On one hand, the story of the alt-right’s adoption of Pepe the Frog can be seen as an extreme case of the death of the author. Laid-back San Francisco party guy Matt Furie draws a comic book called “Boy’s Club,” which features characters inspired by his mundane post-college life. Pepe, who Furie notes is like the “little brother” of the friend group, is clearly a blissed out reflection of the author. However, the internet took this froggy paragon of innocence, and turned him into both a symbol of racist hatred and a display token that can be used to say that you, too, are in on the joke and understand the internet in a way that normies do not. Arthur Jones’ documentary, Feels Good Man, also proposes that Furie’s — and culture at large’s — passivity, which is echoed in the Pepe character, allowed Pepe to become both an uncontrollable Frankenstein’s monster and a blank slate for vicious, racist internet trolls to do with as they pleased.
Feels Good Man is at different points anthropological, heavily editorialized, and deeply empathetic towards its many characters and talking heads. It traces the evolution of the Pepe phenomenon from Furie’s MySpace page to bodybuilding forums, “ironic” 4chan usage, unironic racist and misogynist 4chan, its use by the Trump campaign and by Trump himself, and finally by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. It unfolds like a horror film, as Furie’s art is pressed into more and more depressing, toxic scenarios and Furie is poorly equipped to deal with it all. At one point, he tries to launch a campaign to save Pepe on social media, which goes horribly awry as trolls inundate every one of its tagged posts with predictably bilious Pepe memes.
Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle
The real villain in Feels Good Man is passivity. When Furie is pointedly asked if he feels any personal responsibility for how his creation was taken and mutated, he notes that he wishes he had acted earlier and treated the situation with more gravity. Furie is a ceaseless well of empathy, and you can feel from the film that he is still too laid back to really harbor grudges against the internet trolls that made his art synonymous with hatred. He sounds legitimately pained when he says that as an artist himself he doesn’t want to sue another.
Feels Good Man portrays those who morphed Pepe’s image, for the most part, as as lonely basement dwellers who fall under the spell of a desire to be included in a community — even if that community is hateful. These posters were passive to the power of the meme magic — as occultist John Michael Greer puts it — once it took off, as though Pepe is an incantation and they were hypnotized under some sort of spell that helped them to literally warp reality.
The film’s description of 4chan is a bit simplistic and perhaps too willing to let individuals off the hook. Toby Reynolds, aka Eggman, is depicted as a hapless and lonely documentarian of the horror going on around him as he posts video streams venerating mass murderer and incel hero Elliot Rodger. Matt Braynard — a veritable creep and director of strategy for the Trump campaign — goes into some detail about using memes to target voters on the internet. I would have loved more of this as a counterpoint to the many talking heads who describe the events unfolding as unstoppable and unmanageable. The film can feel all too willing to accept its interviewees’ neat psychological analyses that just so happen to bail out a large swath of internet culture at once. In doing so, it proposes that young, hopeless men in a capitalist society are using the image of a sad frog as a way of lashing out against the commodification of the internet.
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One Frog’s Redemption
Feels Good Man is unsparing with its internet-sourced content, featuring myriad cleverly edited racist forum posts, memes, edgelord-y “jokes,” and larger-than-life scenarios where Pepe crosses the threshold from internet to reality — like when a spectator yells the frog’s name at a Hillary Clinton rally as we see the anticipation build in the 4Chan forums. It’s horrific, but even now, it’s still so shocking and weird that it’s a bit funny. There is also a deposition from Furie’s lawsuit against Alex Jones where he has to dryly explain to an attorney that Pepe is named after pee pee.
The filmmakers have a clear adoration for the sheer creativity of online communities and Feels Good Man tries to communicate how — from a certain angle — some of this content is or was funny at the time. That lack of judgement or feigned shock does give it a unique, authentic feel that puts it head and shoulders above other documentaries that self-seriously try to explain the 2016 election and the political moments leading up to it. The film wants you to know that, yes, much of this is silly and funny. But that doesn’t mean it’s a joke.
Furie is also a ceaselessly charming, empathetic and optimistic protagonist and it’s hard not to root for him. Feels Good Man is a political coming-of-age story for him, too, as he becomes more aware of the importance of events happening around him and vows to become more aggressive in his participation. We see him going from being unaware of what memes are to assembling a group of statisticians to quantify precisely how many Pepe memes have proliferated onto the internet. He’s a proxy for everyone caught like a deer in the headlights of that era.
The film is beautifully produced and filled with interstitial animations of Pepe and friends that function as transitions and illustrations of the subject matter. They’re gorgeous and fluid, but can feel cutesy and unnecessary. They feel added on to appeal to fans of Furie and graphic novels, but — at the same time — do fit in with the film’s ultimate, optimistic goal of “redeeming” Pepe and giving the character a second life. They are also a welcome break from some of the more nihilistic posts.
Feels Good Man is at its best when it’s working in an archival and descriptive mode, documenting the Pepe phenomenon rather than attempting to advance a narrative about the redemptive power of art. It’s a story about how quickly meanings can be shifted and generated online, and how this chaotic power of the internet has changed politics, for better or worse. Maybe one day we’ll only be able to associate Pepe the Frog with urine. For now, Feels Good Man is a helpful text in understanding how he became a contested political icon.