The Problem with Our Understanding of Pepe: How Lack of Research Turned a Beloved Meme Into a "Symbol of Hate"
Written by Reuben Diaz
This Week, We Made History
On Wednesday, Sept. 28, the Anti-Defamation League added a new item to their “Hate Symbols Database.” Sitting alongside the Nazi swastika and the Confederate battle flag, this icon has been the center of many longstanding controversies, and recently saw an uptick in online popularity. Now, it’s being spotted on the social media pages of both fringe and mainstream political groups. I’m talking, of course, about Pepe the Frog.
Hillary Clinton’s Pepe Explainer: An Explainer
Pepe’s emergence as a political talking point can be traced to this post on Hillary Clinton’s campaign website, which claims that Pepe is a racist symbol used by the “alt-right.” To substantiate said claim, the Clinton campaign references this article from The Daily Beast, wherein journalist Olivia Nuzzi interviews “prominent white supremacist” @JaredTSwift. Both Clinton’s site and the original article quote him as saying, “We [white supremacists] basically mixed Pepe in with Nazi propaganda, etc. We built that association.”
Now, if this were true, the story would end here – Clinton would have chosen an odd, but surprisingly hip talking point, and I’d be congratulating her for it. The problem is, none of the statements made by either site are accurate. @JaredTSwift isn’t even a real white supremacist. Both now and during his interview with Nuzzi, he had a clear statement in his bio reading “PARODY ACCOUNT.” Simply put, The Daily Beast used satire as a primary source, and the Clinton campaign failed to fact-check those flimsy findings.
I’m not the first to notice this. YouTuber Anthony Fantano has done a much more prompt (and much funnier) job of debunking Nuzzi’s reporting, as have several other online figures. Even @JaredTSwift himself has re-entered the discussion, in an attempt to highlight some of the problems journalism is facing in investigating online phenomena. But the media at large, from NPR to CNN, has chosen to overlook the substance of this story, as “Meme Becomes Symbol of Hate” likely draws more viewership than “Meme’s Meaning is Nuanced And Ever-Changing.” It’s the ultimate lazy clickbait.
None of this is to say that Nuzzi’s assertion came out of nowhere – there are lots of drawings that incorporate racist imagery and the character of Pepe. However, this isn’t due to some grand alt-right conspiracy. To understand this connection properly, we need to understand the process by which Pepe evolved as a character.
A Broader Look at Pepe
Pepe began his life as a meme on 4chan, where he functioned more or less as an avatar for whomever posted him, and was commonly used to assist in the creation of a certain tone. A thread beginning with an upbeat Pepe would contain stories that ended surprisingly well; a smug Pepe would invite tales of revenge. The most iconic image of his face, of course, depicted sadness.
Gradually, the image of Pepe in tears developed into a character – that of the disempowered, nerdy young man. This portrayal of Pepe was significant because captured a unique sort of vulnerability, one that resonated particularly well with the average 4chan user. Seeing him wrestle with unemployment, self-doubt, and, most importantly, social isolation, was cathartic, especially since men and boys (a majority of the site’s traffic) are regularly told not to let melancholy emotions show. This created a special bond between channers and Pepe – he wasn’t just another transient meme, he was a character they could identify with, and began to treasure.
Then, Pepe entered the mainstream.
Channers saw the pop-culture appropriation of Pepe as a threat to what made his character so memorable in the first place: his status as an outsider. Seeing this, Pepe’s most ardent fans initiated a campaign to reclaim him from “the normies”, and re-establish his as social unacceptability.
To do this, creators began portraying Pepe as increasingly angry, violent, and disgusting – it wasn’t long before he’d been drawn as a rapist, a scat fetishist, a school shooter, a serial killer, a cannibal, and, yes, even a Nazi. The reaction from many public figures was, unsurprisingly, to distance themselves from the meme. The mainstream followed suit.
Though the Pepe-as-shock-art had successfully achieved its goal, it was never fully retired. Some channers felt it was necessary to maintain a buffer of nastiness around the meme, to preserve the victories they’d won; others simply felt the new genre was worth pursuing for its own sake (pent-up rage compliments pent-up sadness rather well). It is here, in the continuous pursuit of more graphic and vulgar Pepes, where a majority of the racially-charged images emerged.
This is important to note because it gives us additional context, and points us to how we should interpret these memes. They were originally created to offend, with the understanding that portraying racism was among the most effective ways to illicit a negative reaction in the viewer. This makes the depiction of Pepe as a Klansman a sort of anti-racist art; the creator criticizes hate groups by indicating to the viewer that a white hood is vile – more vile than any blood-, gore-, or poop-smeared image ever could be.
The Trump-Pepe Relationship
Unfortunately, this meme’s original critique of racism is very often lost on alt-right-ers, many of whom actively display pictures of SS-officer-Pepe and cross-burner-Pepe online. This is Poe’s law at it’s most extreme; the not-so-clever readers of Breitbart are rallying around a parody of their already-extreme racism, exposing themselves as the slimy, frog-like creatures they are. The only apt analogy here is a communist dressing up in a pig costume and quoting the early chapters of Animal Farm.
So, does this new wave of posts make Pepe a Symbol of Hate? I don’t think so. In fact, I’d argue the Trumpian Pepe enhances the original meaning of the meme – although new renditions may be simultaneously racist and earnest, they continue to elicit disgust in the viewer and convey a key truth about racism: it’s gross.
More telling still is that Pepe’s always maintained his identity as the put-upon, insecure loser, and many in the alt-right recognize this. They see themselves in him, and they represent themselves through him. His character is their self-image – a socially inept, internet-addicted twenty-something with no prospects and no friends.
In other words, they feel bad, man.