Pepe the frog, a one-time comic character and long-standing internet meme, has had a rough year. But after seeing Pepe repurposed by racists and identified as a hate symbol, his creator is trying to reclaim him. The Anti-Defamation League and Matt Furie, who first drew Pepe in his comic Boy’s Club, announced a joint project last week to recast the character as "a force for good." Using the hashtag #SavePepe, the ADL will start posting "a series of positive Pepe memes and messages" in order to counteract the ones linked with white supremacy. Furie, meanwhile, will speak at the ADL’s Never is Now summit on anti-semitism next month.
So far, we haven’t seen the ADL posting positive Pepes beyond the one above — although Furie did draw a fairly horrifying comic about him for The Nib. But the project is an interesting attempt to reset the meme back to its original, lighthearted status, ending the surreal spectacle of seeing it co-opted as a political statement. The ADL, which named Pepe a hate symbol last month, acknowledged the character’s roots, while saying the image had been "twisted" to spread bigotry. The exact process behind this was complicated, but it’s indisputably become associated with the alt-right hate movement and, by extension, a subset of Donald Trump supporters.
Furie has appeared ambivalent of the change. Last month, he called the alt-right version of Pepe a phase, saying that his "sly, lovable, and charming status will be intact as early as next week." Since then, he’s become more vocally opposed to the appropriation, calling it "completely insane" and "a nightmare."
According to an interview with The New York Times, this isn’t necessarily going to get Pepe removed from the hate symbols database; it depends on how successful #SavePepe is. The campaign itself is a "bit of unchartered territory for us," admits ADL Center on Extremism director Oren Segal, marking the first time the group has tried to actively reclaim a symbol. But it’s responding to fairly unusual circumstances — and Furie isn’t the only meme-maker who’s had to grapple with how their work is being used in 2016.