Pepe the Frog: A Case Study of the Internet Meme and its Potential Subversive Power to Challenge Cultural Hegemonies

My undergraduate thesis for the Robert D. Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon.

Committee Members:

Dr. Peter Alilunas, Cinema Studies
Dr. Janet Wasko, School of Journalism and Communication
Dr. Tim Williams, Clark Honors College


This thesis examines Internet memes as a unique medium that has the capability to easily and seamlessly transfer ideologies between groups, and potentially enable subcultures to challenge, and possibly overthrow, hegemonic power structures that maintain the dominance of a mainstream culture. Dick Hebdige provides a model by which a dominant culture can reclaim the images and symbols used by a subculture through the process of commodification. Using the Pepe the Frog meme as a case study, I argue that Hebdige's commodification model does not apply to Internet memes, because traditional concepts of ownership and control affect Internet memes differently. As such, the medium enables subcultures to claim and redefine an image to challenge a dominant culture. I trace the meme from its creation by Matt Furie in 2005 to its appearance in the 2016 US Presidential Election and examine how its meaning has changed throughout its history I define the difference between a meme instance and the meme as a whole, and conclude that the meaning of the overall meme is formed by the sum of its numerous meme instances. This structure is unique to the medium of Internet memes and is what enables subcultures to use them to easily transfer ideologies in order to challenge the hegemony of dominant cultures. Unlike with other forms of media, it is difficult for the dominant culture to exert its power or control over Internet memes. Internet memes, therefore, have significant real-world implications and potential to empower subcultures.

Read the full thesis here.

Video interview from the University of Oregon’s 2018 Undergraduate Research Symposium: