October 11, 2012
While the Internet allows easy access to near-infinite knowledge, the newfound range of available media has produced a seemingly inverse effect: huge, complex ideas get whittled down into small, accessible bits of information. News is fast, quick, and digestible; successful blogs’ entries tend towards the punchy and visually appealing; and there’s been an explosion of viral, text- and image-based online graphics known as memes.
Danielle Henderson’s blog, Feminist Ryan Gosling, began as a fun diversion from her workload as a gender studies grad student. She took an existing meme format—an attractive or endearing picture of actor Ryan Gosling, the opening phrase “Hey girl,” and a subsequent sentence displaying, with a chuckle, some aspect of Ryan-Gosling-perfect-boyfriend-ness—but changed the last part of the formula to reference an aspect of feminist theory or history. The depth of the following quotes range from “I believe Foucault’s theory of marriage is a governmentally developed tool that interferes with the appropriation of land rights and normalizes heterosexuality, but I still want to spend the rest of my life with you,” to “Gender is a social construct, but everyone likes to cuddle.”
Now Henderson has re-formatted her blog posts into a small coffee-table book, entitled Feminist Ryan Gosling: Feminist Theory from Your Favorite Sensitive Movie Dude. It’s cute—the book is clearly meant to be flipped through, snorted at a few times, and set down—and it manages to deliver feminist theory without any anger or aggression. It consists of individual meme reproductions, each containing one large picture of Gosling and accompanying “Hey girl…” text within the frame. By keeping the delivery casual and unorganized, Henderson manages to deliver feminist theory without putting anyone on guard. Women’s rights tend to be an inflammatory subject, and often serve as the butt of dismissive humor in common culture. Henderson manages to convey ideology without coming across as an ideologue.
FRG addresses theory within a comforting and approachable form: open with Ryan Gosling, who’s hot and aggressively non-threatening, and close with a double-joke—while he’s well versed in high-brow feminist culture, he’s still the perfect boyfriend every girl wants! (For example: “Hey girl. The patriarchal establishment may fail to give a voice to women’s issues, but I could spend hours talking with you.”)
To address FRG from another standpoint, let’s look at that joke’s implications. In order to spread feminist ideas in a mainstream, accessible way, Henderson needed to package theory within a cutesy and easy-to-swallow model, creating a sort of girl-talk-humor dynamic. Henderson ironically sets up feminist theory within a wreath of anti-feminism. While the result has been successful, might it only reinforce cultural tendencies to minimize feminism’s perceived threat through humor? The joke behind the meme implies that every girl, no matter how feminist, wants this perfect boyfriend; and further, that every girl accepts this universality enough for the joke to be obvious. To an ungenerous reader, this could be cause for complaint. Had we not known Henderson to be a female gender studies major, we may have perceived the humor completely differently—as a patronizing method of trivializing feminist thought within a greater context of traditional, anti-feminist romantic dependency. But if the reader assumes Henderson’s motivations to be sympathetic ones and chooses not to read the casual writing too skeptically, the book is simple, funny, and effective.
We’re left with two competing interpretations. The first is positive: FRG gives access to feminism for those who aren’t so sure about where they stand—it’s an introduction to women’s rights that’s unlikely to offend or alienate casual readers. On the other hand, the need to re-package for easy digestion—possibly within an anti-feminist framework—could point to a larger problem: feminist theory, in its most unapologetic, intellectual form, is still too threatening for mainstream reception.
Devon Geyelin is a freshman in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.