The story of “Feels Good Man,” a new documentary now on VOD, begins with “Boy’s Club,” a comic series about four characters, including Pepe the Frog, in what artist Matt Furie called the “post college zone.” He based the quartet on the personalities of he and his friends. They don’t have a plan for their lives, but they do know they enjoy drinking and hanging out.
After publishing on MySpace for a time Pepe’s catchphrase, “Feels good man,” caught on. Memes started to pop up on other sites and one fan even wrote a song about Pepe’s habit of pulling his pants all the way to the ground when he stood to pee.
At first it was good fun. “I didn’t even know what a meme was,” Furie says. Then something strange happened.
Pepe was discovered by the users at 4chan, a website described as “a Darwinian competition for attention,” where the most popular posts float to the top of the page, earning the most replies. Others sink to the bottom and fade away. Like a video game, but unlike other social sites, it is a winning and losing system that fostered a culture of anonymous, but nonetheless attention hungry users. One 4chan user says it is a place to express things you don’t feel comfortable saying in real life. Memes help the posts stand out and Pepe, the slacker frog, was co-opted by people who liked his expressive face—Sad Frog, Smug Frog, Angry Pepe, Feels Frog, and “You will never…” Frog—but didn’t know anything about “Boy’s Club” or Furie’s work.
Nonetheless Pepe’s popularity grew and soon he had a clothing line and pop stars like Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry were paying tribute. “Pepe had escaped and he was roaming around and it was fun for a while… until it wasn’t anymore.” The 4chan community, upset that Pepe was no longer theirs and theirs alone, began making the memes as distasteful as possible. “It’s so offensive, it can’t be co-opted.” Images of Pepe with swastikas and highly racialized language began to appear. The character’s simplicity and malleability made him a perfectly adaptable figure for memes and videos.
What began as an innocent icon of harmless hedonism was then adopted by white supremacist and incel groups. By the time Donald Trump retweeted a meme of himself as Pepe, Furie had lost control of his own creation. “I think that President Trump is a real-life version of Pepe,” says Look Ahead America executive director and photo data expert Matt Braynard, “in his ability to illicit a reaction, get attention and express people’s hopes and fears.”
“Feels Good Man” details how Pepe the Frog went from benign entertainment to an ultimate representation of internet troll culture. As a writer for The Atlantic says, “Pepe allows [the alt-right] to pretend they are kidding but they are not kidding. They want you to be both scared by the threat and be mocked for being scared in the first place. To cause psychic anguish.”
Furie was horrified. As an artist who wanted to write children’s books, Pepe was an albatross around his neck, both for his reputation and his finances. A huge order of merchandise, destined for mainstream stores, had to be destroyed, lest it wind up in the hands of white power groups. Furie worked to reclaim Pepe, reframing him as an avatar of love and happiness, not hate but, as an internet security expert tells him, “That’s a tough genie to put back in the bottle.”
Pepe’s reputation rehabilitation eventually takes the form of lawsuits against Alex Jones and his ilk, but the interesting stuff here isn’t about the copy right infringement or intellectual property fights, it’s about Pepe as an omen; an unexpected sign that things are changing in ways many can’t quite understand. “It was a warning that something was shifting in society; that something had gone wrong,” says scholar John Michael Greer. “We need to listen, because it’s not going to go away.”
“Feels Good Man” is part cautionary tale, part culture war study and part story of the reclamation of art. It’s brisk pace, aided by interesting talking heads and loads of animation, entertainingly breezes through the details of the various subcultures who aligned to subvert Furie’s creation on the world stage.