All of us here at TCP love Ryan Gosling (much like the rest of the Universe). But Radina Papukchieva got the chance to write an essay about him for her Sexuality and Public Discourse class. If that wasn’t the case, someone else would have written a 10-page appreciation of the Gos, no doubt. Read on.
Since he was propelled into mass-audience fame in 2011, Ryan Gosling has become an unexpected feminist ideal. From his acting choices (quiet, sensitive guys who don’t quite fit in their environment), to his interviews in which he talks about being raised by his mother and older sister, Gosling has gained, over the past few years, the appreciation of women as being ‘that guy who understands us and listens to us.’ His charms even extended to the feminist community, when a Gender and Women’s Studies student, Danielle Henderson, started making flashcards with Ryan Gosling, annotated with feminist theory and always followed by the cheeky greeting “Hey, girl.” Her website, Feminist Ryan Gosling, became an overnight hit. Although she claims she started making these as a joke in order to help her memorize all the theories she was studying, the success she gained (a book with the ‘memes’ has now hit the shelves) points to an interesting development: there is a new male ideal out there and he is not the virile, macho type that we are so used to seeing.
Before analyzing Gosling’s acting choices, it is essential to consider how star-creation in Hollywood has changed over the past fifty years. As Mark Harris of GQ explains in his essay “The New and Improved Leading Man,”
“From the dawn of talkies to the end of the studio system—roughly the early 1930s to the mid-1960s—MGM and 20th Century-Fox and Paramount and the like exerted some control not only over who got to be a movie star but also over the idea of what a star was supposed to be: a handsome young man plucked from the crowd and then reinvented from the ground up. A squadron of professional image-remakers would give actors new names and looks and voices and teeth—transforming Marion Morrison into John Wayne or Archibald Leach into Cary Grant” (Harris, 2).
Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and Jimmy Stewart were stars, but also aspirations. The real man was an image of restraint, self-poise, intelligence and of course, saving damsels in distress and punishing the bad guys was his primary occupation in the movies.
Although male heroes in modern films have not changed that much, the nature of the leading man has. If actors were once controlled by the studio, today they are more or less free agents; they, as Harris puts it, are “playing the field without being a pawn in it” (3). As he argues, all stars play extensions of themselves, because they have the power of choosing their roles. Johnny Depp will always be just a little too strange, and Robert Downey Jr. will continue being a “fast-talking, fast-thinking, cocky, damaged, preening, never-quite-fulfilling-his-potential guy” (3). The point is, stars today are more self-made than they were in yesteryear. However, how many leading men today can we say have become role models or challenged masculine stereotypes in their body of work?
2011 was a big year for one of Hollywood’s most charming underdogs, Ryan Gosling. In the span of twelve months, Gosling starred in four widely different critically-acclaimed projects: he played a disgruntled working-class husband in Blue Valentine, a stunt driver on a self-assigned mission to avenge his love interest’s husband in Drive, an idealist presidential campaign manager in The Ides of March, and the ultimate womanizer in Crazy, Stupid, Love. The latter, a refreshed version of the Hollywood romantic comedy, suddenly sent Gosling into mass audience appreciation. This could be blamed on the fact that he took off his shirt in the film, exhibiting a perfect six-pack to a stunned Emma Stone: “it’s like you’re Photoshopped!” The movie mocks pop-culture’s obsession with looking perfect, and to cinephiles it was ironic that Gosling played in a comedy for the first time in his career, and a stereotype at that. It seemed that we had underestimated the appeal of Ryan Gosling, but it made so much sense to me that he was suddenly becoming a feminist hero.
Throughout his career, Gosling has played men out of sync with their environment, who are constantly shut down or challenged. In his leading-role debut, The Believer (2001), he plays a young Jew who suddenly finds himself drawn into neo-nazism. In his first massive success, the tearjerker The Notebook (2004), he plays Noah, a poor orphan who falls in love with a rich girl. Then, in his first Oscar-nominated turn in Half Nelson (2006) Gosling is a high-school teacher with a drug habit. I bring these up, because Gosling’s choices tend to form a pattern: he plays outsiders. Could that be saying that he feels like an outsider himself in Hollywood, the birthplace of masculine stereotypes? It does not come as a surprise then that he will attract a whole new audience, not just women, but feminists, who themselves perhaps feel like outsiders in an environment where their struggles are no longer as relevant.
I would like to focus on two very different characters that Gosling has played in recent years, namely his turn as a socially-inadequate young man in Lars and the Real Girl (2007) and his role as womanizer Jacob in Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011). While the first clearly challenges manly stereotypes, the second mocks them, thus pointing out an interesting gap in popular culture today: is the typical leading man extinct and has he been replaced by a sensitive male reminiscent of another group of men that several years ago was also proclaimed extinct, the metrosexual?
