The meme-fication of US politics: two films reveal the faces behind the posts
On 13 October 2015, Donald Trump, who had recently announced his run for president, tweeted an image of himself standing at the presidential lectern, his face transmogrified into a green, smug-looking frog, known to certain corners of the internet as Pepe. With hindsight, this strange moment offers a stake in the ground, marking out the point when the meme was invited into mainstream political culture.
This collapse of the virtual and the real seems to have only accelerated since then. Online phenomena are no longer cordoned off in their virtual barriers but regularly pass through the screen to play mischief in the so-called “real world”. Two recent documentaries attempt to explain how this all happened – from two very different perspectives.
The first one, Feels Good Man, aims to dissect how the Pepe meme was hijacked by extremist groups to turn the comic character into a symbol of far right bigotry. By comparison the second documentary, TFW No GF, allows a handful of trolls to speak for themselves with little critical pushback. The film was partially funded by Cody Wilson, who was described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as someone who “exists in the world of antigovernment extremists, as a product of a sort of extreme post-libertarianism”. In 2017 he launched Hatreon, a site aimed at crowdfunding for white nationalists who had been banned from sites such as Kickstarter and Patreon.
Feels Good Man tracks Pepe’s journey to notoriety from the point of view of its creator, Matt Furie, a sweet-tempered, somewhat credulous California-based illustrator. We learn that Furie first created Pepe for his 2005 comic Boy’s Club, which tracked the lives of four human-like animal friends living in the languid state between college and adult life. Quintessential 90s slackers, they drink, smoke, fart, and say things like “got milk?” and “as if”. The comic is crude, light-hearted, funny, portraying a type of masculinity in which, as one fan of the comic explains, “you can be in your underwear singing Shania Twain”.
On a whim, Furie uploads a few frames from the comic to his Myspace page. Soon, a wide array of Pepe memes start to take over. People make their own versions of the frog and post him on obscure forums and bulletin boards, including on 4chan, where Pepe undergoes the first of several major mutations. By 2008, he is no longer Furie’s “happy little frog” but a sad, alienated creature, an avatar for disgruntled dropouts who live in their mothers’ basements – or in 4chan language, Neets (Not in Education or Training).
As Pepe breaks out on to more mainstream social media platforms, his image changes once again into a more palatable, funny, feminized frog – shared by the likes of Nicki Minaj and Katie Perry. The 4chaners, who feel their mascot is being stolen by “normies”, react by metamorphizing Pepe into the most “problematic” creature imaginable. They generate versions of Pepe emblazoned with swastikas, Pepe gassing Jewish people, Pepe in a KKK hood. The idea is that if they make the frog politically incorrect, normies will back off.
The ploy worked, perhaps better than expected. By 2015, Pepe had become a symbol for a broad coalition of self-styled transgressive rightwingers, all the way from anti-PC “activists” to full-blown “alt-right” white nationalists to Donald Trump.
For a long time, Furie remains somewhat nonplussed about Pepe’s increasingly toxic online mutations. “I am just a spectator,” he tells a friend. It is only when his design is designated as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League in September 2016 that he finally confronts how out of hand his Golem-like creature has become. He teams up with the ADL to launch #SavePepe, inviting people to draw and upload their own, peace-loving version of the frog, to drown out the hate.
Of course, the plan fails. 4chan users continue to post racist and pro-Trump memes by the tens of thousands. When Trump wins the election, 4chaners declare that they memed their candidate all the way to the White House.
While the trolly menaces who launch Pepe to notoriety remain mostly faceless in Feels Good Man, in Alex Lee Moyer’s debut documentary, TFW No GF, they become the central characters. (TFW No GF stands for “that feel when no girlfriend”, a slogan taken up on 4chan.)
Eschewing conventions of expert talking heads or definitive narrative, the film unfolds as a somewhat disjointed collage of interviews with previously anonymous, very online people who have gained notoriety for their shitposting, a way of posting online that intentionally derails conversation through irony or lack of context. In the tradition of documentaries about fringy subcultures, Moyer takes a non-judgmental, almost sociological lens, allowing the trolls – white men in their 20s who live mostly in bleak, post-industrial American towns – to speak for themselves.
This decision has made the documentary controversial. By focusing on the trolls’ narrative, Moyer has overlooked those who have been harmed by the abuse and hate that has spread on the platforms that they inhabit. This concern is compounded by Cody Wilson’s involvement in funding the film. When confronted about taking money from Wilson, as well as gaining access to his sources in the far-right world, Moyer told Rolling Stone: “This film is going to stand the test of time and it’s going to help a lot of people. And I will accept money from Cody Wilson for this project, whether I agree with any of his personal decisions or not.”
In the film, we meet Sean, who identifies as “five-foot-six and living in a one-bedroom apartment with my mom”. The gun-toting brothers Charels and Viddy, who turned to the “constant onslaught of gore and pornography” on the internet at a young age to fill the void left by alcoholic parents. Kyle from El Paso, Texas, who participates in live-action role-playing as a millennial cowboy, gets in fights outside bars, and tweets about it later. And Kantbot, a philosopher-shitposter who is now best known for his appearance in a viral video, filmed at an anti-Trump rally in 2016, in which he declares that Trump will “complete the system of German idealism”.
The awkward, depressive, timid presence these young men project on screen is contrasted with screenshots of their online posting, which is irony-laden, macabre, often abusive, and staggeringly misogynistic. (Charels, for instance, “jokes” that he wants to punch a woman in the stomach so hard she stops breathing.)
As the documentary’s title suggests, a source of inspiration for their trolling is unsuccessful relationships with women. None of Moyer’s subjects, however, identify as “incels”, and they carefully differentiate themselves from those who confuse shitposting with real world violence, like Elliot Rodger or Alek Minassian, two young men who acted out their violent fantasies through mass murder. For them, TFW No GF is not a threat, but an emotive motto for a new generation, conveying a fragile emotional state that develops out of loneliness, lack of companionship, and no hope for the future.
On 4chan, the memetic representation of this emotion is not Pepe – who symbolizes the smug, trolling self – but Wojak, a Microsoft Paint illustration of a bald man, who often looks depressed or angry. With his creased, white face and soulless eyes, he is a distinctly uglier character than Pepe, reflecting a broader aesthetic distinction between the two documentaries. Feels Good Man offers a magnificent visual experience, filled with engaging subjects, that ends with redemption: Furie lawyers up and successfully enforces Pepe’s copyright, barring Alex Jones, Richard Spencer, and a host of far-right figures from using his frog. In the final scene, we see him swimming in a picturesque rockpool surrounded by friends, finally free from the online spiral into which was pulled.
In contrast, TFW No GF remains dark and dissonant throughout. In the end, the young men are seemingly trying to move on with their lives – Charels has a girlfriend, Sean is lifting weights. But their future in America seems grim and uncertain. Having spent so much time in the darkest corners of the online world in their formative years, it is difficult to imagine them ever escaping back into the “real world”, or liberating themselves from psychic consequences of their nihilist shitposting.
In this sense, they, and Moyer’s documentary, might offer a more accurate, if terrifying, view of where the culture is heading.