Sunday, February 22, 2015

Feminism, memes and Ryan Gosling

-->Although I have identified as a feminist throughout my entire adult life, I had balked at studying feminist theory in depth. Sadly enough, the extent of my exposure to feminist theorists had primarily been the occasional stumbling upon the viral “Feminist Ryan Gosling” memes of years past.
Feminist Ryan Gosling was a satirical blog created and managed by then-gender studies graduate student Danielle Henderson in 2011. Each blog post consisted of (1) a photo of actor Ryan Gosling paired with (2) text that jokingly attributes a quote to the actor. Invariably, the quote would begin with the greeting “Hey girl…” followed by a short message implicating that Gosling was gender equality advocate… as well as perhaps romantically interested in the viewer. Henderson ultimately published a book of such memes with Running Press in 2012 before moving on to other projects.
(Clickable image link to

Surprisingly, last month, there was a resurgence of interest in the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme following the emergence a summer 2014 conference paper by three University of Saskatchewan psychology students (1 PhD student, 1 master's student, and 1 undergraduate student). Their research (albeit on an extremely small sample) linked these memes with a higher endorsement of “socialist” and “radical” feminist principles among men. Their study was more concerned with the power of memes than it was with feminism, or any other type of –ism, but the viral nature of the memes represent educational moments for countless people who may have not otherwise sought out philosophical feminist statements or read feminist theorists.

Exposure to the meme didn’t, however, significantly affect self-identification as a feminist, nor did it significantly increase female endorsement of feminist beliefs. Furthermore, the male subjects were not significantly more supportive of Conservatism, Liberal Feminism, Cultural Feminism and Women of Color Feminism. Nevertheless, the paper concluded that the results “provide initial support for [the] notion that popular Internet memes may also serve as [a] persuasive device for relaying ideological information.”

The study’s methodology certainly doesn’t meet the most rigorous scientific standards, but the findings are interesting nonetheless. Many online reports were relatively conservative (e.g., Pacific Standard’s “Can Feminist Ryan Gosling really make men more Feminist?”), but others opted for a more sensationalist approach (e.g., Glamour Magazine’s “Ryan Gosling is officially good for feminism.”) What does Henderson – Feminist Ryan Gosling’s creator – think?

I don't know if these memes make people more feminist, but at least they're getting a dose of feminism whether they realize it or not.
And, for many, that is good enough. However, it hasn’t escaped notice that the “dose” of feminism is being paired with a young, attractive, white, male romantic lead actor who – as far as I know – hasn’t endorsed any of the feminist beliefs associated with the meme. On her blog’s FAQ page, Henderson explains:
As a black woman who has lived every moment of my black life as a black person in a country that never lets me forget that I’m black (and who has an academic focus on intersectionality, representations of race, and examining the feminist relationship to racism), this is not lost on me. It’s actually quite intentional. That. Is. ALSO. Part. Of. The. Joke.
And the memes clearly are jokes that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Originally, they were little more than humorous derivatives of the Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling Tumblr page. The study by the three Saskatchewan students was similarly begun in jest. So why do the memes seem to be effective in making men more accepting of feminist ideas?

One possible answer is that memes are inherently persuasive tools for indoctrination or education. If so, why are these memes effective on men, but not women? One explanation is that men are simply more receptive to feminism when it comes from other men. That doesn’t sound particularly feminist, but it may be true. The study’s authors have hypothesized that Ryan Gosling may be a particularly effective spokesperson primarily because men tend to perceive him as being successful with women. This perception thereby creates incentives for other heterosexual men to emulate him. Which, to be fair, has already been going on ever since the film The Notebook was released.

So is the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme good for feminism? Is it bad for feminism? The conclusions from the study may offer a mixed bag. To some extent, the memes seem to help “authorize” the female perspective. Furthermore, the memes have certainly increased exposure to feminist beliefs through social media channels. On the other hand, the implicit source of authorization is a man’s endorsement. A pragmatist may not care about the means necessary to the ends she desires, but its unclear to what extent the male test subjects truly internalized the beliefs they claim to accept.

Lastly, though somewhat off-topic, the meme reminded me of a recent CollegeHumor YouTube sketch: "Hate cat calling? Try Blow Up Boyfriend!" The joke commercial advertises a "Blow Up Boyfriend" product with which a woman would receive guaranteed respectful treatment... so long as she carries around an inflatable "man." Cat callers are deterred from harassing women out of their respect for the fake man, as opposed to the real woman. The sketch is embedded above for your enjoyment. Or displeasure.


Juliana said...

I generally agree with the author's sentiment that at least people are being exposed to feminist ideas. What has really bothered me, though, with the "Feminist Ryan Gosling" cultural phenomenon, is how people started creating memes with any text on a Ryan Gosling picture. Feminist or not, every time there is Ryan Gosling meme if gets conflated it with the rest of the feminist message, which I think really dilutes the message.

Ahva said...

I agree that the "dose" of feminism in these viral memes are good exposure and may even have some subtle or unconscious effect on the reader. However, I have to agree with Juliana that, unfortunately, this phenomenon has evolved to include Ryan Gosling memes with some pretty patronizing and/or overly sexualized messages. I've seen Ryan Gosling memes (the good and the bad) circulating for years, but I did not know until this study came out that they originally started as feminist-inspired memes. I just thought that what I was seeing were ideas and phrases attributed to Ryan Gosling to make him all the more desirable and sexy, not to actually send any sort of message.

Damon Alimouri said...

It's sad that our interactions with complex concepts have been reduced to bite-sized pieces of ironic imagery and text. Granted, there is something worthy in people being exposed to often overlooked ideas, but if it comes at the price of adulteration it may not be worthy at all. In fact, it may even be dangerous. Aren't people supposed to be laughing at memes? Perhaps they're laughing at the ideas mentioned in Feminist Ryan Gosling Memes, and perhaps they are not really learning anything at all.

Hart Ku said...

I'm also curious about how the satirical meme has been interpreted. Humor is often useful to convey serious messages, but I suspect that the source of the humor here is left somewhat ambiguous. Do we find the meme funny because of the cheesiness of the Ryan Gosling photos? Or is it because the quotes seem unnatural and overly-intellectual for the "average" person?

So while I think that satire/humor is a great way to raise issues in the mainstream consciousness, it needs to be supplemented with information beyond the "soundbites." Otherwise, it seems like feminism could become conflated with punchlines.