Classical feminist theory rarely gets picked up as fodder for pop culture. After all, who wants to riff on old dead white dudes waxing political about gender systems and identity structures? Fertile ground for gender studies journals, less so for meme blogs. And yet, take those theorists’ words and slap a hot actor’s face behind them, and suddenly, their message begins to mean something. Make that actor sensitive-movie-dude Ryan Gosling, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide feminist recruiting machine — as well as a viral sensation.
This is more or less the story behind Feminist Ryan Gosling, the blog created by a 34-year-old graduate student that took the internet by storm. No, Danielle Henderson was not a Ryan Gosling fan when she made the site (she’d never even seen “The Notebook”). Nor did she ever imagine that Gosling would swiftly come to represent all that was good and perfect in the world. Mostly, she was frustrated trying to memorize her gender studies homework — and decided to Photoshop Gosling’s face onto flashcards as a joke.
Little did she know, Gosling’s face would communicate, in some small way, a message ladyscholars have been trying to propagate for years: Feminism is cool! Suddenly, men were using Henderson’s flashcards as pickup lines — and emailing her about it. Women who’d never thought of themselves as feminists were joining the fight for reproductive rights. Her own icons — the scholars whose lines she’d borrowed — were thanking her for sharing their work in a way that people could actually relate to. “It was deeply weird, but also exciting,” says Henderson. “People were suddenly interested in feminist theory.”
In the months since, Feminist Ryan Gosling has spawned half-a-dozen knockoffs sites — and, of course, the obligatory coffee-table tome, out next week from Running Press. No, Ryan Gosling has not endorsed the book (his publicists declined multiple requests for an interview). And still nobody is quite sure whether Gosling is an actual feminist. (Though, come on, the man took ballet.) But no matter. As far as Henderson is concerned, he makes a damn good feminist prop.
So, seriously: you just decided to make feminist flashcards one day?
It started in a moment of complete academic frustration. I’d just started graduate school, and I was talking with some classmates about how much trouble we were having memorizing these theorists. It was all so inaccessible, and it was impossible to remember. I happened to mention that my husband had taken me to see Drive, and all my friends were like, “Oh, Ryan Gosling, he’s so dreamy.” They showed me the Hey Girl meme and a video of him laughing at some of the posts. So I went home that night and thought, “This seems like a good way for us to remember all these theorists.” It was literally intended as flashcards.
What makes Ryan Gosling such a perfect orator?
Well, there’s definitely sex appeal. But I also feel like it’s not too far-fetched that Gosling would be a feminist. He’s already demonstrated a pretty high level of interest in social justice — you know, he had a big stake in raising awareness about Darfur— so he does really seem to give a shit about things (or some things). This is all speculation, of course, but he seems to be a decent dude.
I take it you haven’t heard from him.
No, and I’m kind of OK with that. I’m sure he’s lovely, but I didn’t start this blog as a Ryan Gosling superfan. I’m probably the only person in the world who would be shy about having him contact me. Even my grandma thinks Gosling is adorable and hot. She’s 80 years old.
You’re a black woman, spreading the message of feminism through the face of a white male. Is that weird?
Doing it from this point of view was intentional. I mean, if I was just picking actors I was attracted to, it would have been Feminist Idris Elba. But part of the fun for me was replicating this trope from a younger white guy who’s not identified as a feminist, coming from the voice of a black feminist. In the beginning, a lot of people didn’t get that that was part of the joke. I got a lot of emails saying, “You’re talking about feminism and women of color through the lens of this white guy — and that’s really fucked up.” Nobody knew where I was coming from.
Do you think Idris Elba would’ve gotten the same reaction?
I’ve thought about what would’ve happened had I put another actor on it, or used the same idea with an unknown person. Like, what if it was my face? Nobody would care. I had a blog for 10 years where I was constantly talking about feminism and academia, and nobody gave a shit. There are definitely a lot of people who might not have ever paid attention to feminism without having Gosling’s face attached to it.
What does feminism mean to you?
Anyone who’s willing to fight sexist oppression. That’s pretty much it.
Do you think young people still need it?
Yes! Everyone does, and will continue to need it until we learn how to trust women to make decisions about their lives and bodies. My basic feminist platform is similar to my 6-year old nephew’s lifetime goal: “Stop telling me what to do!”
Has Feminist Ryan Gosling ever burned a bra?
Well, he wouldn’t be burning any bras because he knows we ladies need all the support we can get. And, come on, burning bras is not environmentally safe — polyester fabrics and all of that. Also, of course Feminist Ryan Gosling knows that feminists never really burned bras — that’s a myth. They burned a lot of stuff, but not bras.
What does Feminist Ryan Gosling say about whether women can “have it all”? (And what does Feminist Danielle Henderson think)?
Feminist Ryan Gosling says there are bigger fish to fry. I say the premise of having it all is a social construct developed to divide and placate women, and it’s a bag full of bullshit. We don’t want it all … You’d be amazed what we could do with just a tiny bit of autonomy! We know how to stretch one civil right into at least five.
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