Is Pepe the Frog just a racist meme?
Pepe is about love, not hate.
First, let’s take a moment to talk about the nature of a meme.
By definition, a meme is “An element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered passed from one individual to another by non genetic means, especially imitation”1, or more plainly “The collective creation and evolution of shared information”2.
Pepe’s roots dig deep, reaching back to a Matt Furie Boy’s Club cartoon, enjoying a lengthy myspace and 4chan run, only later, and within the last year, to be pigeonholed as a racist symbol of exclusion by the “alt-right”. So now can a new paradigm be created; one which casts a light on Pepe that recreates a wide shadow of community. For Pepe follows in no one’s footsteps. When Pepe hops only Pepe knows where he will land.
When Wendy’s tweeted out a Pepe version of its classic mascot, the Pepe community rejoiced that such a major corporation would take up the frog.3 The political left, on the other hand, attacked Wendy’s, who promptly deleted the tweet. The justification for Wendy’s to take down the tweet was “unaware of the recent political connotations associated with Pepe memes.”. This enraged some in the Pepe community for kowtowing to the social justice warriors and others pointing to Pepe being associated with President Trump and the alt-right.
A meme constantly changes as it is used.
One of the most iconic Muppets of all time is Bert, from Sesame Street. How would you feel if you knew the kind and pigeon loving banana-headed memories from childhood had been in league with Nazis or with the likes of Osama Bin Laden?4 Bert is Evil has taken the child’s television mascot and put him in a number of precarious positions and compromising circumstances. Does Bert become the poster Muppet for unorthodox sexual activity because there is a picture of him fisting Ernie and giving him a reach around?
No. Nor does every use of Pepe display hate and racism. Pepe is also love, Pepe is Dank, Pepe is what memes are all about at their core.
In fact, the very same Anti-Defamation League that added Pepe to its list of hate symbols stated on its own website:
“However, because so many Pepe the Frog memes are not bigoted in nature, it is important to examine use of the meme only in context. The mere fact of posting a Pepe meme does not mean that someone is racist or white supremacist.”5
This, however, does not take away from specific use cases, but it does imply that as a meme is used, so it evolves.
Is Pepe a symbol used by racists and bigots?
Is he, also, so much more than that?
Pepe is as Pepe is used. It is up to the Pepe community at large to put their best webbed foot forward when interacting with those who would brand Pepe a symbol of hate. It is easy to troll the non-frog for their lack of vision. Instead, why not show that person something that makes Pepe the standard bearer for memes as a form of communication.
Pepe is a tool of the creative, and he will be defined by where he is headed next, not where he has been.6