Whether he’s leading his legion of fans on a romantic tour of an art museum, staring stoically at a pond of ducks, or just wanting to cuddle, Ryan Gosling has been popping up everywhere online. Danielle Henderson helped start the frenzy when she created the Feminist Ryan Gosling site out of academic frustration with her graduate courses in women’s studies. While she admits to not fully knowing the star power of Ryan Gosling at first, she’s now Madison’s resident expert on all things Gosling. The A.V. Club recently talked with Henderson about studying feminist theory, the familiarity of Ryan Gosling’s pecs, and what she’d do if we found out his good guy act was all a sham.
The A.V. Club: What motivated you to start Feminist Ryan Gosling?
Danielle Henderson: Sheer frustration. [Laughs.] This is my first time in Madison and I TA in the Gender And Women Studies Department. I’m also a first-year master’s student, and I got to this point where I kind of felt like I love the intellectual challenge of being in a new program and learning all of this new stuff for the first time, but it seemed like we were learning so much every week that I didn’t have a chance to really sit with it and grasp it. I was talking with some of my fellow cohorts, and we had this real catharsis about our inability to grasp a lot of these concepts, and we just started talking about it every week over lunch.
Then I took a break from schoolwork and saw the movie Drive. I was like, “This is a really appealing character.” It was kind of disturbing that I found Ryan Gosling so appealing in that role. I’d only seen him act in one other movie, Lars And The Real Girl, and was like, “Yeah he’s a good actor, but he’s not on my radar at all.” But I did see an interview with him where he was reading those Hey Girl posts from their original site; I thought it funny. So we were talking about theory; we were talking about this movie, Drive; we were talking about our frustration with school. We went out drinking one night, and I came home and made like five pictures. I put them on my own personal Tumblr, but my friend was like, “You need to make this its own thing on its own site!” So that evening I put them on their own Tumblr, and within 12 hours it was on Jezebel. I was like, “This was only for the five people I know who are struggling with this stuff; I don’t know why it’s so popular!” I greatly underestimated the popularity of Ryan Gosling.
It’s weird to me that people want to talk about this stuff in this way. I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails from people who are like, “I’ve never heard of this writer,” or they’re really new to feminist thought or have never experienced any kind of feminist theory. So there are a lot of people who are like, “What is this? I really want to read this!” They’re really engaging with it beyond just, like, “Here is this pretty guy who we can look at and ascribe these things to.”
AVC: Is it mainly fan mail, or are people inquiring about the theories you’re talking about?
DH: Yeah, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say fan mail. [Laughs.] A lot of interest, a lot of people who are definitely interested in what I’m talking about and doing. And since it comes directly from my homework, people were like, “What on earth are you studying?! How does this relate to what you’re doing in school, because it’s all over the place!” So, there’s a lot of that. Most of the e-mails I get are pretty cool, and it’s usually people who are really positive and motivated by these feminist ideas. I don’t see a lot of that, so it’s kind of nice. [Laughs.]
AVC: Many of your readers may not be as familiar with the concepts as you are. Do you think the point of the project is to have that complete comprehension, or is there a different objective?
DH: I think it’s totally different. The point, really, for me is adding some levity to some really dense topics. It’s nice to see people engaging with it in different ways. I don’t think you have to be an academic to get it; I don’t think you have to engage with it at a certain level to get it. It’s more important to me that people laugh at it than they are really trying to prove how much they know about all of these topics. I just think that it’s more important for people to laugh and not take it too seriously, and maybe start to think about some of the topics—or not think about that at all—but just have fun with the idea that this Hollywood guy would say all of these sort of highbrow things. That’s way more important to me.
AVC: I’ve also read that you don’t exactly share that crazed obsession with Ryan Gosling that some women have. Why did you choose him? Was it seeing Drive?
DH: I think it was just purely because of the time and place. I had just seen that movie, he was on my brain, and I had just seen that interview where he was reading those things. I was just like, you know—I engage with pop culture, but not at that level. So, I really didn’t know how popular he was. I picked him thinking there’s already this meme that’s kind of popular, but that’s also vaguely misogynistic. A lot of those slides are slightly condescending, so I thought it might be fun to turn that around a little bit. I think Ryan Gosling is charming; he seems like a very nice guy, but he’s not my type ... [Laughs.] I don’t fawn over him the way people do, but now I know more about him than I would ever want to know about anyone.
