Discussing a meme can be a challenge.
With how relevant memes have become in the current generation of internet-users, looking at a silly macro image and trying to study it is often met with a groan or sigh.
So, when the new documentary “Feels Good Man” was released, some people were naturally skeptical of the film’s ability to properly portray and understand “meme culture.”
Doubly so, as the film’s main subject was about the legendary “Pepe the Frog.”
“Feels Good Man,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 27, chronicles the odd and bombastic timeline of Pepe the Frog: its humble beginnings as a funny picture sent between friends before it mutated into a symbol for hate speech and white supremacy.
With the film now available to rent on platforms like Amazon and Google, some Penn State students and professors weighed in on how they felt about the meme and its portrayal in popular culture.
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Matthew Jordan, a Penn State film and media studies professor, explained how memes are trafficable and powerful political tools due to their ability to be repurposed.
“The way these things go viral makes them very powerful political weapons,” Jordan said. “Their flexibility, their ability to be repurposed…[is] one thing you can say about memes.”
Jordan personally was not aware of the meme until it became notorious for being used in hate speech circles and white supremacist movements.
“Vaguely I knew it was something before [that], but I associate it mostly with what it metastasized into,” Jordan said.
Matthew Sargent, the treasurer of the Penn State Student Film Organization, said he remembered when Pepe became a big trend when he was in high school, and he would exchange the meme with his friends.
“There was this girl in my freshman English class, and she was showing me a couple of memes,” Sargent (sophomore-film-video) said. “She asked, ‘do you want to see my folder of rare Pepe memes?’”
As the controversy around Pepe continued, Sargent was disappointed at how it came to be used.
“That was like the perfect meme. It was so unique and versatile, and you could use it any way you wanted. It’s really sad that it’s turned into what it turned into,” Sargent said.
Sargent said that as a left-leaning Democrat, he was also disappointed to see the meme used as a political tool.
Sarah Simpson was also a big fan of the meme when it hit its peak and frequently shared it among her friends.
“I definitely was a fan of the meme back in the day,” Simpson (junior-film/video) said. “I remember just seeing the imagery of the frog and I thought it was hilarious.”
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Simpson, however, doesn’t think she will use the meme now since its current usages were not as intended in the beginning.
“I don’t agree with what it turned into, but I don’t think that was the original purpose of the meme,” Simpson said.
The film supports Simpson’s thought, with much of the focus being on the creator of the Pepe image, Matt Furie. The heart of the documentary follows Furie as he watches as his creation is taken from him and used in different ways, whether it be for lighthearted jokes, hateful messages or even protest symbols.
Also, the film discusses the argument over ownership and how ideation does not exist in a public sphere like the internet.
Additionally, the film delves into the hope that Pepe can shake the association it has with white supremacy and hate speech.
Simpson believes that it’s possible to rebrand Pepe into something more positive.
“I think memes are very open-ended in general,” Simpson said. “The fact that people can use [Pepe] as a symbol of hope, or on the worst-side a symbol for white supremacy, it just shows how open-ended comedy could be.”
Moreover, Sargent thinks the meme is at a crossroads, acknowledging that the meme could either die off, continue to be used by the alt-right or that the meme could become more hopeful. Sargent cited how Pepe is used as a symbol for change in the Hong Kong protests.
Jordan explained that since a meme is an extension of language, the best way to rebrand Pepe is to associate it with positivity more frequently.
“The meaning of language is always gonna be contextual,” Jordan said. “It’s a metamorphosis. Things mold and become something else. If people are using it just to create different emotional reactions, then that’s all it means.”