Hang around the internet long enough, and occasionally you’ll be struck dumb at a relic from the deep past — a piece of content molded by trends you had almost forgotten. Several years of distance is enough to do it, but stuff gets really strange a decade later. How to convey, for instance, what life was like on Tumblr in the 2011-2012 era? You might start by trying to explain one of the biggest viral phenomena to emerge from that scene: Feminist Ryan Gosling.
At the time, “FuckYeah” fan hubs were huge on Tumblr, with “FuckYeahRyanGosling” being among the first and most prominent: The since-deleted blog featured images of the actor paired with pickup lines that all began with the phrase “Hey Girl.” As in, “Hey girl, feel my sweater. Know what it’s made of? Boyfriend material.” Gosling’s shy smile aided the fantasy of a handsome leading man as sweet, sensitive and a little bit corny for the sake of romance.
Then, in the fall of 2011, Danielle Henderson — who would go on to write for TV shows, including Difficult People and Maniac — began a graduate degree program in gender studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To amuse her classmates, and “out of sheer academic frustration” with studying theory, Henderson started creating flash cards of Gosling pictures, tweaking the “Hey Girl” formula so that he was now quoting feminist thinkers such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde, while remaining somewhat flirty, of course. Tumblr went wild for the memes, much to Henderson’s surprise, and the media followed suit. By the following year, Feminist Ryan Gosling was a published (unauthorized) book, and the blog was officially retired in 2013.
Back then, 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, just passively receiving the suggestion that Ryan Gosling was the most enlightened man in Hollywood. If anything, I might have noted his good fortune in this regard: an avalanche of positive press for remarks he didn’t actually make. But I was inspired to revisit the blog this week after stumbling across a “Hey Girl” edit where Gosling appears to misgender a nonbinary person, then catches himself and substitutes the word “They.”
You see, in this image, what we used to regard as wholesome innocence is at odds with a shifting discourse — the tug-of-war over gender-neutral pronouns wasn’t then what it is now.
For me, this raised a question: What would TikTok zoomers who discovered Henderson’s particular riff on Gosling make of it? Would the Tumblr be considered “cringe,” or even “cheugy,” in the way of most millennial-driven pop culture from the early 2010s? After all, it seems to elevate a rich white man to woke status, and these days, we expect celebrities to earn that kind of reputation on their own. Gosling has bluntly stated in an interview that “women are better than men,” but we’ve meanwhile grown suspicious of the “male feminist” as an archetype, someone who can talk the talk, maybe on the same advanced level as the Feminist Ryan Gosling character, while concealing their true red-pill beliefs. The blog would hit differently, for sure, despite the majority of its rhetoric matching the tone and import of current activism.
What I hadn’t realized, though, was that Henderson had critics right from the start. The FAQ section of her Tumblr emphasized that 1) Feminist Ryan Gosling was a goof; 2) she hadn’t expected more than a handful of friends to see it; and 3) that she wasn’t a huge Gosling fan, nor did she make any claims as to his personal beliefs. She also had to defend the ironic recycling of “Hey Girl” against the charge of sexism, and the use of a white man to platform 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’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,” she wrote. “It’s actually quite intentional.”
That is, while many encountered the memes in the spirit of “isn’t it nice to imagine that Ryan Gosling has these politics,” Henderson approached her project from a more satirical angle. Her inspiration came not from Gosling’s romantic roles, but 2011’s Drive, in which he plays a nameless, enigmatic stuntman and getaway driver who eventually goes on a murderous rampage, and at one point stomps a hitman to death in front of his horrified love interest. Afterward, Henderson said, “I just thought how funny it would be to hear this theory stuff coming out of Ryan Gosling’s face.”
In that case, anyone outright swooning over Feminist Ryan Gosling — or knocking the blog for bad optics — had misjudged the premise: Henderson showed us the disconnect between radical gender theory and the pretty-white-boy aesthetic that Hollywood markets to straight women, mocking the shallowness of an industry that had neither the ability nor incentive to express those complex ideas. The Tumblr isn’t explicitly pro-Gosling but uses him as a proxy for all men of his station, the ones with every advantage and benefit of the doubt. Is it any coincidence that he’s playing Ken in the upcoming Barbie movie? Henderson’s memes effectively gave him the same role: a poseable doll who will say whatever you want him to.
So if today’s youth 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 to be “perfect,” as many commentators did. Our digital literacy has evolved along with these social channels, and we’re increasingly disposed to peel away the multiple layers of intent and meaning in any given post. We’ve already seen that Gen Z has an edge in recognizing misinformation — it stands to reason that they’d have a closer read on niche comedy, too. Feminist Ryan Gosling probably couldn’t get it anymore, but maybe the internet is finally ready to get him.