There’s no shortage of documentaries about our current political climate or the fact that the Internet might be bad, but Feels Good Man focuses on the craziest intersection of these two modern realities: Pepe, the cartoon frog.
If you’re aware of Pepe already, chances are it’s because the character has become synonymous with the alt-right, that extreme online demographic tied to modern white supremacists and Nazi movements. Or perhaps you heard of Pepe before that, during the time this frog had become the meme du jour of 4chan, the anonymous message board associated with all sorts of nefarious real world behavior. Though Pepe’s most high profile 15 minutes of fame were inarguably an infamous cameo on then candidate Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, leading to the character’s adoption by some of his most extreme supporters like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Feels Good Man will get to all that, of course, but this documentary starts with the now toxic toad’s tadpole days. By doing so, the film will likely show viewers something they didn’t know or hadn’t previously considered regardless of prior familiarity with Pepe and the insanity swirling around him. And through tracing Pepe’s evolution, Feels Good Man manages to remind everyone of a fundamental truth of communication, particularly in the Internet age. Once you click send on something, things like original intent and context might become as ephemeral as a single tweet.
A film that truly understands Internet
While ostensibly marketed on the festival circuit as “the Pepe doc,” Feels Good Man actually has another central figure: Matt Furie, a Bay Area comics artist. Back in the days where MySpace existed, he created a Gen X-ish group of animal friends existing in perpetual post-college slackerdom for a series called Boy’s Club. Furie’s lifelong frog fandom led to an amphibian named Pepe becoming one of the comic’s lead foursome. “Feels Good Man” the phrase has been literally lifted from Pepe’s mundane adventures, particularly the one where he discovered how nice it felt to pee standing up with your pants removed entirely.
The documentary thoroughly and exhaustively documents things chronologically from here. You’ll see early Boy’s Club comics Furie drew in the back of a San Francisco thrift store, posts documenting how Pepe became the preferred badge of self-deprecating irony on 4chan, or a mountain of Pepe merch Furie once had produced but can’t in good conscious give away or sell these days. While walking viewers through all of that, Feels Good Man seems remarkably smart about identifying turning points for the cartoonist and the character he once controlled. It’s quite evident director Arthur Jones deeply understands how culture can snowball in-between disparate Internet communities until it becomes too big for society at large to ignore. Maybe Trump retweeting a Pepe meme is an obvious touchstone in retrospect, but this film gives equal weight to moments such as weightlifters displaying a fondness for the frog or eventual shares from celebs like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj.
“When 4chan wanted to defend its memes, they’d make them as offensive as possible so they couldn’t be co-opted, see Pepe with 9/11 or Nazi messaging for instance,” Dale Beran, an author who studied 4chan, says in the film. “Back then, it was just the most offensive thing you could do. But it now reads as a weird prologue to when the irony melted away.”
Feels Good Man stays riveting because of the variety of interviews Jones conducted. Furie participates to the fullest, as does his partner and close friends (one of which got a Pepe tattoo back in the early days 🤦♀️). So do other illustrators from projects as big as BoJack Horseman to lend credence to Furie’s ability and work. But the same holistic approach gets applied to voices examining Pepe’s Internet evolution—scholars like Beran who study memes, people who go by one-name handles like Mills or Pizza during their extensive 4chan experiences, and the freakin’ director of strategy for the “Trump 2016” campaign all appear. These folks understand the Internet in ways Furie only could once it became too late.
“[We analyzed] over one billion posts across Twitter, reddit, /pol/ and 160 million images just from one year,” Jeremy Blackburn, a data scientist who looks at weird online behavior and wanted to take a “quantitative look at hate speech throughout the Web,” tells Furie in the film. “There tends to be a Pepe variance in every cluster—you pick a random meme, and Pepe has been inserted in some form. Pepe becomes an entry point to radicalization.”
Feels Good Man ultimately finds Furie at a point where enough is enough—he’s finally sought out legal aid in recent years to try and fight back against some of the most egregious and offensive uses of his slacker frog. He fought Infowars and won (Alex Jones had to pay a settlement and stop selling a poster showing Pepe in an Avengers-like squad alongside figures like President Trump). Furie fought a known anti-Muslim cartoonist and won (that guy wanted to write a “children’s book” called Pepe and Pede as a trojan horse for bad ideas). The list goes on and includes reprehensible white supremacy opportunists from The Daily Stormer to Richard Spencer. In total, Furie’s legal help at WilmerHale says it successfully enforced Pepe copyrights against nearly 100 entities “connected to images or messages of hate” at the time of this documentary.
But Furie naively still thinks his character can be salvaged in society’s eye. He seems to view one particular battle as the way to do it: In 2016, the Anti-Defamation League officially added Pepe to its list of known symbols of hate. If the frog can finally be removed, Furie appears to think, that would restore the original, wholesome idea of Pepe once and for all. Watching this unattainable goal drive Furie through all kinds of efforts (including a formal Boy’s Club funeral for the Pepe they knew), Feels Good Man plays like a post-modern horror. In real (run)time, you watch the worst impulses of the Internet rain down again and again on someone who just doesn’t comprehend what he’s up against. “I didn’t even know what a meme was,” Furie admits at one point. “I still don’t even know if I’m saying it correctly. It was through Pepe that I learned what a meme was.”
From 10,000-feet, however, Feels Good Man has a more philosophical idea at its core. This film reminds viewers time and time again of a basic communication and rhetorical studies principle: no matter the intent of someone who puts a message into the world, once it’s out there, that idea/work/message/whatever no longer entirely belongs to the messenger. Some part of meaning always lies in reception. So in that sense, a message becomes at least partially owned by the people receiving it, who can soon change and evolve its ultimately meaning (aka how larger society understands) through interpretation and usage.
Fan service creative works like the Snyder Cut or The Rise of Skywalker might represent notable manifestations of near-total recipient ownership, but Pepe embodies this concept at its most extreme. Furie clearly did nothing wrong when creating Pepe, seemingly a kind of amusing slacker frog borne out of the artist’s lifelong frog fandom. And never in a million years could he have imagined how his character would be received, reinterpreted, and reused after uploading a few strips to MySpace. But by not doing anything in the early days of cooption, Furie lost his creation (non-legal sense) forever. No matter what he does now, Pepe’s ultimate fate simply lies beyond Furie’s control. And though Feels Good Man attempts to leave an optimistic door open—have you seen who’s become a symbol of protest in Hong Kong, for instance?—this film makes the tragedy clear to anyone… so long as you didn’t create the Internet’s most infamous frog, that is.
Feels Good Man continues to play the festival circuit (Ars caught it through Fantasia Fest this month). The film is also available through VOD platforms like Amazon Prime, Microsoft Store, Google Play, Vimeo on Demand, et al. Today—Sunday, September 27—there’s even a special online screening with a post film Q&A hosted by This American Life’s Ira Glass.
Listing image by Feels Good Man