The holidays bring about those times where I find myself in the company of people who are not quite as online as I am, reminding me that much of what I research and know is not common knowledge, especially among my fellow parents. I also realize in observing and talking, that because of my research I tend to take a very conservative approach to my children’s activities online, much to their chagrin. Thus, I was quite surprised when I was recently pulling up a video by Florian Cramer on internet culture and the alt-right and my child walked in and said “It’s Pepe the Frog”. I audibly gasped at this statement as I had no idea he was aware of the existence of Pepe the Frog. Having spent hours upon hours on 4chan, 8chan, Discord and Twitter surrounding by, being harrassed by and observing awful people with Pepe avatars, I had to take a moment to compose myself before reacting to his likely innocent statement (I have physically flinched at the sudden appearance of their frog toys at times because of this exposure). I failed at the attempt at composure and snapped “How do you know who Pepe the Frog is?” The response was that a friend had shown him the “sad frog meme” some time ago. I clumsily tried to explain why Pepe was not just a “sad frog” meme anymore, which got me thinking about how to better explain it to children and to the adults who may wish to address the topic with children.
Shortly after this exchange, I was asked if I knew of any sources that might address this exact thing, a child’s knowledge of Pepe. This prompted a quick search for articles and, not surprisingly none were found. A search for such an article brings up a (presumably) innocent animated YouTube video with a vile comments section that has been overtaken with the alt-right language and talking points (also just learned that restricted mode in YouTube turns all comments off, thankfully). I have not found any one article to recommend so I am providing some information, links and observations here. I do not claim to know what I am doing as a parent (in fact quite the opposite most days), but I can provide information and thoughts as a researcher and librarian that some may find useful. Knowing full well that part of the reason many are not aware of the memes, tropes, trolling and coded language that permeates the internet is because of a lack of time to keep up with it all, I am going to try to keep this as short and sweet as possible while providing links to some articles in case anyone has time for the extra reading.
Who is Pepe the Frog?
the Frog is a drawing of an anthropomorphic frog that was created in
2008 by cartoonist Matt Furie. The stoner frog was certainly not
intended for children in the first place, drawn with his pants around
his ankles and urinating while saying “feels good man”. The images
circulated among different internet forums and reached peak popularity
in 2015 .
As is the nature of memes, the image inspired new versions and remakes
as its popularity spread and grew. As is the nature of online culture,
some of these “creative” endeavors included offensive,racist and
anti-Semitic themes, perhaps an attempt by the forums to reclaim the
image from the mainstream according to this Forbes article.
Members of the alt-right, specifically white supremacists, embraced
Pepe with even greater enthusiasm after Hillary Clinton brought it to
more mainstream attention, denouncing it as a hate symbol and the SPLC reported on Pepe’s entry on the ADL’s Hate On Display database.Pepe Joins (((Echoes))) as New Hate Symbols
Pepe the Frog just made a big leap. The popular Internet meme — co-opted by the racist Alt-Right movement and widely…www.splcenter.org
declaration of Pepe as a hate symbol sadly, but naturally, made him
more appealing and the response from the internet was to laugh at the
reaction and embrace him with renewed vigor. It is important to note
that not everyone who embraced this symbol is a white supremacist,
though many white supremacists did and still do (que video of white
nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched in the face as he is
explaining why he is wearing a Pepe the Frog pin). Anyone observing
children is certainly familiar with the allure of transgression and the
desire to do things in order to frustrate, anger and defy those in
authority. This type of behavior is also quite common in online culture.
