Under the Hood

Feminist Ryan Gosling Won't Make Men More Feminist, But Meme's Can Still Influence Behavior, Culture

Feminist Ryan Gosling
The study that found viewing images of Feminist Ryan Gosling, a popular Internet meme, makes men more feminist is being criticized for its method. But this doesn't mean memes are incapable of influencing both men and women. Raffi Asdourian/CC BY 2.0

Hey girl… do you remember the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme? The images of the actor, layered with feminist text like “gender is a social construct but everyone likes to cuddle?” Danielle Henderson, now a culture editor for Fusion, first created it on her Tumblr as a joke to keep track of the theorists she was learning about in the gender studies graduate program at the University of Wisconsin. It blew up, of course, culminating in a book deal from Running Press in August 2012. Though Henderson ended the project prior to graduating in 2013, the site is still up. And now, a study suggests these memes make men more feminist.

The study comes from the University of Saskatchewan, in which graduate students polled 99 students — a third were male — by showing each one either a picture of Gosling, a meme from Henderson, or a similar meme simply known as “Hey Girl.” Students found men who were shown Henderson’s meme were up to 10 percent more likely to agree with statements, such as “men use abortion laws and reproductive technology to control women’s lives.” Women’s beliefs were mostly unchanged.

The problem, points out Science of Us editor Jesse Singal, is this wasn’t “a full-blown peer-reviewed study.” What the study authors did was present a poster at the Canadian Psychological Association; “when researchers present a poster, it basically just means they're offering up the findings of an experiment they haven't written up as an article and submitted to a journal for peer review.” Singal added there was neither a sufficient control group (he suggested students look at neutral images or images with neutral text for this particular study) nor a look at the long-term effects of being exposed to the feminist images.

From an evolutionary perspective, memes hardly started with Gosling. Susan Blackmore, a psychologist and author of the The Meme Machine, said in her 2008 TED Talk that the theory of memes — scientifically known as memetics — is founded on the principle of Universal Darwinism, which states any information that is varied and selected will produce design. No, Darwin didn’t quite have the same set up as Henderson, but he did unknowingly devise an algorithm for how information is copied from person to person. If you take variation, selection, and heredity, “then you must get evolution.”

Yet, it was evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who first introduced the memes the Internet has since re-appropriated in his book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins shortened the word from the Ancient Greek mimete, meaning imitator or pretender. He took Darwin’s focus on genetic expression and translated it into more of an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. Online users may not look at memes through this same evolutionary lens, but Dawkins told Wired we’ve pretty much got it.

“The meaning is not that far away from the original. It's anything that goes viral,” he said. “In the original introduction to the word meme in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, I did actually use the metaphor of a virus. So when anybody talks about something going viral on the Internet, that is exactly what a meme is and it looks as though the word has been appropriated for a subset of that.” Dawkins added he gets infected by these types of viruses as much as anyone else.

Amelia Burke-Garcia, director for the Center for Digital Strategy and Research at Westat and adjunct professor at George Washington University, presented the idea of the “Ryan Gosling Effect” to the Harvard Medical School in 2012 (though she was referencing this other meme). She cited “viral memes tap into our obsession with celebrity, and provide entertainment and humor,” possibly overshadowing public health campaigns — the Internet is here for Gosling and LOL Cats, not practical advice to avoid disease, right?

Not quite. Her presentation looked to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2011 to 2012 National Influenza Vaccination Campaign, which partnered with Meetup.com — a social network site that gets people with similar interests to hang out offline — to identify at-risk audiences and encourage them to get vaccinated, as well as share flu vaccination messages. Burke-Garcia found public health campaigns in conjunction with social media platforms can increase intention for a certain cause, which in this case was to get vaccinated. It can also decrease negative attitudes toward said cause; the CDC reported a 28 percent decrease in negative attitudes toward flu vaccines during the campaign.

The CDC campaign may not appear in a peer-reviewed journal, but based on both Darwin’s and Dawkin’s theory, there is still power in the messages and memes that spread within our culture, be they focused on health or feminism. Last year, MIC shared the 23 feminist digital campaigns (this one of little girls dropping F-bombs in princess costumes might take the cake), all of which outline “the sophisticated online tools to galvanize social change.” Maybe, just maybe, Gosling will help make men more feminist. We wonder how he'll feel about that. And if he's even a feminist.

If he's not, he can always draw inspiration from his character in The Notebook: "If you're a feminist, I'm a feminist,"...or something.

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