As It Happens

Pepe the Frog is not a hate symbol, says creator Matt Furie

The Anti-Defamation League has added the cartoon amphibian to its list of hate symbols because the Pepe meme is being used by white supremacists. But Pepe's creator says his frog, and the online phenomenon it spawned, is bigger than that.
Cartoonist Matt Furie with some of his Pepe the Frog originals (l) and one of the most popular Pepe memes (r) (Matt Furie and unknown)

When Matt Furie created his cartoon Pepe the Frog, he never imagined the laid-back amphibian might one day be considered a hate symbol. 

But that's what the Anti-Defamation League says the comic frog is. This week, it added it to a list that includes the Confederate flag and the swastika.

It's all very surreal. Honestly, he's just a cartoon frog.- Matt Furie, creator of Pepe the Frog

Pepe the Frog began in Furie's comics in 2005. He's since become a hugely popular Internet meme. But, lately, it's also been appropriated by some on the alt-right, who have decked Pepe out with Nazi tattoos, Ku Klux Klan garb and stuck Donald Trump's distinctive hair on his head. You can see some of the images here.

Pepe the Frog as Hitler in one image of the cartoon character appropriated by white supremacists.

Furie spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about his objections to the ADL listing Pepe as a hate symbol. Here is an edited version of their conversation:

A clip of Pepe the Frog's creator explaining why he thinks the Anti-Defamation League was wrong to list the cartoon amphibian as a hate symbol.

Carol Off: Mr. Furie, the Anti-Defamation League says Pepe is a hate symbol. What is he to you?

Matt Furie: Well, just to get the record straight, Pepe the Frog is actually not a hate symbol. He started as, basically, a hippied-out cartoon frog in a comic book that I did called Boy's Club and then he's become, basically, the Mickey Mouse of meme culture. His face covers a whole range of different emotions to happy to sad to freaking out to stoned, so he covers a wide range of things for hundreds of thousands of people on the Internet, mostly kids and teenagers, college people.

(Matt Furie)

CO: So how did you feel when you learned that Pepe the Frog had been added to this list of hate symbols, alongside burning crosses and swastikas?

MF: It's all very surreal. Honestly, he's just a cartoon frog. I don't think it's fair to call Pepe the Frog, in general, a hate symbol. I think the examples that they used on the ADL database are, obviously, racist things. There's nothing hidden. It's a straight-up Hitler Pepe the Frog. So it's not like a secret code, like some of the other things on their database, which, I agree, they're symbols of hate.

CO: Did anyone from the Anti-Defamation League talk to you about this beforehand?

MF: No, absolutely not. And, not only did they not talk to me, they added my name to that list too, which is, basically, like putting your name next to a swastika in their eyes.

Pepe the Frog was created in 2005 by Matt Furie as part of his Boy's Club comic series. It's since become a popular meme. (Matt Furie)

CO: In what way? Just tell us how your name has been included in that?

MF: Saying that I was the creator of Pepe the Frog. And they don't say that I was the creator of this weird racist version of it, but, regardless, my name is up there on the database, which, I don't know about you, it makes me pretty uncomfortable.

CO: For people who don't know, just describe Pepe the Frog as you made him.

MF: Pepe, as I made him, is just kind of a goofy, hippie frog guy. He likes drinking soda, watching TV, talking on his cell phone. He's just an everyman symbol for that post-college 20-something bracket. He's a fairly innocent dude in my eyes.

(Matt Furie)

CO: What are some of the versions of Pepe you've seen over the years? What are some of your favourites?

MF: Well, originally, Pepe became popular saying a phrase, "Feels good, man." Smirking in this funny way and saying, "Feels good, man," is actually a reaction to him admitting that he pulled his pants down all the way to pee. So, I like that one because it stays true to my original vibe.

I'd be far more interested in hearing about ecology and the future of mankind or all these other things these candidates should be focussed on, rather than a stoned cartoon frog being used by weirdos on the Internet.- Matt Furie, creator of Pepe the Frog

CO: Pepe has now become part of the U.S. presidential race. The Clinton campaign has drawn attention to how it's being used by the alt-right. What did you make of that when it finally turned up in the campaign?

MF: Well, I thought it was very strange that either candidate was focussing on a cartoon frog as an actual issue. You know, I'd be far more interested in hearing about ecology and the future of mankind or equal pay or all these other things that these candidates should be focussed on, rather than a stoned cartoon frog being used by weirdos on the Internet.

CO: Mr. Trump himself has retweeted a Pepe cartoon with his hair on it. Someone did that and then he retweeted it. Did you see that?

MF: Yeah, I can only speculate as to what that means. It could be just as innocent as him thinking it was some kind of goofy fan art that he liked. Or maybe there is some other kind of agenda. I don't know. But the fact of the matter is it's just a strange time in American politics right now.

(Matt Furie)

CO: Is there anything you can do to reclaim Pepe?

MF: Well, I just put out a collection of the Boy's Club comic book. And, if you're interested in learning about the true nature of Pepe, check it out.

CO: But you're not going to do anything to shut it down?

MF: I would love to and any advice you could give me would be great, but, honestly, it's hard to stop anonymous voices on the Internet sharing anything. I try to focus on the positive aspects of Pepe, where he's just kind of this cute frog that means a lot to middle schoolers. So, the fact that Pepe the Frog is put on the ADL database as just one sweeping symbol for white supremacy or the alt-right, I just don't think it's true. I think Pepe is much bigger than that.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Matt Furie.