Documentary film “Feels Good Man”, which won the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker, presents the cautionary tale of a sincere artistic creation gone out of control. When its creator introduced it to the world outside, it was simply a goofy innocent cartoon character, but then it was turned into something quite evil and toxic as being willfully appropriated on the Internet, and it is often chilling to see how that ultimately inflicted some serious damages on our world.
The cartoon character in question is Pepe the Frog, which you have probably encountered more than once on the Internet thanks to millions of online memes derived from it. When I saw one of them for the first time around early 2016, I thought it was just a harmless joke, but I later came to learn more of its insidious and virulent aspects, and, as shown in the documentary, Pepe the Frog has been included in the hate symbol database of the Anti-Defamation League since 2016.
To Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe the Frog, this was pretty much like his worst nightmare. When he created it as one of the main characters of his comic series “Boy’s Club” in 2005, not many people paid attention to it at first, and he could exert total control over it, but it somehow drew lots of attentions not long after “Boy’s Club” began to be posted on the Internet. Although it looks less distinctive than the three other main characters, its images were frequently used among numerous Internet users out there during that time, and then there came a watershed moment via one casual line which quickly became a popular online catch phrase: “Feels Good Man.”
Thanks to its exponentially growing popularity on the Internet, Pepe the Frog was appropriated more and more by millions of Internet users everyday, and, unfortunately, Furie let that happen because he was not concerned much about that. Amused a bit about the unexpected popularity of his creation, he thought this trend would soon go away, but the appropriation of his cartoon character was continued with no sign of end, and Pepe the Frog was swiftly turned into something beyond his wildest dream during next several years.
Through several experts and 4chan users, we get to know how Pepe the Frog came to be a lasting online meme within a short period. Yes, its appearance looks pretty plain and simple on the surface, but that blank quality somehow made it into an ideal mirror to reflect the negative feelings of numerous male 4chan users, and that catch phrase came to function as a sort of ironic comment for whatever they wanted to express.
As millions of anonymous male 4chan users channeled more negative feelings and thoughts into Pepe the Frog, its various online memes consequently became quite malicious and virulent, and then the situation became very volatile when Pepe the Frog was subsequently appropriated by female users for different purposes. Quite enraged by this new trend due to mere pettiness, many of male 4chan users declared a sort of cultural war on Pepe the Frog, and that led to the creation of far more toxic online memes based on it.
And this alarming online trend reached to the peak around the time of the 2016 US Presidential Election. Once a certain image of Donald J. Trump was overlapped with Pepe the Frog, the resulting online meme went viral, and its popularity was boosted further by Trump himself, who gladly posted it from his Twitter account. As a consequence, Pepe the Frog became one of the defining images to galvanize many extreme right-wing groups and thousands of potential voters for Trump, and that was certainly one of the main factors contributing to Trump’s shocking political victory.
As watching his dear creation turned into the main symbol of extreme right-wing groups in US, Furie tried to regain the artistic/legal control over it, but, as reflected by his meeting with a group of Internet experts, there is no way for him to stop the continuing appropriation of Pepe the Frog on the Internet. Believe or not, there has already been a business market where its online memes are traded at very high prices, and one trader eagerly tells us about how quickly he got rich thanks to this growing market.
Despite being quite shy and sensitive, Furie continued to try to stop more toxic appropriation of Pepe the Frog, and there were some small victories for him. When some nasty dude attempted to publish a disgusting children’s book which clearly appropriated his dear creation, Furie took an immediate legal action, and he eventually succeeded in stopping its online publication on Amazon. When a certain deplorable extreme right-wing figure, whom I do not even want to mention here, tried to include Pepe the Frog in a hateful political poster, Furie went all the way for stopping that piece of sh*t, though he had to endure several aggressive questions from his opponent’s lawyer before the subsequent legal settlement.
While it is often alarming or infuriating to watch for good reasons, “Feels Good Man” is brightened up a bit by not only several intimate private moments observed from Furie but also the occasional animation scenes featuring Pepe the Frog, and director/co-writer/co-producer Arthur Jones did a commendable job of presenting Furie and his dear creation with affection and care. Yes, damages were already done, but there is still the possibility of change for Pepe the Frog nonetheless, and, despite my usual pessimism, I hope that it will just look sweet and innocent again someday.