When the Oscar nominations came out, much indignation revolved around the omission of Ryan Gosling from the Best Actor nominees. Reading the reactions, I was struck by the remarkable chord this performer strikes with so many young women I know.
You can't be a gender studies professor and not be tuned into popular culture. Since I started work in this field, I've watched as certain celebrities take on iconic status among feminists; when I was just beginning my teaching career, Camille Paglia had turned Madonna into a particular kind of exemplar. When I was at last year's National Women's Studies Association conference, everybody and her sister seemed to be writing a paper about Lady Gaga.
But it's much rarer when a cis-gendered heterosexual man begins to attract the same kind of attention in feminist circles. Ryan Gosling is starting to do just that, largely thanks to his articulate and impassioned advocacy for sexual justice in Hollywood. When his remarkable new film, Blue Valentine received an early NC-17 rating from the MPAA (while Black Swan got an R), Gosling noted that the difference between the two films was the depiction of women's pleasure. (It was a cunnilingus scene in Blue Valentine that earned the NC-17). Gosling remarked:
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.
That quote blew up in the feminist blogosphere last fall even before the film was released. Ms. Magazine raved: I think we can all agree that Ryan Gosling is ridiculously good looking… (he) brings emotional depth and sensitivity to all his roles…we are dreamy-eyed over you, Ryan Gosling, because you are exactly what a feminist looks like. Ms. wasn't alone; Jezebel and Jessica Valenti raved as well. And I read the same reaction in the Facebook feeds and journals of my students and former students, many of whom had already sung the praises of the remarkable Mr. Gosling.
Having seen all of his films, including the splendid Blue Valentine (my third favorite film of the year), I can see why Gosling has struck such a powerful emotional and sexual chord in so many. While the mainstream media would have us believe that the Twilight-besotted young women of America can be neatly divided into "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob", I hear far more about Ryan Gosling than I do about either Robert Pattinson or Taylor Lautner. (Most of my students who actually care seem to have chosen the latter.) Gosling doesn't play supernatural characters in his films; he plays flawed and complex men whose tender decency is always at war with his compulsions and his rage. He brings depth and nuance to stock characters (the socially inept Lars in the eponymous film, the idealistic middle school teacher with a drug habit in Half-Nelson, the sweet and rage-filled husband and father in Blue Valentine). In a culture where young men are portrayed as pumped up werewolves (Jacob in Twilight) or overgrown adolescents unwilling to accept adulthood (Judd Apatow film after Judd Apatow film), Gosling's characters are multi-dimensional, fragile, brave.
There are movie spoilers below the fold.
Yes, Ryan Gosling is strikingly good-looking. He wears those looks effortlessly, avoiding the twin pitfalls of either macho posturing or exasperatingly nerdy self-deprecation. And obviously, he immensely talented as well. So when he directs that sexiness and that talent towards these complex roles, he offers the audience a window into a new kind of masculine ideal. He plays men - young men, yes, but not overgrown boys. His characters wear the scars of being raised in a society that gives boys and men few opportunities for full humanity; over and over again (especially in Blue Valentine) we see Gosling's characters aching to connect. Over and over again, his characters lack the tools to make an authentic connection. More than a few women have loved a man whose compassion and empathy was choked off by something dark; many women have seen (or thought they've seen) a tenderness behind the eyes that doesn't match either the man's words or his actions. That's the source of mystery, it's the source of heartbreak. And Gosling's characters capture that heartbreak perfectly.
Gosling's characters are never so flawed as to be entirely incapable of relationship. His Dean in Blue Valentine is funny and gentle - but also fully capable of being cruel and manipulative. Raising a daughter whom he knows isn't biologically his, Dean gives us the welcome chance to see a man who can love what he didn't make. (Contra the stereotype that American men are haunted by the thought that their children might not be "theirs", the dark nightmare fueled by episodes of Jerry Springer.) Fighting hard for a marriage that was grounded more in impulse than in love, Dean lacks the vocabulary that so many men lack. In the final scene of the film, as Michelle Williams' Cindy demands a divorce, Dean pleads to stay together for the sake of their daughter. From the PDF of the shooting script:
The look of sheer desperation across Dean's face…
I know. Baby I'm just fighting you know,
fighting for my family. I don't know what
to do, I don't know what else to do. Tell
me what to do, tell me what to do.
I don't know what to do.
Tell me how I should be.
I don't know.
Just tell me, I'll do it, I'll do it.
I don't know what to say, I'm so sorry, I
don't know what to do anymore.
Just tell me and I'll do it.
"Tell me how I should be." Many men have said just those words in the midst of a fight (I did, a time or nine, in past marriages). Many of us who've been in tempestuous long-term relationships will recognize ourselves in these heartbreaking lines, recognizing the longing that so many men have for a script that they can follow, recognizing women's frustration both that their boyfriends and husbands need a script and that they aren't able to provide one. Gosling's Dean is a modern Everyman here, charming in courtship, desperately inarticulate in relationship maintenance, torn between tenderness and rage.
Gosling's sexiness is unmistakable, but his real appeal lies in his pitch-perfect embodiment of contemporary masculine conflict. Combine that with his earnestly egalitarian and progressive political views, his penchant for relationships with strong and slightly older actresses (Sandra Bullock and Rachel McAdams), and Gosling - both on and off-screen - offers us a chance to see something we so rarely see: an unmistakably feminist, unmistakably hot, unmistakably multi-faceted young man. No wonder so many respond to him so strongly.
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