10 years later, could the “feminist Ryan Gosling” still understand?

We may have misinterpreted one of the greatest Tumblr memes of all time

Stay on the internet long enough and you’ll sometimes be stunned by a relic of the distant past – content shaped by trends you had almost forgotten. Several years away is enough to do it, but things get really weird a decade later. How do you convey, for example, what life was like on Tumblr in the era of 2011-2012? You might start by trying to explain one of the biggest viral phenomena to emerge from this scene: feminist Ryan Gosling.

At the time, “FuckYeah” fan hubs were huge on Tumblr, with “FuckYeahRyanGosling” being among the first and largest: the since-deleted blog featured images of the actor paired with lines that all started with the phrase “Hey Girl.” As in “Hey girl, touch my sweater. Do you know what it’s made of? Boyfriend material. Gosling’s shy smile aided the fantasy of such a gentle, sensitive, and somewhat nerdy handsome leading man for romance enjoyment.

Then, in the fall of 2011, Danielle Henderson – who would go on to write for television shows, including difficult people and Maniacal – began a graduate program in gender studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To amuse his classmates and “out of sheer academic frustration” with studying the theory, Henderson began creating flash cards of Gosling images, tweaking the “Hey Girl” formula so that he was now quoting thinkers feminists such as Bell Hooks and Audre Lorde, while remaining a bit flirty, of course. Tumblr went wild for memes, much to Henderson’s surprise, and the media followed suit. From the following year, Feminist Ryan Gosling was a published (unauthorized) book and the blog was officially retired in 2013.

At the time, I didn’t think about the context of these jokes or who was creating them. And I’m sure a lot of people were in the same boat, passively taking the suggestion that Ryan Gosling was the most enlightened man in Hollywood. If anything, I might have noted his good fortune in that regard: an avalanche of positive press for remarks he didn’t actually make. But I was inspired to revisit the blog this week after coming across a “Hey Girl” edit where Gosling appears to mistreat a non-binary person, then catches up and substitutes the word “They.”

You see, in this image, what we thought of as healthy innocence is at odds with a shifting discourse – the showdown over neuter pronouns wasn’t then what it is now.

For me, this raised a question: what would TikTok zoomers make of it who discovered Henderson’s peculiar riff on Gosling? Would Tumblr be considered “cringe,” or even “puny,” like most millennial-focused pop cultures of the early 2010s? After all, it seems to elevate a wealthy white man to woke status, and these days we expect celebrities to earn that kind of reputation on their own. Gosling bluntly stated in an interview that “women are better than men”, but in the meantime we have been wary of the “male feminist” as an archetype, someone who can talk, maybe at the same advanced level as feminist Ryan Gosling, while hiding their true red pill beliefs. The blog would strike differently, of course, despite much of its rhetoric matching the tone and importance of current activism.

What I didn’t realize, however, was that Henderson had critics early on. The FAQ section of her Tumblr pointed out that 1) feminist Ryan Gosling was a goof; 2) she didn’t expect more than a handful of friends to see him; and 3) that she was not a huge fan of Gosling, and made no representations about her personal beliefs. She also had to defend the ironic recycling of “Hey Girl” against the accusation of sexism and the use of a white man as a platform for feminist theory. “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 am black (and which focuses on intersectionality, representations of race and examining the feminist relationship to racism), it doesn’t escape me,” she wrote. “It’s actually quite intentional.”

In other words, while many encountered the memes in the spirit of “isn’t it nice to imagine that Ryan Gosling has these policies”, Henderson approached his project from a more satirical angle. His inspiration came not from the romantic roles of Gosling, but from 2011 To drive, in which he plays a nameless and enigmatic stuntman and getaway driver who ends up on a murderous rampage and, at one point, tramples a hitman to death in front of his horrified love interest. Afterwards, Henderson said, “I just thought how funny it would be to hear that theory come out of Ryan Gosling’s face.”

In this case, anyone who’s downright swooned at feminist Ryan Gosling — or hit the blog for poor optics — misjudged the premise: Henderson showed us the disconnect between radical gender theory and the aesthetic of pretty. white boy that Hollywood sells to heterosexual women, mocking the superficiality of an industry that had neither the ability nor the incentive to express these complex ideas. The Tumblr is not explicitly pro-Gosling but uses him as a proxy for all the men on his station, those who get all the perks and the benefit of the doubt. Is it a coincidence that he plays Ken in the next Barbie movie? Henderson’s memes have effectively given him the same role: a poseable doll who will say whatever you want him to say.

So if young people today were to raise an eyebrow at feminist Ryan Gosling, that would be entirely appropriate, and more in the spirit of the concept than declaring Gosling himself “perfect”, as made by many commentators. Our digital literacy has evolved with these social channels, and we are increasingly willing to strip away the multiple layers of intent and meaning in any given post. We’ve already seen that Gen Z have an advantage in recognizing misinformation – it stands to reason that they would also have a deeper reading of niche comedy. Feminist Ryan Gosling probably couldn’t get it anymore, but maybe the internet is finally ready to have it.

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