It is also often claimed by those partaking in the behavior that they
are spreading symbols of hate ironically or for the laughs (“lulz”) and
not for ill intent (this claim can certainly be disputed but I’m trying
to stay on target because I know time is precious). Thus, as with many
things on the internet, context and intent must be taken into
consideration.Pepe the Frog removed from Daily Stormer after creator makes legal challenge
Matt Furie, whose ‘peaceful frog-dude’ was adopted by extremists, wins copyright action but lawyers describe…www.theguardian.com
Presumably (and hopefully!) the children who may be seeing and spreading Pepe are unaware of the co-opted nature of the image. However, it is vital that adults and children understand how the use or embracement of an image can be perceived by others, both offline and online. The use of Pepe the Frog quite often does indeed signal support of racist ideologies, though recently his popularity has begun to fade as these groups move on to other images and symbols. Matt Furie has consistently been trying to reclaim the image of his creation for good, but as pointed out in this article:
“ The challenge with Pepe is that he began as a comparatively obscure cult figure within the cartooning community, but is now known primarily as a meme associated with racism, anti-immigration, neo-Nazism, and the darker underbelly…”
Pepe’s Creator Is Trying to Save His Lovable Stoner Frog from the Alt-Right
“Another irony is that all of the Boy’s Club characters are anthropomorphic, abstract creatures,” Furie adds. “I…www.artsy.net
Pepe and the Deathly Hallows
In a later conversation we spoke about some similar symbols that had been co-opted. The most well-known hijacking of a symbol is obviously the swastika. He is already familiar with the history of the swastika as a symbol being modified and co-opted to signify hate through his reading, watching of history shows and my descriptions of some of my research. He even told me about the controversy around the third dungeon in Legend of Zelda (I am not linking because I can’t confirm accuracy of any of it beyond that there was indeed controversy over a left-facing swastika shaped dungeon), that he had learned from a video. Thus, he was aware of the issues with a non hateful symbol being turned into an image of hate. This discussion also brought up another symbol, the Deathly Hallows from Harry Potter.
The Deathly Hallows symbol was, like Pepe and the swastika not originally a symbol of evil. It was adopted by the dark wizard Grindelwald as his mark and it is explained on the Harry Potter wiki that “due to its history, and the history of the objects that it represents, the sign has also picked up certain additional associations”. The wiki explains how when students observed it at the Durmstrang Institute where Grindelwald carved it into a wall, they “copied it into their books and clothes, thinking to shock and to make themselves impressive”. Thus, like both Pepe and the swastika, it became associated with symbolism outside of its original intent and used both viciously and transgressively. Family members of those who were killed by Grindelwald obviously had a negative association with the symbol and when one of them observes someone wearing the symbol, he associates that character with the dark magic of Grindelwald and becomes enraged. Unaware of the historical association of the symbol with Grindelwald, other characters are surprised by such a visceral reaction and explain it away as perhaps a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge. It is further revealed that the symbol is worn by those wishing to recognize other seekers of the Deathly Hallows, but one can see how it can be read as a symbol for other dark wizards to recognize each other by those who only know the negative association. I found this to be a good way to explain how one’s use of Pepe could make others think you were a dark wizard like Grindelwald. There are actually some interesting discussions online regarding the parallels between the swastika and the symbol of the Deathly Hallows should you have the time or inclination.
Know Your Meme
My attempt here is to provide some quick understanding of the specific meme, “Pepe the Frog” and how one may understand or approach the topic when it comes to a child’s interest in or embracement of the image. This is not meant to be a comprehensive discussion of the topic as many of those already exist, but more of a “minimum of what you should know if you don’t have the time to read all of those”. Pepe is an egregious example of a meme gone bad, but it is only a matter of time until the next one will make its way from the depths of the internet to the mainstream. Others that have made it into mainstream conversation more recently are the OK symbol and the phrase “subscribe to PewdiePie”, both of which are used in similar ways to the Pepe meme.
The website Know Your Meme attempts to explain and archive the multitudes of internet memes, tracking their origins, popularity and meanings. While I would contend the accuracy of some of its entries, and it does not always address the signified language, it is an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to quickly gain a better understanding of an image, video, phrase etc.., especially if a child is using, repeating or sharing it. It is crucial that parents at least be aware of the origins and possible meanings of the many memes and narratives that children are presented with every day.
For more information regarding online culture, memes, and extremism, I have a working bibliography available here: https://katieanderson.camden.rutgers.edu/bibliographies/internet-forums-trolling-online-harassment/