Back when I was in high school, my Latin teacher used to say that words have lives of their own. She would tell us this after our daily etymology lesson, where we would learn two English words that had Latin roots. Often we found that the Latin roots had little to do with the English words that they’d become.
“That’s because,” our Latin teacher would proclaim, “words have lives of their own!”
The point was that words changed. They developed into something different based on common usage. The same is true with memes.
Take Pepe the Frog. Pepe was originally a part of a comic called Boy’s Club by Matt Furie. The comic was about four roommates, one of whom was Pepe, a frog.
Pepe was picked up by the 4chan, the infamous online forum that can be described as the beginnings of the dark web. Pepe often accompanied long personal stories that ended with phrases like “feels good, man” or “feels bad, man.”
From there, the meme grew. Users were photoshopping Pepe on the faces of cultural figures, and using Pepe to represent other things besides those two initial catchphrases.
And then, just like words, Pepe the Frog shifted from his original meaning to something completely new. He had a life of his own.
As many people know, 4chan is composed of people who lean right on the political spectrum. Very right. After its initial use, the meme was used to promote racist and bigoted ideas that replace humor with hatred.
Pepe the Frog was not created as a rightest comic or caricature, but because of its most recent usage, people have considered Pepe a racist icon. Common usage can change the definitions of things, and the current use is in the process of shifting the definition. Pepe is not inherently racist, but Pepe has been used by racists.
So how is Pepe political? Why does he deserve a post on Stay ‘Tooned?
There are two reasons for this. First, Pepe is a meme that exemplifies the idea the memes can have a life of their own. While this doesn’t make Pepe a political meme, it does make him important enough to have his own post. To understand political memes, we need to understand how meme culture operates and spreads. Pepe is a textbook example of this.
Second, Pepe has become a political meme because of the twists and turns of his life. He has become a political meme because people with outspoken political opinions (and racist opinions) have reused his image in racist political memes. Just as there is no inherent racism in Pepe’s image, there is no inherent politics in the meme. The usage, however, has determined that Pepe — and other random, noncoherent memes — can be political.
In other words, memes can turn into things that they aren’t, and they can be used to promote certain ideas and philosophies. This can help a meme spread, but can also blacklist a meme from popular usage.
Featured image courtesy of wikimedia.