By now, many of us are familiar with internet memes. They are a wide variety of reaction images, small laughs, common jokes or themes, and an evocation of humor or mischief in many areas of the internet. Some are more popular than others, and some fade out of favor or use newer, fresher topics.
One internet meme in particular has gained recent momentum and is now regarded as the epitome of smugness, strong emotional feelings or sometimes sadness. “Pepe the Frog”— or Pepe for short — has become widely recognized on many corners of the internet.
Pepe originated from a 2005 comic created by Matt Furie, a comic artist known for his work in Boys Life magazine. In 2005, he published a zine online titled “Playtime” that portrayed Pepe and friends as fun youngsters. The online comics were deleted when Furie published the work in print in 2006. However, Pepe began to be spread as a meme in 2008 when he became an up-and-coming reaction image on 4chan, a popular online image board. Since then, Pepe has become a widely known internet meme, and has become molded into many different characters or forms representing different situations of smugness or strong emotion. He has also taken on something of a esoteric function, as many different Pepe memes exist, creating a “market” for “rare Pepe’s” and placing mock values on an internet image. There is even an emerging cult from 4chan proclaiming that Pepe is popular because he represents an ancient Egyptian deity of darkness and chaos — and he has influence over current events and politics.
Pepe’s popularity began to peak even further during the U.S. Presidential election when he began to surface in the image of Donald Trump or other notable — mostly conservative — political figures. However, Pepe has been used by left-leaning constituents in support of their candidates or viewpoints, such as Clinton-inspired or Obama-inspired Pepe’s. While this was used in harmless online banter regarding politics, some forms of Pepe became more extreme. Versions depicting Pepe as a Nazi, a Klansman, a Hasidic Jewish stereotype and other extremist stereotypes began to surface. Shortly thereafter, Pepe became a meme either to parrot alt-right or white nationalist viewpoints or to poke fun at left-leaning politicians and elicit smugness of conservative or right-leaning types.
Pepe’s scandalous offshoots were ultimately discovered by the Anti-Defamation League, who labeled Pepe as a hate symbol amongst swastikas, “sieg runes” and Klan-related symbols. The designation of Pepe as a hate symbol spread to many mainstream media outlets, with some questioning the Anti-Defamation League’s bizarre actions. Some believe that the classification of a harmless, smug frog as on par with Nazis and white supremacy is nothing more than a simple gag, generating a swath of posts and memes describing Pepe as nothing more than a symbol of smugness. But perhaps there is something more critical that must be examined about this outlandish case.
Anti-Semitism has been a problem for many millennia, with the most recent atrocities of the World War II still lingering in many Jewish communities. However, the Anti-Defamation League classifying an internet meme as a hate symbol speaks volumes to the sensitivity of certain groups in weeding out or hunting down racism. The fact that an internet meme was listed as so ghastly and abhorrent that it needed to be labeled a symbol of hatred can be demeaning towards the persecution of venerable minority groups. There are bigger issues to face in creating societies that are tolerant of other ethnicities and religions — and nitpicking over the actions of online trolls behind desktop screens is not the appropriate action to take. Furthermore, the internet provides a realm where speech can go unrestricted and uncensored, and if someone modifies a meme to have a laugh, even at the expense of others, there is very little we can do to restrict it. If anything, we shouldn’t restrict it. These forums and characters will always exist. We should instead focus on the real world actors and enablers of persecution as they create a greater impact on minority groups being actively persecuted.
Pepe will always be a humorous character that expresses certain emotions or ideas. Demonizing him only gives more power to those who think he is an edgy, “white nationalist” symbol and who want to smear a perfectly hilarious, if self-righteously smug, character. We have not tried to call out internet cats that resemble Hitler due to their fur, so why would we try the same with a remixed meme? Carrying out a witch-hunt against a fictional character only makes the Anti-Defamation League and anti-racist groups look plain silly. Pepe is — and always will be — just a mischievous meme.