As I was walking from class towards the Elliott University Center, a peculiar sign caught my eye. In bold text overlaid with the American flag, the sign read: “True legends never die.”
Below this text, was a picture of a gorilla, and below the gorilla, read the text: “Rush Pi Kappa Phi.” This gorilla, I knew, was the gorilla killed in order to rescue a child that had fallen into the gorilla’s zoo exhibit, colloquially known by the internet, as the meme, “Harambe.”
At the time, I rolled my eyes, but now, I marvel at the levels and layers of cultural and cognitive associations’ necessary, to see a sign with a gorilla, and be able to correctly recognize it, as an internet meme.
Harambe, the actual gorilla, is now thousands of contextual layers separated from the distressing circumstances which brought about his fame. And to someone who doesn’t understand what a meme is, the connections between what Harambe is widely understood being associated with, and what he is, would seem bizarre and obscene.
However, even memes can even transcend their own widely understood, cultural and contextual meanings, and adapt into something entirely different, depending on the context they are used. Such is the case, with Pepe, the frog meme.
While the vision of Pepe with rust, downturned lips, vacant, sad eyes and a blue shirt, is neither his origin form, nor how the media shown him, as of late; this image of Pepe, which is commonly known as the “sad frog meme,” is among the most popular and widely understood forms of Pepe as a meme.
Pepe became a popular meme, in this context, because his expression was sad, and people —
mainly the Millennial audience that most understands and consumes memes — were able to relate to this sadness.
Memes, in essence, are about how an individual, as well as a larger culture, interacts, interprets and relates to certain symbols and illustrations. These symbols and illustrations, which frequently exist within very specific contexts, are easily translated, adapted, and informed by a larger cultural influence.
Such is the case with Pepe. Nazis, fascists and white supremacists, make up a political faction that identifies as “alt-right,” and these reactionary groups have gained media attention for their use of Pepe, transposed on to Donald Trump’s face, to make memes.
The image of Pepe as Donald Trump, whether intended to be an illustration supporting him, mocking him or simply an image that was created for the sake of the meme being a funny concept, has blown up within mainstream medias. This image of Pepe has gone “viral,” so to speak, to the point that the official campaign website of Democratic Presidential Candidate, Hillary Clinton, has released an official statement on the matter.
Written by Hillary Clinton’s Senior Strategist and Content Creative, Elizabeth Chan, the statement, titled: “Donald Trump, Pepe the frog, and white supremacists: an explainer,” with a following sub-headline, “That cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realize;” broadly paints the way alt-right people have portrayed Pepe as the only context of Pepe that matters.
Frankly, I believe that nothing could be farther from the truth. While Chan acknowledges, that Pepe, “Began his internet life as an innocent meme enjoyed by teenagers and pop stars alike,” she essentializes Pepe, as “sinister,” simply because alt-righters, like 12-year-olds of the internet before them, have manipulated a meme into a context that relates to their political, ideological and social interests.
This isn’t to say I don’t believe the Nazis, fascists and white supremacists who have utilized Pepe for their agenda are any less dangerous because they make memes. But it is to say, that I feel as though only focusing on these violent groups when they create a particularly strange, humorous or offensive meme, distracts from the materially real, violent atrocities these groups commit.
People should be actively fighting against Nazis, fascists and white supremacists when the cameras stop rolling, and when the issue of Pepe — the frog meme — is no longer involved.
Further, I believe that the politicization of Pepe as a white nationalist symbol is effectively useless in fighting white nationalists. Pepe, a meme which can be parsed within over a thousand different, and extremely specific contexts, is not a “white nationalist symbol,” simply because he is postured in a few memes on the Internet to communicate a white nationalist message.
Any meme can exist within any number of offensive and harmful contexts. In fact, a few days ago, I was searching the web for silly minion memes, and as I was browsing, came across childlike, silly, and mom-related minion memes. These innocent contexts with which I initially saw the minion meme, however, are not the only contexts in which this meme exists.
When you browse far enough into google images under minion memes, you will find wildly racist, anti-Semitic and offensive memes that have those cute little minions attached to them. So, if minions are receiving zero media coverage for being defaced in Swastikas, and violently anti-Semitic rhetoric, why is all the political ire only on Pepe?
Well, that’s because, I believe memes are as easily adaptable as they are exploitable. And Pepe is being exploited by both the alt-right and mainstream media, as a sensationalized, politicized meme, which can be taken to mean whatever people want him to mean.
Pepe, the meme, is only now relevant, because of the context in which he is being framed.
And as memes exist in a constant state of contextual, and de-textualization, what is going on in the media right now, could even be seen as a sort of meta-meme. This Meta, of course, is that Pepe, as a meme, is very far removed from its politicized context both originally, and as it is commonly understood in its various and popular adaptations and variations.
Of the continual removal of Pepe from his original context, the creator of the Pepe meme — as he was originally imagined in the comic, “Boy’s Club”— Matt Furie, told Vice journalist Sean. T. Collins, that he truly didn’t mind the many directions in which his original comic character has taken shape as a meme.
Furie told Collins, “I don’t really see it as being something that’s negative… A lot of people make a conscious effort to go out and try and create that kind of meme success, where you’re doing these little one-off characters, little gags, little gifs, and that’s definitely your intention. I’m just flattered by it. I don’t really care. I think it’s cool. In fact, I’m getting kind of inspired by all the weird interpretations of it.”
And truly, are all memes, regardless of context, not just weird interpretations of silly characters and scenarios?