In her essay “The Might of the Metrosexual: How a Mere Marketing Tool Challenges Hegemonic Masculinity,” Margaret Ervin says that in the early 2000s the appearance of a so-called ‘metrosexual man’ represented a “phenomenon based on an actual shift in the perceived role and position of men in U.S. society: real fears and obsessions about masculinity that govern actions [..]” (Ervin, 5). A metrosexual man, by definition was/is someone who cares about grooming, is well-read and has a taste in fashion. Somehow, this was condoned as ‘not masculine’ and ‘threatening to manhood.’ As Ervin explains,
“Metrosexuality, often perceived as the queering of regular guys, continue to have an impact, whether or not the term itself is considered fashionable or current. Perceiving the metrosexual as a mockery or a threat to ‘real’ masculinity, some have tried to put the notion to rest, but the advent of the metrosexual heralds a very real change in the social construction of masculinity. It isn’t just that the concept is useful in furthering the neoliberal project, […] the metrosexual also furthers the wide acceptance of gender as performance and drives a wedge between the notions of sexuality and the ‘true’ self” (5).
We could thus take ‘metrosexuality’ as a stand-in for any behaviour that challenges the notion that men should be dominating and that any so-perceived ‘effeminate’ traits, like reading or an interest in fashion, are a threat to manhood. In this case, Ryan Gosling’s star persona is in itself a challenge to hegemonic masculinity. In the following paragraphs I would like to demonstrate just how the characters of Lars and Jacob go against the typical strong and virile Hollywood leading men of times gone by (or not so gone by, after all).
In Lars and the Real Girl, the character of Lars is a twenty-something year-old introvert who lives in a cabin in his brother Gus’ (Paul Schneider) backyard. Despite his sister-in-law Karin’s (Emily Mortimer) attempts to get him to move in the house with them, Lars prefers to live in isolation in his cabin. He fears intimacy, hates being touched, and there is even speculation that he might be gay. We later learn that after their mother’s death, Gus moved out, while Lars stayed at home with his depressive father who did not want anyone around. Lars grew up in isolation and never got close to anyone, despite his friends’ and family’s attempts to help him meet girls. One day, a new person enters his life – Bianca, an anatomically-correct life-size doll to whom he gives a back story (she is a missionary, half-Brazilian, half-Danish, confined to a wheelchair, etc.). She is not so much his girlfriend as she is his friend, someone who has been missing from Lars’ life. The film is ultimately about Lars’ search for his identity and manhood.
In their essay on “The Male Rapunzel in Film: The Intersections of Disability, Gender, Race and Sexuality,” Johnson Cheu and Carolyn Tyjewski say that “the male Rapunzel is, simply put, a male character supposedly trapped in a traditional tower, who devises an escape plan and executes it whether or not the proverbial prince shows up” (Cheu, Tyjewski, 154). In Lars’ case, however, I would argue that he is a male Rapunzel who needs other people’s help as much as his own. He creates Bianca and he is the one who ultimately decides when she is going to die. Bianca is there to teach him intimacy, but once Lars learns to let people into his life (when he begins to get closer to his co-worker Margo, played by Kelli Garner), she is no longer needed. However, the help of the community is substantial, as Gus and Karin go out of their way to let everyone in town know about Lars’ condition, so that they are accepting of Bianca.
Lars is, ultimately, a non-gender person; his coming-of-age is not a question of sexuality (although it has the people in the town wondering), but rather a question of maturity, of learning to let people in your life. Bianca has some of Lars’ traits, a point that emphasizes the fact that the question of gender here is performance. When Gus explains to Lars what it means to be a man, he adds “you don’t jerk people around, you know, and you don’t cheat on your woman, and you take care of your family, you know, and you admit when you’re wrong, or you try to, anyways.” These are simple traditional values that an older brother tries to teach his younger sibling. What we learn from the movie is that being a man does not mean you have to be physically strong, handsome, a ladies’ man, or a breadwinner. In this sense, the movie and Lars’ character (hence, Ryan Gosling’s role choice), challenge Hollywood tropes by dismissing them completely. Furthermore, all the women in Lars and the Real Girl are shown as more open to Lars’ identity crisis and more willing to help than the men – a small, but significant pattern in Gosling’s role choices in which the characters he plays are often resented by the men in his environment.
In Crazy, Stupid, Love. Gosling plays a character who we could discuss as Lars’ antagonist. Jacob (Gosling) is a ladies’ men who goes home with a different woman every night. He is rich and handsome: men want to be him, and women want to be with him. One night Jacob meets Cal (Steve Carell), a forty-something year-old man who has recently been cheated on by his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) and has now been reduced to drinking vodka with cranberry juice and moaning to strangers about how she slept with David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon). The two are thrown in together as Jacob decides to help Cal “rediscover his manhood.” Essentially, they go on a mission to turn Cal into a ladies’ man, a hegemonic masculine ideal, if you will. However, Cal realizes that he is still in love with Emily and that being promiscuous is not going to help him get her back. Similarly, Jacob falls in love with Hannah (Emma Stone), a girl who completely dismisses his macho act and continuously mocks him by calling him “hot guy from the bar” instead of “Jacob.”
