What does it take to change an image into a symbol? This documentary tackles that as it explores how the character of Pepe the Frog went from a goofy indie comic to an alt-right hate symbol to something more hopeful. Through Pepe, the documentary also breaks down internet and meme culture, as well as how they influenced politics, particularly in the United States during the 2016 election.
Matt Furie originally created Pepe from his love of frogs and made a comic called “The Boy’s Club” where he and his friends chill out and enjoy life to its weirdest extent. When the internet started to be a thing Matt Furie uploaded a page he drew onto MySpace where Pepe’s catchphrase “Feels Good Man” started an internet storm among the fitness bros and then another with the unruly side of chat boards.
The documentary isn’t just about Matt Furie and his character Pepe and how both their lives have changed. Most docs would only focus on them, but here, Feels Good Man, takes an opportunity to look under multiple metaphorical hoods of the internet and explore the psychology and culture behind them. The biggest transition that Pepe went through was when he became a symbol for NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), or people who lived in their parent’s basement well into adulthood not actively seeking a career, where they found Pepe to be one of them, a ‘positive’ affirmation on their livelihood.
The documentary interviews a few of these NEETs who frequent the infamous 4chan message boards. They talk about how Pepe gave them a lot of confidence to be who they are and how he also allowed them to be more open, more sarcastic, and more ironic on the internet where they felt vindicated from trash talking and spreading hate. In one instance, a guy talks about how he’d feel the need to go on 4chan at work, poke the proverbial hornet’s nest, leave it for a while, and then hide behind one of the aisles later so that he can go on, read all the responses, and then unleash paragraphs of anger.
The story of Pepe then took a turn for the worst as 4chan users were begging people who were at Hilary Clinton’s talk during the lead up to the 2016 election to shout out Pepe’s name. Somebody did. Which lead to that side of the internet cheering and forcing Pepe further into politics. It didn’t help that news reporters and politicians were fumbling on how to handle a meme when, now President Trump embraced it and in turn that side of the internet embraced him. Pepe then quickly became a symbol that white nationalists could get behind and thus he was entered into an official database of hate symbols in the United States.
A few internet experts who have written books on memes and politics are interviewed to give more insight into how this whole situation escalated and swirled around. They break down how memes are interpreted, created, morphed, and valued. There is one section in this documentary that is eyebrow raising as to how much Pepe memes go for monetary-wise. But what’s incredible about these breakdowns are that they’re very simple to follow, so much so that your grandparents would probably understand everything they talk about and thus learn a little something more about the internet.
When the documentary does highlight how Matt Furie’s life was affected by this, you learn that because of what Pepe had become on the internet, and how probably most people who know of Pepe had no context as to his origins, it made his creative endeavors difficult. People kept sending him hateful Pepe memes, his planned official Pepe shop had to be closed down and all his products destroyed because Pepe turned into a hate symbol. He tried to turn it around with TED Talks and a campaign to save Pepe, but there was just too much to contain. The genie was out of the bottle.
All Matt Furie wanted to do was draw comics, make children’s books, and be an artist. He didn’t know how to handle the situation until it was too late. But then, he started suing people who were profiting off Pepe’s hate symbol fans. It’s a small win compared to how powerful the people and companies that he’s suing are, but in one heartbreaking scene, he says that the company’s small pay out was more money than he ever made making “The Boy’s Club” comic.
This film does have a happy ending. You start to see how Matt Furie and the world are trying to reclaim Pepe, allowing the frog to change into something new as he had changed during the evolution of the internet. In a way, his symbology is cyclical and it looks like he’s turning back to provide hope to people across the globe. It’s incredible to watch Matt Furie with his laid back attitude and his simple goal of making people feel good through art, stay positive through this ordeal that must have been a heavy cloud weighing over him and his friends.
The documentary, while filled with interviews and news reels, does include animation as an expression of what Pepe went through throughout his internet life. The animation is gorgeous, fluid and trippy at times. It captures the existential soul of what Pepe was meant to be as well as how people behind anonymous screens perverted him. In a way, seeing Pepe in motion, especially in a positive light, felt like another win as Pepe hops and swims to his delight in froggy heaven.