By An Xiao Mina
Last month, Pepe the Frog, an internet meme popular for its funny faces, made history as the first internet meme to officially appear on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of hate symbols. Created by Matt Furie in 2005, Pepe was a popular character in Furie’s comic Boy’s Club that sparked countless memes as people mixed and remixed Pepe into a variety of other scenarios far beyond Furie’s control. Pepe took on forms like sad Pepe and smug Pepe. Pepe spread throughout message boards and MySpace alike. Even Katy Perry tweeted with Pepe to complain about jet lag.
That Pepe would become a meme seemed inevitable. He’s a funny animal, after all, and funny animals tend to do well on the internet. He also has an expressive face, with an air of mischief suited for many irreverent corners of internet culture. Whether laughing, crying or grinning, he can be used to express emotions that words alone fail to capture. He is meme material par excellence.
What seemed less likely was that Pepe would become a vehicle for white supremacy. Earlier in September, Hillary Clinton’s campaign web site posted about Pepe, noting that “Pepe’s been almost entirely co-opted by the white supremacists who call themselves the ‘alt-right.’ They’ve decided to take back Pepe by adding swastikas and other symbols of anti-Semitism and white supremacy.”
Compared to Pepe’s life online since 2005, this transformation is relatively recent. Indeed, a quick search online reveals Pepe in a white hood. Pepe’s signature smug grim outside a concentration camp. Pepe with Hitler’s toothbrush mustache, declaring “Kill Jews Man.” This latter phrase co-opts Pepe’s original signature quip of “Feels good man.”
A movement swiftly emerged online to claim Kermit as the frog of the progressive left, croaking loudly contra Pepe. The hashtag #ImWithKer—a pun on Hillary Clinton’s “I’m With Her” slogan—popped up shortly after the ADL’s announcement, and concerned citizens adopted Kermit the Frog images into their profile pictures and pushed out GIFs onto their social media feeds.
There is also the possibility of reclamation, relying on the very rapidness of Internet culture that allowed Pepe to be co-opted in the first place. As Internet culture researcher Marley Vincent-Lindsey wrote recently while discussing Pepe, “networks of memes never reach a moment of stability.” And indeed, last week, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt released a statement: “Pepe was never intended to be used as a symbol of hate. The sad frog was meant to be just that, a sad frog.”
Teaming up with Pepe creator Matt Furie, the ADL will be disseminating a series of comics to #savethefrog and take back Pepe as a symbol of chill. To that end, they will also be discussing Pepe and online hate cultures in an upcoming ADL forum in New York, sparking a much-needed dialogue about how communities grow online, and how we can create safer, more inclusive internet spaces for all.
How, in the midst of what is already the most unusual American election in recent memory, has a frog meme become a part of national political and social discourse in the United States? For those watching global Internet cultures, the question might be: “Why did it take so long?”
Animal memes online have long had an important role to play for many online societies. In China, the grass mud horse, an alpaca-like creature, is a profane pun and Internet meme that has long been used to protest Internet censorship in the country. The Goats of Bangladesh, a Facebook account modeled after Humans of New York, pokes fun at social issues in the country with cutting humor, and Ugandans have often turned to chicken and goat humor to talk about the news.
And Pepe and Kermit are just the tip of the memetic iceberg. Today, Americans’ cultural divisions play out as much in meme culture as on television and other media, and both political parties have embraced it with open arms. During the third Presidential debate, while Hillary Clinton was in the midst of speaking about her views on Social Security, Donald Trump interjected with “Such a nasty woman.”
The phrase quickly trended on social media, and within minutes it transformed from an insult into a point of pride. Nasty woman remixes swiftly emerged online, with a theme song built from Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” and a t-shirt to benefit Planned Parenthood. The Clinton campaign embraced and reclaimed the phrase, as both Clinton and Elizabeth Warren transformed the phrase into a rallying cry: “Nasty women vote.” Mugs, skirts, coffee mugs and baseball caps (including, yes, a “Make America Nasty Again” hat) took the meme into the streets, homes and offices of everyday life, thanks to quick production houses that let people spin up and ship new merchandise with turnkey efficiency.
If the Obama campaign of 2008 will be remembered for its innovative use of the Internet, the Trump and Clinton campaigns of 2016 will be remembered for embracing the Internet in full force, using Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Facebook, text messages and other social networking platforms to reach potential voters. More specifically to this election, young people are an especially important voting bloc, and they are more likely to have grown up with the norms of Internet culture: selfies, memes, GIFs and profile picture buttons.
Every day, it seems there are new hashtag memes. #TrumpANovel emerged one day to poke fun at the candidate’s quirky way of speaking, with clever titles like Belittle Women and The Gropes of Wrath. Early in the primary season, #NotMyAbuela memes responded to a blog post put out by the Clinton campaign, titled “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela.” Latinx communities online took umbrage with the idea of Clinton as a Latina grandmother. Each of these plays out like a mini Pepe-Kermit battle, as constituents from across the political spectrum comment and weigh in, trying to make the best remix or joke. Some of these memes get larger, sparking songs, supercuts and selfies, and they might even get retweeted by the candidates’ accounts; others simply fade away.
Memes also play an increasingly important role in our cultural discourse more broadly. In a pre-Internet age, journalists used “man on the street” interviews to gauge the average person’s response to national news. Today, we might call it “meme on the tweets” interviews (but without the interviews necessarily), as journalists turn to the internet regularly to source content and commentary, whether that’s about Hollywood films or politics. Memes that do well on the social web are likely to garner clicks, views and commentary when included in articles. As well, social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter have struck deals with broadcasters to livestream major political events like the debates, allowing viewers to see others’ posts and then comment online while watching.
In a democracy, memes reflect the sheer diversity of opinions and voices of the people, from right, left, and center alike. And in a democracy where the majority of people use the Internet, we should expect to see more memetic discourse on serious issues, as the artifacts of Internet culture spill over from social networking platforms and into our physical world and newscasts.
And what to make of Pepe? It’s important to remember that images, by themselves, are not static. In the world of memes, they are just as much social symbols as they are one visual ones, imbued with context and intent like any media. The ADL’s entry for the now infamous frog suggests that: “…because so many Pepe the Frog memes are not bigoted in nature, it is important to examine use of the meme only in context. The mere fact of posting a Pepe meme does not mean that someone is racist or white supremacist.”
Whether we ultimately remember Pepe as a frog of love or a frog of hate, one thing is clear: meme culture, once considered a fringe aspect of society, now intersects with mainstream American social and political discourse in all its complexity.
About the Author
An Xiao Mina is a writer and technologist based on the internet. Her book, From Memes to Movements, which explores the intersection between internet memes and global social movements, will be published by Beacon Press in 2018.