Pepe the Frog

A public school student’s tribute to Pepe the Frog on display at an art show featuring work by students at Greenbelt Elementary School and Greenbelt Middle School at the Greenbelt Community Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Photo taken on May 8, 2017.

Matt Furie is an artist who had an online comic strip known as Boy’s Club, which received plenty of attention for one of its characters—Pepe the Frog, a basically laid-back peaceful character whose personality was something that could’ve come from a Cheech and Chong movie. Furie had no hateful or malicious intent when he created Pepe.

Imagine his surprise when various alt-right groups appropriated Pepe and used him to attack women, LGBTQ persons, Muslims, people of color, and other groups who aren’t white heterosexual Christian men. In time the Anti Defamation League added Pepe the Frog to its list of hate symbols.

This kind of appropriation is every creative’s worst nightmare come true. In the past I’ve had my own creative work (including drawings, paintings, and animations) get interpreted by others in ways that surprised me because I never had that kind of idea in mind when I originally created it. At least those alternative interpretations were benign and they didn’t hurt my work or my reputation.

Matt Furie had the misfortune of seeing one of his creations not only get interpreted by others in ways that he never intended but he had to stand by while seeing his creation get appropriated as a hate symbol. He tried to put the word out that he never created Pepe the Frog in that way but his protests fell on deaf ears as the alt-right continues to use Pepe for their own ends.

Last weekend Matt Furie uploaded a cartoon panel he drew depicting Pepe lying in a coffin. He also included that panel in a comic book that was distributed in comic book stores nationwide as part of the annual Free Comic Book Day. It was his way of announcing that Pepe the Frog is officially dead.

I don’t blame Matt Furie for what he did. If I was in his shoes, I would’ve done something similar as a way of distancing myself from seeing one of my own creations get twisted into a hate symbol.

I know some of you will ask why didn’t he simply get a lawyer and sue those sites that continue to use his Pepe the Frog in a despicable manner. Here’s the thing—launching a lawsuit in the U.S. is not cheap. I know this first-hand when my estranged husband sued me for divorce and I had no other alternative but to get my own lawyer. Even though my divorce was a relatively simple cut and dry matter (we didn’t have minor children living at home nor did we own much in terms of property and investments), I still had to pay around $250 in order to have my lawyer represent me in divorce court for a trial that lasted less than a half-an-hour.

Look at the late pop star Prince. He managed to get the majority of his videos withdrawn from YouTube and other online video sites but, in order to accomplish this, he had to hire an expensive team of lawyers whose job was to scour the Internet for any unauthorized uploads of his videos (including uploads made by his own fans). Prince was rich enough to afford such legal help.

In contrast, the vast majority of creative people, including Matt Furie, don’t have Prince’s deep pocketed financial resources to hire a similar team of Internet-savvy lawyers to do such work. Given the nature of the Internet, it would’ve been impossible for him to save legal fees by focusing on—let’s say—the controversial 4chan.org site (one of the places where those memes originated) because even if he had won that case, people would’ve taken those twisted Pepe memes and store them on other sites (such as the notorious white power site Stormfront.org) and he would’ve had to raise more money to pay lawyers to launch lawsuits against those sites.

Trying to delete anything off of the Internet is like playing Whack-A-Mole because once you get something taken off one site, that same thing will crop up on another site, then another site, and so on. Once you upload anything online, it’s nearly impossible to remove it.

Basically Matt Furie did the only thing he could do to distance himself from the hateful versions of Pepe the Frog by killing off his character. I don’t blame him one bit for what he did.

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