly what he is trying to do in this grander culture of getting lost in the internet world that you’re trying to build and reconciling that with your real life. I would argue that he is just as lost as anyone else. In the last month, he went from having 300 Twitter followers to now having like over 100,000 because he was one of the first people to get behind this bullshit steal the vote crap.

Throughout the film, there are these entertaining animated sequences of Pepe. Who made those? 

JONES I’m an animator so I always thought that maybe that would be the stamp that I could put on the film that maybe another documentarian couldn’t. Matt and I were excited initially about having Pepe come to life in cartoon form. So I made all the motion graphics in the film, all the 4Chan posts and everything like that, and then we worked with three animators, Jenna Caravello, Khylin Woodrow and Nicole Stafford, and they helped me make the cartoons in the film. We wanted people to, when they watched the film, see these cartoons. They illustrate larger points in the movie but they also bring Matt’s internal world to life. They also have a high fidelity to them that a lot of the internet junk that we collect in the film doesn’t. They have their own stage presence.

ANGELINI In the absence of Nickelodeon or Disney filling people’s heads with a definitive brand of Pepe, the hive mind of the internet invented its own narrative. We wanted the animations to in a sense canonize Pepe so that at least people could understand Matt’s story from his own perspective once and for all and that we could see Pepe’s real sanctioned world.

Feels Good Man also explains meme culture and how they circulate and evolve. Why did you want to explore that as well as Matt’s journey trying to reclaim Pepe? 

ANGELINI When Arthur told me he was embarking on this potential film project with his friend Matt, I admittedly and embarrassingly didn’t know that Matt had created Pepe. I was very familiar with the meme and its problematic period at that point. I remember walking the entire length of Brooklyn just talking to Arthur about all the potentials that this story could tell. Because I think we both shared a love of documentaries that have an irreverent quality but are often about something very specific but tell a much bigger story about society. And it seemed like Pepe was of one of the most singularly unique ways to tell that kind of story. Very early on, it was about how to manage Matt’s personal journey and then the greater cultural story. 

 JONES The film went through various moments of expansion and contraction as we were figuring out the edit. I think when we started to seek to tell this larger cultural story, but we realized to do that in the most potent way and really make this documentary feel like a movie with stakes and all this sort of stuff, it was to actually make the story closer and closer to Matt.

What shocked you the most in this journey to learn more about Pepe?

JONES I was really fascinated with how much Pepe meant to people during this given period of time. That was the thing that we really tried to focus on during the part of the film where we’re dissecting 4Chan’s attachment to the character and how because people on 4Chan who don’t present themselves, they are anonymous, they don’t present their faces or identities on the platform, really used Pepe as a stand-in for self. And that was one of the reasons why they were so offended when other people started to use it.

ANGELINI While making the film, at first we were hyper are of the potential to be trolled when the film came out, whether innocently enough in comments but maybe more seriously getting swatted or something like that. But then, we came to realize that that’s kind of exactly what trolls intend with their actions. They are trying to shame you out of your compassion, shame you out of your authenticity, shame you for giving a shit. The sum total of that is to render people both blindly ignorant to what’s happening before them but also complacent. The purpose of that trolling is to shake your sense of reality, to embarrass you out of the possibility of speaking up against it. That’s the moment that we’re in right now.

How have things been since the film has been out?

ANGELINI What I’m surprised by is that we put out the film totally expecting a really heavy backlash and the truth is it actually reified a great many of people on the internet who felt that sense of alienation that trolling was inflicting upon them. It was like, “Finally this film is out there that’s telling the shit that we all knew to be true.” This outpouring of support and love. It was really special.

Something I feel is still so fascinating yet unanswered is why Pepe? What is it about this cartoon that made him so beloved and then so easy to manipulate and distort?

JONES We did ask that question or some form of that question to everyone who we talked to and it’s not a question that anyone can give with certainty. I think it’s actually a really well-drawn cartoon. I think Matt is an amazing cartoonist. There is some innate quality that certain cartoons have that really stays with people and it’s why you see characters like Betty Boop, who maybe haven’t been in mass-circulation for a long time, still being repurposed and on t-shirts and popping up in pop culture. I also think that Pepe has some other unique aspects to it. It feels nostalgic for a group of people online, whether that’s Tumblr or 4Chan, that are completely immersed and obsessed with pop culture and kind of this 10 to 15-year-old nostalgia. Pepe feels like an old, discarded Fraggle Rock character or something like that.

Also, I think it’s important to point out that within the Boys Club comics, Pepe was this very social character. He was the little brother of a group. Online, Pepe has become the face of the sad and disenfranchised internet user. The sad frog has become the face of someone who has lost in the internet and doesn’t have self-control or they feel like.  

There was this moment when the Republican party was fixating around victimhood and the anger that was coming out of victimhood. And so Pepe was the symbol of this boy who was a victim of feminism, a victim of affirmative action, a victim of different market forces that are controlling and preventing him from going to college or getting a good job or having a wife or whatever. So that’s another reason why these connections were made across these different platforms and Pepe became a symbol for this victimhood.

Near the end of the film, I thought what was inspiring and motivational was seeing Pepe being used in the recent Hong Kong protests as a sign of resilience and strength. What message do you each hope the audience take away from watching this documentary and learning about the journey of this little frog who went through the swamps of the internet and might just be a symbol for good again?

ANGELINI I think the Hong Kong thing was striking for so many reasons but I think in an aesthetic and visual way it really very vividly painted or depicted the divide here. You have a lot of people offering bad faith, right-wing, trolly analyses of what happened in Hong Kong, saying those people were pro-Trump just because they either don’t understand geopolitics or don’t understand the nuance of things. But fundamentally that was a collective of young people who came together to organize in peaceful protest, literally holding hands in a display of incredibly human cooperative fashion, to come together to push an agenda of democracy and collectivism. What you saw during the riots, and that use of Pepe, was a chaotic, hyper-individualistic, nihilistic siege of democracy. I guess what I would like people to come away with is you cannot build a society on nihilism.

JONES Jan. 6 was a really weird day I think for us in part because certainly you’re watching the siege at the Capital with a handful of Pepe masks and Kekestani flags and stuff and you’re seeing a lot of this stuff that we’ve been researching play out. But then also that same day over 50 different politicians, media members, protesters were arrested by the Chinese police without any promise of due process. It’s just representative of this fight that we’re continuing to just need to be aware of and, as citizens, need to participate in. And whether that’s in Hong Kong or in the  United States, the fight for democracy is actually quite real. As filmmakers, we wanted this film to be about big truths and smaller truths that the individual audience member can take away but also Matt’s journey, that be something that a viewer could take to heart. Matt making some simple choices within his life to attack his personal trolls, the things that were giving him anguish, made him a better person.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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