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Study: Feminist Ryan Gosling meme makes men more feminist

Ryan Gosling
Ryan Gosling
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Could the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme be a secret weapon in the struggle for gender equality?

Realistically, exposing men to a smattering of feminist theory superimposed onto photos of Gosling's smoldering gaze and smoldering-er abs isn't going to undo centuries of patriarchy. But a study by two PhD students at the University of Saskatchewan suggests that, oddly enough, it might be a good start.

That sounds silly at first, but there's a serious idea underlying the experiment. The researchers believe that the memes make feminism seem appealing because they imply that the real Ryan Gosling espouses the views. In other words, Gosling is cool, so feminism suddenly seems cool too.

That matters, because the gender stereotypes that hinder women's progress in the workplace — and their safety in the world — have proven difficult to dislodge. If the researchers are right about the meme's effect and why it works, that could turn out to be a powerful tool.

Hey girl, this is how the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme works

"Feminist Ryan Gosling" is a Tumblr meme that was created in 2011 by Danielle Henderson, a New York-based writer who had just begun a graduate program in gender studies and needed an outlet for her "sheer academic frustration." It quickly became an internet sensation, and in 2012 Henderson turned it into a book.

The meme has only two ingredients: one (1) photo of the handsome Mr. Gosling looking directly into the camera, and one (1) feminist statement beginning with the romantically inviting words "hey girl." When combined, they're pure magic.

The study found that looking at Gosling memes made men more likely to embrace feminist ideas

Gosling research results chart

A graph of the results from the study. The darker columns are the control group that saw Gosling photos without text, and the lighter columns saw the meme. Men from the control group were significantly less likely than women to agree with radical and socialist feminist ideas, but viewing the memes made them respond positively at roughly the same rates women did. (source: Linzi Williamson and Sarah Sangster, Researchgate.net)

The study was done by University of Saskatchewan PhD students Linzi Williamson and Sarah Sangster. They asked a group of 99 undergraduates — 69 women and 30 men — to look at photos of Ryan Gosling. One group viewed the meme, and the other just looked at photos of Gosling without any text on them. (One wonders what the control group was told about the experiment: "here, look at these Ryan Gosling photos. Really ponder them. It's for science, we promise.")

Both groups then took a quiz that asked them about whether they self-identified as feminists, as well as their sympathy for various types of feminism, such as radical feminism, socialist feminism, and women of color feminism.

The researchers found that viewing the memes had no significant effect on women's test results, and that neither gender showed any changes in how likely they were to self-identify with feminism. But men who viewed the meme were significantly more likely to endorse views associated with radical feminism and socialist feminism.

There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about reading too much into these results. The work was presented as a poster at a conference, which means that it hasn't yet been peer-reviewed. The sample size is small. The control group only controlled for the absence of text, so we don't know how the meme's effect would have compared to a group of men who had just been exposed to feminist statements without any Gosling photos. All of those issues mean that this study doesn't in itself prove anything, it just hints at it. But the thing it hints at is still very interesting.

Could the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme make the world better for women?

Gosling meme 3

The thing that matters here is not the meme specifically, but the way it might work to change men's views.

The researchers believe that the memes made men more likely to embrace feminist views because they associated those ideas with Gosling, a male role model. "We don't know what it was about him that they liked so much," Williamson told Canada's National Post, "It could have been they just really admired him or they think he's a cool dude."

In other words, men's receptiveness to feminist ideas might have more to do with how they relate to other men than how they feel about women. Gosling is a successful actor (and arguably an even more successful sex symbol), so associating feminist ideas with him makes those ideas seem aspirational. The meme subtly suggests embracing sentiments like "Hey girl, it's hard for me to reify Beauvoir's theory of the lost female genius when I'm around you" will make them more like Ryan Gosling.

If that's right, then it suggests some pretty interesting possibilities for combating cultural norms and stereotypes that hurt women. For instance, there is a lot of research to suggest that men and women alike have subtly absorbed the message that men should be leaders in the workplace and women should take a more subordinate role. Those stereotypes have proven difficult to dislodge. But the Gosling meme study suggests that male role models who embrace gender equality might have a positive effect.

And in more extreme situations, that might even be a way to prevent violence. Research on bystander interventions suggests that men are more willing to intervene to stop sexual assault if they think their peers will support their actions. Indeed, one study found that men's perception of their peers attitudes was a better predictor of whether they were willing to intervene than the men's own attitudes were. The key to prompting that good behavior was to convince men that it would have low social costs for them — or even social benefits — not just to appeal to their sense of morality.

But it turns out that people might be pretty bad at estimating those costs: one study found that men consistently rated their male peers as less concerned about rape and consent, and less willing to intervene, than they really were. "The data indicate that for both the importance of consent and willingness to intervene, men underestimated the healthy, supportive norms of other men."

The question, then, is how to convince men that they aren't alone, and that the consequences of intervening won't be too bad. The Gosling study suggests that statements from male role models — or maybe just memes that seem like such statements — could be a good place to start.

And even if it doesn't work, it wouldn't be too terrible to spend more time staring at Ryan Gosling, would it?