It’s likely a testament to how much the Internet adores Feminist Ryan Gosling that the media has paid so much attention to a small, not peer-reviewed study exploring whether the meme, created in 2011 by graduate student and genius Danielle Henderson, could actually make men more feminist.
The study, conducted by two psychology Ph.D. students at the University of Saskatchewan, asked 99 undergraduates—69 women and 30 men—to view either images of the meme from the Feminist Ryan Gosling book or the same photos of the heartthrob sans the feminist captions. Afterward, the students were asked whether they considered themselves feminists and took a quiz gauging their endorsement of various subtypes of feminism. There was no difference, among either gender, between the meme group and control group in terms of general feminist self-identification. And the women’s survey responses in both groups revealed a similar—and fairly high—degree of feminist sympathies. But the men who viewed the meme were up to 10 percent more likely to agree with a subset of radical and socialist feminist beliefs—the two strands most frequently espoused by Feminist Ryan Gosling.
The study’s most obvious limitation is that while there was a control group exposed to Gosling but not to feminist messages, there was no group that received the feminism minus the Gos. The latter would be the more important control in order to back up the bold conclusion that some in the media have jumped to. “Men more open to feminism when it’s paired with a photo of Canadian actor Ryan Gosling,” claimed Canada’s National Post. In truth, as the study’s co-author Sarah Sangster acknowledged to Ms. Magazine, “we can’t conclude that the memes increase endorsement of feminist beliefs more than would a feminist statement alone.”
That’s not to take away from what the study does suggest: "What our research says is that we shouldn't quickly dismiss pop culture phenomena and realize that there is potential to use it as a persuasive device," Sangster told the Post. She rightly notes that, thanks to Feminist Ryan Gosling, nuggets of feminist theory were circulated around the Internet far more widely than usual. That the meme might have actually changed some men’s views matters, since “most likely, they would not be exposed to the feminist quotes at all otherwise,” she explains.
Still, I’d be very curious to know if feminist messages alone could indeed pull off the same trick—particularly given that the meme only changed the views of the male participants. Plenty of previous research has shown that exposure to feminist ideas—even in the decidedly less sexy form of a women’s studies course—increases support for pro-feminist beliefs and identity. Among women, feminist self-identification has also been linked to prior personal experience with sexism. Perhaps men, lacking the first-hand schooling in discrimination that women receive, are simply more influenced by being called to think about gender inequality—whether by Feminist Ryan Gosling or not.
But that's the idealist in me talking. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out there was something about the meme that made men particularly receptive. We know that the messenger often matters as much as the message—perhaps especially for a movement that’s still fighting deeply entrenched negative stereotypes. It’s not just that feminist ideas may be more accessible when packaged in a clever Internet meme. It’s also that, for decades, opponents of the movement have painted feminists as unattractive, humorless, man-hating, lesbian militants. And we tend to find our feminist messengers more persuasive when they challenge these stereotypes. A 2003 study, for example, found that college women who self-identified as feminists responded more favorably to a feminist message when it was delivered by a woman with a feminine appearance than when it was delivered by a more masculine-looking woman.
The researchers concluded that one factor holding men back from embracing feminism may be that “on some dimensions a feminist man's masculinity may be questioned.”
Of course, the power of these negative associations may be fading; I’m not sure how long we can maintain a rep as unpopular social outcasts when we’ve got the undisputed queen of pop herself proudly standing in our corner. But you hear it echo in the many assurances from female celebrities that they “love men” when asked about feminism—even those who have embraced the f-word in recent years.
A male celebrity spokesperson is perhaps even more reassuring. Not only are men’s opinions about anything granted more authority, but it’s harder to portray a man as “anti-men.” As Katie Rife grumbles at the A.V. Club, the study suggests that “feminism is much less threatening when a man explains it.” And while Sangster points out that they included no comparison to a female spokesperson to back up that claim, you don’t have to spend much time in the feminist blogosphere to realize how sadly true it is. Just look at the lavish accolades Aziz Ansari and Joseph Gordon-Levitt received for their fairly mild statements in favor of gender equality.
Not that there aren’t stereotypes associated with men who align themselves with feminism too. While there’s been less research on the subject, male feminists seem to face pretty much the inverse set of judgments as their female counterparts. In a 2009 study, a group of college students were surveyed on their impressions of the terms “feminist man," "feminist woman," "man," or "woman." Interestingly, “feminist man" got the most positive evaluation overall but was considered less “potent” and less heterosexual. The researchers concluded that one factor holding men back from embracing feminism may be that “on some dimensions a feminist man's masculinity may be questioned.”
It’s hard to imagine a meme that more perfectly assuages this anxiety than Feminist Ryan Gosling. With its flirty “Hey girl” preface, his feminist ideals are very explicitly linked to his sex appeal; far from undermining his straight, masculine cred, his fluency in the theory of Simone de Beauvoir and passion for reproductive rights are portrayed as just as hot—to a heterosexual female gaze—as his rippling abs and baby blues.
Over at Vox, Amanda Taub sees lots of potential in the study’s suggestion that associating feminist ideas with male role models “makes those ideas seem aspirational.” But I couldn't help thinking about these findings as I read Cecilia D'Anastasio’s recent piece at Jezebel about self-proclaimed male feminists accused of sexual violence and abuse—men for whom “feminism was more of an underhanded mating tactic than a lifestyle choice.” Feminism is for everyone, as bell hooks has written, but it is also hard, uncomfortable work—especially for men. “It's easy to repeat what allies say or parrot what you read online in feminist publications,” D'Anastasio writes. “It's harder to let go of your upbringing in a society that preaches, allows, and even encourages male entitlement toward female bodies.”
Among feminists, the movement's recent trendiness is a source of both celebration and unease. There is a fine line between making the fight for gender equality accessible and stripping it of its radical teeth. I’m generally glad about the increasing expressions of feminist ideals in pop culture—even as they’ve become increasingly meaningless. The most superficial of exposures can still spark the learning—and unlearning—needed to develop a deep feminist commitment to social change.
But men who suddenly embrace feminism on the basis of the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme alone? I think the movement may do better without them.