FEELS GOOD MAN is a great metaphor for the state of America right now and a lot of the people in it. Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe the Frog, is a good guy. He believes in peace, love, and human rights. He’s not a racist, xenophobe, or homophobe. He’s laid back and believes that artists should live and let live. He’s not trying to milk every last dime out of his creations through merchandising. He doesn’t have a possessive attitude towards his creations. He never thought that his work could be used in the service of evil. And unfortunately, that is the problem.
While FEELS GOOD MAN is about the man who created Pepe the Frog and his legal battle to recover his rightful ownership of his creation, it’s also a great lesson on how even cartoon frogs were weaponized to help get Donald Trump into the White House. It’s the information war, whose battlefront is Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc. You are part of it every day, whether you realize it or not. This time it’s the battle that took place in 2016, prior to the election that brought us our current horror story, and the insidious steps along the way. It’s about the power that the Internet gives to everyone and how it can be used to achieve political aims. It casts a light on the antagonistic sub-culture of 4chan and its successor 8chan. It’s about how an imageboard founded by a 14-year-old who literally lived in his mother’s basement can turn into a behemoth of fear that resolves to go to war and to “meme someone” into the Presidency, even if they originally thought he was stupid. Full disclosure: yes, once someone tried to sic 4chan on me because they were mad about an opinion I had on a band message board. True story.
Matt Furie created the comic Boy’s Club, about slacker animals based on himself and his relatives and friends, and started out by posting his comics panels on MySpace. His character Pepe struck a chord with dudes who like to work out on the 4 Chan bodybuilding boards. The artist inadvertently created a catchphrase. Specifically, as his partner intones mournfully, the panel where Pepe is caught in the bathroom peeing with his pants pulled all the way down. His explanation of this strange behavior to his friend is simply, “Feels good man.” It appealed to weightlifters who felt that they had had a particularly good workout. They would post a selfie of their progress and say what quickly became an Internet sensation. The character and the catchphrase quickly migrated to the other boards of the Chan and the self-described outcasts who populated them. 4chan users were originally anonymous posters. They had a handle and an avatar but didn’t identify themselves unless they chose to post selfies or videos. There was a definitive attitude that Pepe was theirs and when “normies” discovered Pepe and started using the character for likes and clout, they got angry, not realizing that Pepe actually belonged to someone else and not them. The two 4chan posters that the film interviews had no idea who Matt Furie was. When they saw his comic, they assumed hey, someone took the character and is making a comic of it now. Pepe became more than just a mascot, but a representation of who they were or how they saw themselves. The friendly frog could have any emotion or identity superimposed on it.
The film takes you step by step in the transformation and weaponization of Pepe into more than just a funny reaction meme into then a tool of the right-wing to promote their agenda and draw previously politically apathetic young men onto the Trump Train. The film does an interview with one Matthew Braynard, the executive director of Look Ahead America. Their stated purpose is to “find untapped Trump voters and voter fraud,” who opines that Trump is the personification of Pepe. He feels this because he thinks Trump has the quality of being able to get attention and a reaction out of people. He’s also formerly the director of strategy and data for the Trump Campaign in 2016. What ended up happening then is similar to what is happening right now. Trump retweeted the 4chan meme of himself as Pepe just like he is now retweeting QAnon conspiracy theories. Because of this seeming support, the Chan posters saw acceptance and a challenge. Could they really meme someone into office? 4chan had previously had a flirtation with politics with Project Chanology, so the time was right for them to deliberately take up arms in service of an idea and as a flex of their power. Since Braynard has talked about being aware of this and many of the posts at 4chan were anonymous, it’s not hard to surmise that the Trump campaign may have placed some of these posts themselves. Around the same time, the so-called “Alt-Right” was promoted by Richard Spencer as a way to mainstream white power and Nazi ideology.
Suddenly Pepe was not just a cartoon frog or meme.
The documentary is extremely adept at showing how Pepe was a cute way to mainstream those ideas and open up young minds to racist, anti-Semitic, and nationalist beliefs. To meme-ify the ideals of Blood and Soil and Nazism to a whole new generation. To spread whatever ideas the “Alt-Right” and the most far-right conservatives decide can be used to troll liberals for fun and gain converts. Making the nihilistic contrarianism of the Chans a weapon for Trump. It really took flight when ADL and Hillary Clinton declared Pepe the Frog a hate symbol. What the 4channers didn’t realize or didn’t care about was that they were being used by a political campaign and by people like Richard Spencer. There’s even a video where Spencer got punched in the head by someone wearing Black bloc while doing an interview about how Pepe was the symbol of his movement.
While the Chans thrived on trolling and causing fear, they started to understand that they had power. They felt like outcasts because they didn’t have girlfriends or have sex. No, seriously. They felt they had no future. So they decided they would lean into the rejection and make it a point of pride. Why? Because hate is easier and less embarrassing than love. Hate doesn’t require you to be earnest or vulnerable. Hate doesn’t make you open to ridicule.
Matt Furie’s breaking point came when a conservative tried to publish a children’s book with racist and Islamaphobic themes on Amazon. He finally lawyered up. Furie and the law firm Wilmer Cutler issued DMCA notices to Alt-Right figures like Baked Alaska, Mike Cernovich, Richard Spencer, and the big battle, Alex Jones and Infowars. They decided that Pepe the Frog belonged to them. Matt Furie decided to tell them no.
The documentary shows that an association of a creative property with right-wing hate groups is not only offensive but legally actionable. It shows that a person or group that is truly liberal and opposed to fascism would not willingly ally themselves with people who support far-right causes without a reason. But FEELS GOOD MAN returns to hope, because as dark as things get eventually things do change. It posits that when you take action, you put the change in motion. But make no mistake, Pepe the Frog imagery is still being used for trolling purposes and threats. I was recently threatened via the Pepe meme. Furie himself has been threatened with his own creation. Yeah, they’re still trying to work that angle.
FEELS GOOD MAN is an incredibly important and informational documentary that I highly recommend to anyone who is on the Internet or doesn’t understand how things got this bad this quickly. It emphasizes the importance of documentaries to the public. It reveals so much that is glossed over in everyday life and that certain people hope you will never notice. However, the overall theme of FEELS GOOD MAN is of hope, and the future holds the promise of change. But you have to fight for it. There never was a better time for such a well made and revealing film that points out the need to reject apathy and inaction. To reject the feeling that you can’t do anything to stop the horror. You can, and you should. As I write, a movie is being used as another tool of the far-right to condemn liberalism and the entertainment industry through thoroughly delusional accusations of pedophilia. Matt Furie learned his lesson the hard way.
We will all continue to be taught this lesson until we learn it too.
FEELS GOOD MAN was directed by Arthur Jones who previously directed a documentary called The Poseidon Project on a Royal Navy submarine that was lost at sea after a collision. He keeps things moving along briskly and tells the story in a very matter of fact way in a short 92 minutes. He uses animation to expand the themes of creative drive, artistic merit, and illustrate the spiritual connection between Furie and Pepe. He is successful in showing the gentle spirit of Furie and the growing confusion and then anger at how Pepe, essentially a stand-in for himself, has been turned into a symbol for things he would never support.
“It’s like Hell. If you want to escape Hell, you can’t ignore it. You have to go to the center of it” – Matt Furie
FEELS GOOD MAN was shown as a part of this year’s digital edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival.
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