Speaking of politics, one of the strangest stories this year has been the appropriation of Pepe the Frog as a symbol for white supremacist hate groups. Pepe was created by artist Matt Furie as part of his stoner comedy Boy’s Club, and but as the image spread on 4Chan and Reddit is has been used by right wing groups to promote hate speech and the Anti Defamation League last month named it a hate speech symbol right up there with the swastika and the Confederate flag.
All of this greatly saddened Furie, who has been talking about the appropriation in a series of interveiws.
“I had never heard of the alt-right or any of that stuff—even white nationalism—I don’t know about that shit,” Furie says. “I’m learning about that stuff with you, about what the hell is going on.” Like Trump’s campaign itself, Furie’s tale is one of an “idiotic joke” spiraling dangerously out of control. Last year, Furie told Vice that he thought Pepe’s new online life was “cool,” even flattering, his sole objection that Pepe was being linked with another meme character he didn’t quite understand and some changes that were made to his wardrobe. But now that Pepe has become the mascot for, as Furie puts it, “these anonymous Internet trolls who don’t stand for anything except for nihilism and getting a rise out of whatever racist or sexist or disgusting thing they can do,” things are decidedly uncool, particularly given that—unlike most memes—his name is still publicly attached to it.
But now, Furie and the ADL are fighting back, as announced in Time Magazine on Friday. The ADL recognizes that Pepe was not created to be a symbol of hate, and are hoping to help Furie regain his frog:
The group announced on Friday an experiment to try and reform the image, working with its creator, Matt Furie, who will create “a series of positive Pepe memes and messages” to be promoted on social media with the hashtag #SavePepe.
“Pepe was never intended to be used as a symbol of hate,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive of the group, said in a news release. “The sad frog was meant to be just that, a sad frog. We are going to work with Matt and his community of artists to reclaim Pepe so that he might be used as a force for good, or at the very least to help educate people about the dangers of prejudice and bigotry.”
And to kick things off, Furie posted a comic at The Nib today called Pepe the Frog: To Sleep, Perchance to Meme
The meme culture that finds a creator’s character striped of its meaning and used for hate is a troubling story on many levels. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer has an essay pointing out the long, subliminal association of frogs with racism and other fascinating subtexts to the whole matter:
Disney wasn’t the only cartoonist to draw inspiration from Herriman. Racial themes, often borrowed from minstrelsy, are pervasive in early twentieth-century cartoons. Apropos of the Pepe controversy, there was a strong tendency among cartoonists to associate frogs with stereotypical blackness. This is particularly evident in the character Flip the Frog, created in 1930 by Disney’s friend and sometimes collaborator Ub Iwerks. With his white gloves, red tie, and wide grin, Flip evoked blackface imagery. Similar minstrel frogs populated the 1937 MGM short cartoon “Swing Wedding” and the Warner Brothers classic “One Froggy Evening” (where Michigan J. Frog partly embodies nostalgia for the creativity of Tin Pan Alley music, which was predominantly played by African Americans). The most recent example of this tradition is the 2009 Disney feature The Princess and the Frog, whose main characters are African-Americans living in George Herriman’s hometown of New Orleans.
If you read only one thing about Pepe, read this essay!
Are you on board? #savepepe !!!
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.