Pepe: The Meme, The Legend…The Hate Symbol?

Virtually all of us Internet dwellers have, at one point or another, encountered what might possibly be the most famous meme on the Internet: Pepe the frog. Pepe’s image is distinct due to his bulging eyes, humanoid body, and most obviously, his frog face. Created in 2005 as part of artist Matt Furie’s comic series Boy’s Club, Pepe has evolved on a journey from mere comic character to widely-beloved Internet sensation within a decade. However, the anthropomorphic frog has recently been misappropriated as a hate symbol by the burgeoning alt-right political movement, most prominently by fervent supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Pepe’s humble beginnings as a stoned frog (seriously) and eventual meme were benevolent. Captions such as “sad frog meme” and “feels good man” don’t exactly spawn any sort of negative message. However, during the current, contentious presidential election, Pepe the meme has been utilized in new contexts through its misappropriation in the conveyance of Anti-Semitic, Confederate, and Nazi messages. Last month, the Anti-Defamation League, an international organization advocating against anti-Semitism, declared Pepe to be a hate symbol after the alt-right’s infamous exploitation of the meme proliferated on the Internet. This shocking announcement underscores the frequent negativity of the 2016 presidential election and also brings to light a new issue: the misuse of an originally benevolent symbol to advance controversial and extreme interests.

Supporters of the usage of Pepe as a symbol representing the alt-right’s interests could obviously use the “free speech” argument to support the (mis)appropriation. There is also a subtler argument that could be made that Pepe is neither good nor bad inherently. After all, he is just a frog. But it is unfair to the creators and many admirers of Pepe to twist an innocent symbol for the purposes of drawing attention to a political agenda, especially one that espouses rhetoric offensive to immigrants and minorities, among other groups. The original purpose of Pepe, according to creator Matt Furie, was to spread “peace, togetherness, and fun.” At the very least, using Pepe, an apolitical symbol, to advance a political agenda detracts from that purpose.

Although the Internet is a public platform and it would be virtually impossible to prevent an extremist movement from misappropriating Internet symbols, there is a rising movement to restore Pepe to his former glory as a symbol of humor and relatability. This movement should be supported because no rational, levelheaded person would want to see Trump’s face on a frog body. But most of all, the Internet could use some positivity, and what’s a better symbol of enlightenment than an innocent and blissfully stoned frog?

This article was written by Karen Guan. Click here to see more of Karen’s work.