Hey Boy, Happy Birthday

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Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling grows up and discovers his feminist side.

Hey Girl, if I told you that you had a hot body, would you hold it against me? Now what if I was Ryan Gosling, and asked you the same question? Maybe I could throw in some feminist theory and assure you that all I want is some cuddling?

That’s the premise behind the entertaining website “Feminist Ryan Gosling.” The Tumblr blog hosts pictures of the actor who turned 31 this past weekend, on November 12th. The images bear blocks of text that attempt to woo women by appealing to their empowered sides. The site is the recreational creation of Danielle Henderson, a graduate student majoring in gender studies at the University of Wisconsin.

In her FAQ, Mrs. Henderson explains that the site originated as an amusing way to keep track of the theories she was studying. She posted her flashcards as a parody, admitting that they are “derivative of the ‘Hey Girl’ meme.” The meme Mrs. Henderson refers to is documented on the “Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling” blog. Originally the actor’s faux online persona knew nothing about feminism. He knew only that if you were female, he wanted to take you home. Since the original, Faux Gosling has learned just how insulting it is to call a grown woman, “Girl,” and wants to make amends, so “Fuck Yeah!” became “Feminist.”

If you stumbled on, or skimmed past the word meme, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Memetic theory is a fairly new field, a little younger than the internet. Conventionally held as a term coined by Richard Dawkins, a meme is the smallest unit of cultural transmission. A motto, melody, or manner can be a meme, as long as it conveys culture.

Meme is pronounced similar to “gene,” and the parallels don’t end there. Memetic theory at its heart is genetic theory, where parts of culture are passed on in place of genes. If meme originally made you think of silent men in striped shirts, give yourself a pat on the back for intuition. The word is adapted from Greek, either “mneme”—memory, or “mimema”—something imitated.

These tiny pieces of culture are transmitted through imitation. Remember the 90’s, when men imitated the Budweiser commercial by answering the phone with: “Waaasup?” That was a meme sweeping through our culture. The custom of sitting on chairs instead of pillows is a meme that has permeated Western culture. Similarly, marriage between a man and a woman is meme that taken hold across cultures. Memes can seem embedded in our DNA, like in the case of marriage, but they depend on imitation to pass on instead of genetic material.

Other articles have concentrated on the humorous side of this recent meme. MTV, with its impeccable journalistic taste, actually had Ryan Gosling read selections from “Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling.” The Huffington Post dredged up quotes to prove that the real Ryan Gosling might have feminist leanings. They both miss the point of memes. On the blog for Ms. Magazine, they go so far as to conclude that the feminist flashcards might whet “people’s appetites for some heady reading.” I admit I looked up intersectionality (a fantastic way to view the complexities of oppression in a more complete way) but that was because my spell-checker claimed it wasn’t a word. Sadly, the blogs gave me no real impetus to research Beauvoir or Butler anytime soon. The importance of a meme lies less with teaching society about something (e.g. misogyny, feminism, or the refreshing taste of Budweiser) and more with teaching the observer about society.

If you can’t tell, I get a kick out of “Feminist Ryan Gosling.” I enjoy “Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling” too—in the same way that I like listening to Ke$ha. (Who doesn’t admire the efficiency of combining dental hygiene and Jack Daniels?) As entertaining as I might find a meme to be, though, I appreciate even more the information it gives. For an observer they can demonstrate what a culture expects from interactions and the values that members hold dear. Noting the transmission of memes across cultural boundaries can certainly be informative as well. However, even more than their movements, we need to watch out for a meme that stops moving, that ceases to mutate.

Memes can become stagnant and held up as sacred, like marriage. The idea that a male and a female unite to create offspring and then stay together until death does part them is not one of Newton’s laws of physics. It’s not even an immutable law of nature. It has served humanity well for millennia, allowing us to be fruitful and multiply, yet it’s still a meme—a piece of culture that is imitated, not inherent. A meme that does not adapt for new circumstances can cause problems. To use an analogy, think about how funny it was in the 90’s to call a friend and have an entire conversation using nothing but the word, “wassup.” Okay, it wasn’t that funny even then. But now think about calling a friend today who refuses to say anything but “wassup.” It’s infuriating to even imagine, because memes rarely age well. What if the meme that people refused to discard or adapt was something much more important than a catch phrase?

Has Ryan Gosling used corny pick-up lines? Is he really a feminist? All of that conjecturing is amusing, but beside the point. Whether or not humor can spread feminism is a question that comes closer to the mark. Memes, serious or silly, are the building blocks of our culture. Whether you enjoy “Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling,” or “Feminist Ryan Gosling,” it hardly makes a difference. What matters is that our culture is vibrant and it can change; we have progressed from fucking to feminism.

John Dwyer is a freelance writer who recently returned to the Midwest after teaching English with Peace Corps. Contact him through his email: john.christian.dwyer [at] gmail [dot] com or check out his blog discussing adjusting.

Photo credit Campus Progress/Flickr

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