AVC: He definitely has this kind of persona where he can do no wrong, maybe in part because of the roles he played earlier on. But there’s also this video of him in NYC breaking up a fight on the street. Citizen of the year, right?
DH: Right? I would not at all be surprised if he was revealed to be a superhero. That’s the kind of guy he is: “Oh, you play music and like art and are pretty sensitive about things, and break up fights in New York City where you can legitimately get stabbed?” [Laughs.] You know, just casually walking the streets saving people.
AVC: In MTV interview that you mentioned earlier, Ryan Gosling read some of the meme posts and bashfully played along. What would you do if you found out his perceived charm and good nature were all a sham?
DH: You know, I’ve thought about that. Like, what if his next role is like in some women-beating, hateful film? I don’t know what I would do. Part of the joke, to me, is that you can’t really ascribe these things to people, and you can’t really ever know what someone is like or what they’re thinking. There are people who say they’re feminists but who say really anti-feminist things, [and] other people who think they’re one way but act another. So, I don’t know. It’d be detrimental to what I’m trying to do, but maybe it’d give me something else to talk about.
AVC: What do you think of the other Ryan Gosling memes? You touched on it before, saying sometimes they kind of come off as misogynistic. Not only is there the original Fuck Yeah Ryan Gosling, Museum Hey Girl, Typographer Ryan Gosling, but now there is also a new Silicon Valley Ryan Gosling. What’s your take on all of this?
DH: Um, I’m sorry? [Laughs.] I apologize. I did not mean to create this kind of monster. What happened was Fuck Yeah Ryan Gosling, and then I did Feminist Ryan Gosling, and then there were 8 million blogs that were based on kind of what I was doing, kind of making it specific. Most of them are really funny, and I think it’s great that people are having fun with something that is so silly. But I think it has hit this fever pitch where people are just sick of it now. Like, “Ugh, I can’t take another Ryan Gosling mention in any shape or form!” I think it’s cool and it’s funny, but I definitely think that I’m part of the problem. It’s made me pull back quite a bit; I don’t post as much.
AVC: As a TA, do you show your site to your students?
DH: No, but I talked to them about it when I first started. I’m a pretty transparent person in general, and my teaching style is very transparent. We check in at the beginning of class, and I check in too, and I let them know I saw this movie and started a blog. I never shared the slides with them, all they wanted to know was if Ryan Gosling had contacted me because they wanted to get to meet him. [Laughs.] My students have been really positive about it; they’re excited, and it’s been a fun experience for them to kind of see the development of it.
AVC: Do you have a favorite post that you’ve written?
DH: My favorite one is probably, “Gender is a social construct, but everyone likes to cuddle.” Just because when I found that picture, I was like, “This is perfect!” The expression on his face and his body language coupled with those things is wonderful. That’s definitely my favorite one. I like the “Hey Girl, My eyes are up here.” Just because it doesn’t even have his face, and people are like, “He’s so hot!!” but I’m like, “It could be anyone!’ [Laughs.] The fact that people specifically know what his pecs look like is just hilarious to me.
AVC: Without even knowing you’re from Madison, the one about the farmers’ market seems like a very Madison Saturday.
DH: And that’s just it. I think that living here has informed a lot of what I’m writing about. The farmers’ market here is immense, and it’s a huge part of living here, especially when I first moved here in August. I like that one; it’s more geographic and very Madison, more than a sexual or gender-based one.
AVC: What is the future of Feminist Ryan Gosling?
DH: I’m in talks right now to write a book, and I am working with a literary agent on another project too. I was actually going to end the site when the fall semester finished—again, it was a homework tool for me. So, “Hey I’m done with this class I don’t need this site anymore.” But I don’t know; I will keep it going. There is still a lot more to say. And if I do write a book, it will have new content, so it won’t really be matching in that sense at all.
AVC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
DH: It’s been an absolute surprise and a complete pleasure. I’m really appreciative of the feedback, and I’m excited that people are excited about feminism, and particularly about feminist theory, because this is something that people don’t really get to experience on any level or engage with on any level. And I mean, I hope Ryan Gosling is a feminist; I hope this isn’t a total sham. I’d like to think that it’s possible.