There are not many memes like Pepe the Frog that has gone through quite an evolution from underground webcomic to being put on national media. Pepe the Frog started as a character in an internet webcomic called Boys Club by Matt Furie, he was a character among many in the comic, but he had one signature catchphrase that caught quite a bit of attention, “feels good man.” Pepe began as a reaction image meme used in internet forums such as Gaia Online and 4Chan; users would post Pepe’s image, saying his catchphrase as a response to another user. Users would then edit the meme for it to be able to be used in other situations in which “feels bad man” was created. 4Chan would become Pepe’s “home” in that they were the ones that used the Pepe meme the most, and they were the ones who would create the most edits. With time all of the edits seemed to transform Pepe, the most famous edit being “sad Pepe,” and eventually, the green frog stopped being Pepe from Boys Club, but instead, he became Pepe the Frog. Pepe’s evolution was not done yet, though, and his popularity still had much more to grow.
On 4Chan in early 2010’s Pepe, the Frog continued to grow distant from his origins as a comic character and grew to become a representative of the user base on 4Chan. Particularly with the Sad Pepe variant, Pepe would be used by users to express their woes. Much of these woes focused on extremely socially awkward interactions the users had in real life. Eventually, the Pepe meme would be associated with these types of posts, and Pepe became a symbol for the socially awkward and “outcasts” of society. Through these posts, Pepe became a mascot of one of 4Chan’s boards, /r9k/ which is considered to be one of the birthplaces of the incel subculture. Pepe, as a meme, began to be a reflection of the users of these boards commonly used in humorous, self-deprecating posts and ironic humor.
As with any other meme, with time, Pepe’s popularity grew. In 2014/2015, many 4Chan users felt threatened by this development, that outsiders were going to “steal” their meme, and two very different responses were made. Some users were much more playful and decided to create the concept of a meme economy and rare Pepes. In this meme economy, Pepe memes had their worth valued based on how much of a presence it has on the internet; rare Pepes were the ones that are seldom posted anywhere on the internet. Users were encouraged to create their rare Pepes, which were often extremely creative and greatly exaggerated edits of the original Pepe memes, and soon enough, all Pepe memes, in general, became sort of like trading cards. Users often collected rare Pepes and had the ultimate goal of discovering the rarest Pepe. Ironically, this only increased Pepe’s popularity around the internet, and even websites like Reddit created subs dedicated to collecting rare Pepes. Another response that was much more extreme and malicious was made by users of the /r9k/ board. These types of Pepe memes were called Poo Poo Pee Pee, and by its telling name, these types of Pepe memes were simply gross. The objective of /r9k/ was to create Pepe memes so vile and offensive that no sane individual would want to associate themselves with the meme. In these memes, Pepe was a psychopathic individual who would commit grotesque and graphically violent acts against women and commonly against another meme character Wojak. Another meme had Pepe as the ultimate man child, obese, extremely childish, and still living at home with their parents, a representation that many users accepted for themselves ironically and often unironically. Ironically like the last meme, this may have only increased Pepe’s popularity with a subset of the internet’s population, edgy teens, which the internet has no shortage of. During this time, 4Chan was considered to be one of the dark corners of the internet, part of the dark web (obviously not), and that 4Chan was a site of secrecy for the few, a sentiment that many users accepted. These responses reflected these sentiments; users felt that they were part of a secret club, and Pepe was their representative and belonged to them. The memes were to show that Pepe meme belonged to those on the “outskirts” of the internet.
Pepe’s journey was not over yet, as shown with the massive debacle in the 2016 election. During the election, edits of the original Pepe memes became political, showcasing Pepe as a supporter of Donald Trump; unfortunately, other Pepe memes were created showcasing Pepe committing hate crimes and being included in racist imagery. These edits were mainly made by 4Chan’s /pol/ board, which is infamously known as one of the birthplaces of the alt-right movement. These Pepes were made to shock people and to express fervor for Donald Trump. In contrast to earlier 4Chan decisions, these types of Pepes were spread all over the internet from Twitter to Facebook, and even Donald Trump himself once retweeted a Pepe meme. Pepe gained such notoriety that the ADL and similar organizations labeled Pepe as a hate symbol, and news about Pepe was being broadcasted on national television and the world. With Pepe becoming a hate symbol, his creator Matt Furie decided to start an online campaign to reclaim Pepe from racist communities. The results were not immediate, but eventually, there would be two simultaneously existing versions of Pepe, one of the alt-right and the other of internet leftists whose memes were the antithesis of the alt right Pepes. And for once, after the 2016 election, Pepe’s popularity waned not fatally; it is just that there is not much space left to go up after appearing on cable TV.
Now, Pepe is a meme used by anyone and enjoyed by everyone on the internet; what Pepe represents changed depending on the person; the Pepe meme has no singular meaning. 4Chan had a monopoly on Pepe and the memes reflected the secrecy, wishes, and mannerisms of the users, yet now Pepe is whatever anybody wants him to be. Pepe is no longer “owned” by 4Chan he belongs to the internet.
Featured Image found on BBC