I’m going to make a confession: I didn’t start out liking Ryan Gosling. I didn’t give him a second glance after The Notebook. I saw the first twenty minutes of that film and almost barfed, and to this day it’s still the one movie featuring Gosling that I am staunchly against finishing. In The Notebook, Gosling plays the dude who won’t take no for an answer. He weasels his way into a girl’s heart, and then ends up being a sweet guy after all. My first and only attempt to understand the hype around that movie left me with a poor impression of its leading man, and for a while I would hear his name and roll my eyes. What made him different from any other good-looking dude on the big screen? Ryan Gosling with his v-neck t-shirts and his GQ-cover stare: laaame!
All that changed when I saw him in Drive, where his pout, puppy-dog eyes, and blood-spattered scorpion jacket commanded the screen. Suddenly, I began to see him everywhere, and everything I saw was almost too good to be true. First was the video that emerged of Gosling breaking up a fight in the middle of a New York City crosswalk. Then it was the article about how he purportedly saved a woman from being run down on 6th Avenue. I listened to his dorky band, Dead Man’s Bones, which seemed to only feature Halloween-themed songs with titles like “Werewolf Heart” and “My Body’s a Zombie for You.” I came across anecdotes of his life growing up, about how, inspired by the movie First Blood, 6-year-old Ryan Gosling took steak knives to school and threw them at his classmates. If this had been about Ted Bundy, the idea would have sent shivers down my spine. But since it was Ryan, well, there were still shivers—they were just good shivers.
In the middle of all this, the “Hey Girl” meme emerged with unremitting force. It ranged from purely goofy (“Hey, girl. It’s pretty cute when you toot in your sleep.”) to downright political. There were a number of versions, but in my circle of friends, Feminist Ryan Gosling seemed to make an appearance most weekends.
It was a tongue and cheek pairing—the sociopolitical desires of the modern woman combined with “your favorite sensitive movie dude.” Millions of women perused these images half wishful, half joking. In the perfect world, we thought, Ryan Gosling would be a feminist. He would wake you up in the morning by whispering sweet somethings in your ear. His words would affirm his appreciation of you and inspire a sense of power, badassery, and an expectation for social progress: “Hey girl. When you talk, I hear the revolutions.” Oh, if only, if only, right? WRONG.
When, in 2010, the MPAA gave Blue Valentine an NC-17 rating for a scene depicting oral sex on a woman, Ryan fought it. “There’s something very distorted about this reality that they’ve created,” he said, “which is that it’s okay to torture women on screen. Sure, they probably deserved it. Any kind of violence toward women in a sexual scenario is fine. But give a woman pleasure, no way. Not a chance. That’s ‘pornography.’” The MPAA soon changed their rating of the film from NC-17 to R. Be still, my heart—this guy gets it.
While there is still very little evidence that Ryan Gosling is fallible and human just like the rest of us, I’m a reasonable woman, and I’m willing to believe that is the case. The fact of the matter is, this guy has become a sex symbol of our time not simply because he’s good looking and sensitive, but because of what we have made him into. Sure, you can argue this for the worship of any celebrity, but Ryan’s journey is uniquely 21st century. The small-time heroics, the quality films, and that piercing stare all inspire the Hey Girl meme, which in turn, allow for many, possibly infinite, iterations of Ryan Gosling. Do you like Cocoa Puffs? Ryan Gosling likes that. Oral sex? That too. What about the library? You bet your big sexy brain there’s a Ryan Gosling for that.
Similarly, the roles he takes on, whether as touchy-feely as The Notebook, or as brutal and bloody as Drive, fulfill power/sex/romance fantasies of all types of viewers. His more offbeat movies like The Believer or Half Nelson, along with his tendency toward feminism, add a bit of an academic/intellectual cred to his resume. This, in combination with his internet fame, creates a sort of chameleon-like persona where anyone who has the hots for him can very literally imprint whatever they want onto his image. When it comes down to it, whether Gosling is truly any of these things is irrelevant. Our projections onto him make him an incredibly modern icon. He is the everyman, the hero, the villain, the angst-ridden reincarnation of James Dean, the lover, and the fighter—he’s anything you want him to be, baby.