I would argue that Gosling’s interpretation of Jacob is a direct criticism of assumed male behaviours. While Jacob’s looks and charm definitely help him meet women, we later learn that he is unhappy and lonely. When Hannah goes to his place, she mocks his whole act, telling him that he looks like he has been “Photoshopped,” and questioning his whole persona.
In “Fleshing Out White Heterosexual Masculinity: The Objectified and Commodified White Male Body,” Nicola Rehling discusses the burden of objectification of the male body in Hollywood. What he has to say about Brad Pitt in Fight Club (1999) could very easily be applied to Gosling’s shirtless scene in Crazy, Stupid, Love:
“The film’s characteristic conflict of discursive and visual content is highly indicative of the instabilities and contradictions of contemporary white heterosexual masculinity, which is increasingly objectified in the visual culture of late capitalism, despite the obvious anxieties that it causes, especially to the majority of ‘ordinary’ men who fail to measure up to the extra-ordinary, masculine ideal” (Rehling, 86).
However, I would argue that in the case of Crazy Stupid Love, the display of Gosling’s torso is not empowering, but disempowering. He is not getting in a fight, he is simply doing as Hannah tells him to. The scene is clearly conceived from the point of view of the female gaze. If at the beginning of the movie we saw Gosling’s character as a role model to Cal, we now see him as a joke, and this is essentially what the film itself is getting at. There is no rulebook as to what “being a man” consists of, and the main characters both seem to be struggling with their masculinity. I would argue that the awkward love scene between Jacob and Hannah is a criticism of the way media portrays not only men, but also sex. By asking him “what happens now,” Hannah is suggesting that there is some sort of expectation, a ritual that is supposed to take place. What she is referring to could be the tradition of Hollywood romantic comedies which go exactly as she describes.
By discussing two characters that Gosling portrayed on screen I tried to show that there is a pattern in his acting choices. The men he plays are never fully affirmed in their environment (Lars), or when they think they are, they begin to question their identity and status (Jacob). In his off-screen life Gosling has not done anything obvious to make himself loved, rather it is the media that seems obsessed with him. In August 2011, he broke up a fight in the streets of NYC. Later the same year he saved a woman from being ran over by a car. In interviews, he often mentions the importance of his mother and older sister who raised him. I believe that his role in the entertainment industry is somewhat unprecedented, because while Hollywood has no shortage of good-looking men, no one else gets feminist theory projected on them. Furthermore, the male heroes Gosling portrays on screen are endearing because they are not perfect, even when they appear to be.
I believe that the actor has brought some positive reinforcement to Hollywood, and from his upcoming projects it looks like he will continue to challenge masculine stereotypes in the same way he has until now. To conclude, I would like to share a quote from an interview with Gosling about his new movie, The Place Beyond the Pines, in which he plays a motorcycle-racer-turned gangster:
“The idea is that he’s a melting pot of masculine clichés. Muscles, tattoos, motorcycles, guns, knives, he’s in some kind of motorcycle boy band in the early ’90s traveling around with this low-rent carnival circuit – it doesn’t get any worse. He’s presented with this child that he didn’t know he had – and it’s like a mirror – and he realizes that none of these things mean that he’s a man. And that he’s really not a man at all.”
Destroying Hollywood’s masculine clichés one at a time, this is what I would like to thank Ryan Gosling for.
By Radina Papukchieva
Harris, Mark. “The New and Improved Leading Man.” GQ. February 2013. Available at http://www.gq.com/entertainment/movies-and-tv/201303/the-new-and-improved-leading-man-march-2013?currentPage=1
Henderson, Danielle. Feminist Ryan Gosling. Tumblr. Web. April 1, 2013.
Ervin, Margaret. “The Might of the Metrosexual: How a Mere Marketing Tool Challenges Hegemonic Masculinity.” Performing American Masculinities. Ed. Elwood Watson and Marc E.Shaw. p.58-75. Indiana University Press. 2011.
Cheu, Johnson. Tyjewski, Carolyn. “The Male Rapunzel in Film: The Intersections of Disability, Gender, Race, and Sexuality.” Performing American Masculinities. Ed. Elwood Watson and Marc E.Shaw. p. 153-166. Indiana University Press. 2011.
Rehling, Nicola. “Fleshing Out White Heterosexual Masculinity: The Objectified and Commodified White Male Body.” Extra-Ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity on Contemporary Popular Cinema. p. 85-114. Lexington Books. 2009.
Davis, Edwards. “Ryan Gosling Talks Bank Robbing in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines,’ Working with Terrence Malick, Nicolas Winding Refn & More.” Indiewire. Retrieved at http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/ryan-gosling-talks-bankrobbing-place-beyond-the-pines-working-with-terrence-malick-nicolas-winding-refn-more-20130403?page=1#blogPostHeaderPanel
Lars and the Real Girl. Dir. Craig Gillespie. Perf. Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson. MGM. 2007. DVD.
Crazy Stupid Love. Dir. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Perf. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon. Warner Brothers. 2011. DVD.