Actor. Sex symbol. Feminist icon. Hang on a minute, how did that last one come about? Clementine Ford unravels the mythology behind the man.
When rumours of Ryan Gosling appearing in various Melbourne haunts arose last year, comedian and writer Rose Callaghan started a #goslingwatch tag on Twitter that immediately began receiving tips and pleas from women desperate to see their idol in the flesh. "I had an inkling the hashtag would explode," says Callaghan.
"I already knew there were other women who had an almost hysterical infatuation with him. But suddenly quotes from my Twitter page were appearing in mainstream media reports as reliable sources."
At the same time, Melbourne experienced a series of earthquakes. "There was a widely respected theory at the time that he caused them," Callaghan recounts, before adding, "The funny thing is, there's no real concrete evidence of him ever being in Melbourne."
Perhaps the most unusual thing about this reaction is just how not unusual it is. Mention the words "Ryan Gosling" around a group of young women and you'll likely be met by the kind of swooning we associate with adolescent teenage girls and their pop idols. For example, I am a 31-year-old woman and I joke regularly with a female friend of similar age about which of us is his legitimate wife. I'm not even sure that we're joking. And, yes, I am deeply ashamed of this. I never imagined myself as a "swooner".
But like Robert Redford and Paul Newman before him, Gosling has achieved the kind of cult status among women (and some men) that the word "swoon" was invariably designed for. Admittedly, this is partly due to his staggering good looks. He stands tall at 185 centimetres and boasts the kind of jawline that could crack the top off a beer bottle. His eyes are best described by the kinds of passages you might find in a Mills & Boon novel: brooding, mysterious, masking a hidden vulnerability in need of the right woman to unlock it. His physique is lean and supple, and makes you want to do things to him.
In fact, there's a pivotal scene in the 2011 film Crazy Stupid Love in which Emma Stone's character Hannah asks Gosling's serial womaniser Jacob to take his shirt off, revealing his chiselled abs. "Seriously?!" Hannah yells. "It's like you're Photoshopped!"
But looks alone aren't enough to foster such a committed gaggle of fans. It's Gosling's additional charms that seal his status as the Thinking Woman's Crumpet for a generation of women who want a little more from their idols than an impressive six-pack.
He's famous for loving his mother, who home-schooled him as a child after he was bullied at his Canadian primary school. He was a child star of Mickey Mouse Club, which indicates some kind of approachable dorkiness. He is a serial monogamist, rather than a player - he's currently with Eva Mendes. He saves the lives of random strangers. (Last year, British journalist Laurie Penny caused a stir when she tweeted, "I literally, LITERALLY just got saved from a car by Ryan Gosling. Literally. That actually just happened." Penny had walked in front of a taxi when Gosling pulled her to safety. The year before, a YouTube video of Gosling breaking up a fight between two men on a New York street went viral.)
Basically, he is a sensitive, creative soul who also steps in to defend the weak because he, too, knows the trauma of being picked on. Oh, and everyone wants to have his babies.
It's an impressive mix. But when you consider the breakthrough role that cemented his fame, it's not altogether unexpected that such a mass following would occur.
On paper, the role of Noah Calhoun in the film adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' novel The Notebook sounds unbearably saccharine, yet Gosling lent pathos to a character who could have so easily been seen as a guy who just needed to get over his first girlfriend. When the working-class Noah reads Walt Whitman out loud to his father, Gosling's trademark hard-to-spot accent turns the lines into love songs. He builds a house for Allie (played by former flame Rachel McAdams, whom Gosling has described as "one of the great loves of my life".) He grows a beard and kisses her in the rain. To the viewer, it's clear that Gosling (for at this point, he is Noah) is a one-woman kind of guy.
Whether or not his films are any good is by the by (a cursory poll of my friends, already well familiar with my Gosling love, hints that The Notebook might not be as good as I imagine, nor the depressing Blue Valentine as subversive). The fact remains that he has managed to achieve a career out of being Ryan Gosling while never actually playing Ryan Gosling.
Leaving aside the case for Gosling the Actor, what is it about Gosling the Man that has catapulted him into the hearts (and loins) of fans young and old the world over? Because in addition to enjoying the kind of pin-up status brooding, good-looking men of a non-threatening persuasion are often afforded, Gosling has become somewhat of a defining meme in his own right. (If you're new to memes, they're basically inside jokes that find a home on the net and are in a state of constant reinvention.)
In internet culture, the words "Hey girl" have become synonymous with Gosling, and are almost always chosen to illustrate a playful ideal of a man who espouses superficially romantic values: respect for women, sensitivity, intelligence and just enough raw masculinity to make the whole thing interesting. The "Hey girl" meme plays on the idea that Gosling may just be the most perfect man to have ever walked the Earth, not least of which is because he cares about you, girl.
The website f...yeahryangosling.tumblr.com was the first to spawn the meme but it was soon followed by other blogs, most notably feministryangosling.tumblr.com. In it, creator Danielle Henderson shares "Feminist Theory As Imagined From Your Favourite Sensitive Movie Dude". Some of the blog's posts include images of Gosling captioned with greetings like, "Hey girl. Ann Kaplan asks,
'Is the gaze male?' but all I know is I can't take my eyes off you"; "Hey girl. The existence of the Higgs boson is a big deal, but only in that it explains our gravitational charge"; and the particularly tongue-in-cheek, "Hey girl. I mean ... WOMAN."
While loving Gosling isn't a requirement of being a feminist, it is interesting how many of his most vocal fans identify as feminist and admire his masculinity, which is traditional while being vulnerable. (Rose Callaghan admits that part of her Gosling love is expressed via a desire to have him come over and "fix things".)
And Gosling's behaviour, although seemingly free from artifice and engineering, does little to dispel his own mythology. When Blue Valentine was threatened in the US with a strict NC-17 rating (which is almost certain to guarantee a box-office loss as a result) because it contained two scenes of man-on-woman oral sex, Gosling wrote to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and accused them of sexist double standards.
His letter, which has since been much shared and venerated online, stated: "You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario which is both complicit and complex. It's misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman's sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film."
Is it any wonder Gosling has become such an object of desire to women who consider themselves of a higher IQ? For feminists like myself, who have long been accused of sexlessness, prudishness and an innate hatred of men, the Cult of Gosling is demonstrative of our ability to engage in that kind of public sexual playfulness - to claim our own pin-ups and participate in a mainstream culture that so often excludes us. Loving Ryan Gosling has become a feminist brand in itself, a reality that he acknowledges with the kind of characteristically humble good humour that will no doubt ensure its continuation.
Perhaps there are fewer differences between Gosling the Actor and Gosling the Man after all. And in that sense, we're free to cast him as whoever we want him to be, to Photoshop him into whatever role we'd like him to play in our head.
Of course, Gosling the Man would probably have something to say about the destructive psychosocial effect of Photoshop and how flaws are what make people beautiful. And that would probably just make us love him more.