Having Fun with Feminism

Actually, it may be Ryan Gosling in the picture, but the commentary is courtesy of Danielle Henderson ’11. Since October 2011, she has been writing the blog Feminist Ryan Gosling pairing images of the star of The Notebook, Crazy Stupid Love, and Blue Valentine with witty captions drawing on feminist theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler. The blog follows a popular meme (a concept that spreads via the Internet) that features Gosling saying something cute beginning with “Hey girl.”

Whether he’s emoting, “Hey girl. Gender is a social construct but everyone likes to cuddle,” or delving into the abstract with, “Hey girl. Just thinking about Chandra Mohanty’s theory that Western feminism problematically constructs the Third World woman as the pejorative ‘other’ and the discursive colonial habits that keep women oppressed,” each entry has Gosling dishing out a meaty helping of feminist awareness.

The blog has turned a lot of heads. It has over 35,000 followers with over a million page views each month and has been spotlighted in national forums like The Huffington Post, Newsweek, and Vogue Italia. A Time NewsFeed calls the blog “a winning combination” and asks, “Is it really any surprise that it only took a few days for this Tumblr [blog] to go viral?” Marie Claire’s website calls “Feminist Ryan Gosling” “brilliantly hilarious,” and the blog was third on Rolling Stone’s Top 10 Memes of the Year.

While it’s now basking in Internet stardom, “Feminist Ryan Gosling” originally started as a study tool. Henderson and her classmates were commiserating over the amount of theory they needed to assimilate daily in their graduate program. To lighten the mood, Henderson created a riff—or spin-off—of an already popular meme called “F*ck Yeah Ryan Gosling,” combining the material she was studying with images of the star. “I’m still just a nerd who needs flash cards sometimes,” she laughs. Although she expected it to be enjoyed only by her circle of friends, within 24 hours it was featured on the trendy website Jezebel.com. Before long, “Feminist Ryan Gosling” went viral.

“Even when I didn’t have the language to define it, I was a feminist,” reflects Henderson. “The development of my feminist identity went hand-in-hand with my increasing awareness of racism. I was raised in a predominantly Caucasian town in New York; as a child, I was condemned for both my ethnicity and my gender. As a marginalized person, feminism has always made sense to me.”

In 2006, Henderson moved to Rhode Island after spending four years working and traveling in Alaska. In 2008, she started taking classes at URI, finding a home in the Gender and Women’s Studies program: “Women’s Studies gave me space to explore my academic interests in a way that related to my lived experience as a non-traditional student, a black woman, and a feminist,” she says.

“URI has a very nurturing community of intellectuals and professionals; it’s a very dynamic place to be. I will always be thankful for the relationships I had with my URI professors. They have been overwhelmingly encouraging, and just generally very cool and interesting people who inspired me to dream a little bigger.”

Henderson not only connected with the academic community at URI, she also excelled as a part of it. By the time she was ready to leave Rhode Island for graduate school, she had twice received a Black Scholar Award and was also the recipient of the President’s Excellence Award for Women’s Studies. She has continued on to a fully funded graduate program in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she currently is a teaching assistant.

Although she doesn’t directly use her blog as a teaching tool, Henderson has certainly mastered the art of speaking the language of her students. “I’m definitely proactive about weaving pop culture into my lessons,” she says. “I think theory tends to make sense when it’s applicable to your life, so I try to listen to my students and respond in ways that are helpful to them. They’re very smart about media, and I don’t shy away from encouraging them to utilize it in a meaningful way.”

Writing “Feminist Ryan Gosling” is a natural tangent from her areas of scholarship. “I’m interested in examining the Internet as a site of activism and looking at how women of color are represented in that space,” she explains. As her reputation as an activist increases, so do the opportunities.

In August 2012, Feminist Ryan Gosling: The Book will be released by Running Press. “I had been contacted by a few publishers interested in turning ‘Feminist Ryan Gosling’ into a book, which was just wild,” says Henderson. “I had never entertained the idea that a book would happen, but over time it started to make sense to have something a little more permanent.” Her book is available to pre-order at Amazon and the Running Press.

When she first sat at her computer hoping to make her stressed-out classmates smile, Henderson never imagined that her efforts would garner so much notoriety. “I never expected the blog to be viewed by more than five people,” she laughs, “so I’m still surprised when it’s mentioned anywhere outside of my home!”

By the looks of things, her surprise will continue to increase as more and more people are pulled in by, yes, the charm of Ryan Gosling, but also by the cleverness of the message. “In our cultural climate right now,” Danielle reflects, “women are having more rights taken away than we are having solidified. In order for the next generation to grow up with the same kind of access that I had, it’s important that we remain in the public consciousness.”

By Bethany Vaccaro ’06