On Ryan Gosling: A ProvocationPosted: February 10, 2012
The New Inquiry ran a piece by Jesse Spafford today on Ryan Gosling called The Selfless Man. That’s selfless not in the sense of generosity, but selfless in the sense of being without a self—being willing to accommodate one’s persona and personality to whatever other people deem desirable.
Of course Ryan Gosling is good looking, has personal qualities, talent as an actor, and so on. The piece is really more about what Gosling has come to represent in a certain demographic’s zeitgeist than about him personally.
He has clearly struck a cultural nerve, and his performances have proven themselves to resonate deeply with the American psyche. Gosling has become the man people want to reenact their social world, the lens through which people want their experiences filtered, whether it be their romantic fantasies, their theoretical leanings, their hobbies, their entertainment, or their pancakes.
I realize that memes can develop a life of their own. But it’s still an interesting question why this uncontroversial, talented but not-particularly-remarkable heartthrob became the interface-of-choice through which people want to interact socially, online and off. How is it that Gosling brings out self-effacement and a teenage obsession with coolness among grown men who supposedly know better? Why do people repackage their opinions tacked alongside his picture, as though that alone makes them more convincing or more interesting?
The article, as far as I can tell, gives two answers. The first is that his fame has “reached a new level of tautology”—the author seems to be saying that Gosling has attained a new level of ‘being famous for being famous’ and can actually convert anything into a cooler version of itself simply by association. This is just the logic of celebrity endorsements brought to a group of people who doesn’t believe they’re that gullible, who thought they’d never be in the practice of repackaging ideas with celebrity faces. The fact that Gosling doesn’t offend his fans’ sense of irony can’t really disguise that this is just people wanting to be like what is liked. Like Spafford says, “status is its own alibi.”
The other reason the article gives for this phenomenon is that Gosling presents a kind of desirability rooted in obsequiousness. He is the perfect symbol of a people preoccupied with selling themselves, “not an Übermensch but its antithesis, no more than a servile flatterer willing to conform to others’ whims for a buck or, in this case, a fuck.” He can be whatever women, employers, or whoever else needs him to be. Consider this description of Gosling’s character in Crazy, Stupid, Love and compare that to the ways 20- and 30-somethings actively aspire to this exact version of desirability without qualities:
Who is Jacob, really? His wardrobe, haircut, muscled body, charm, and conversational style are nothing but calculated attempts to accommodate others. Jacob has given up everything about himself to get female affection. Conditional love has left him little more than a shell, his personality and aesthetic totally flattened by the societally imposed need to please. He is someone who simply cannot afford to be himself, for the cost of rejection — going without love or companionship — is far too great.
As Spafford points out, this makes Goslingification the social equivalent to the ways we reshape ourselves to capitalism. In his words: “Just as Ayn Rand used her angular magnates to romanticize those who do the economic bidding of others, the film uses Gosling to glorify sycophancy in the realm of the social.” The common question in both social and economic life then is how much will we let the desires of others dictate what we become. That feels almost too trite to type out, but in the end, accommodating ourselves to the demands of society and capitalism can’t really be helped.
What’s really interesting, to say it again, is that Gosling’s persona makes people forget that they’re even doing it. He provokes a desire to imitate and share in his stature among people who imagine they’re different, people who are too ironic about everything to even see what’s going on.
(n.b. I’m not sure I entirely agree with the article or the summary I put here, but I’ll save it for later or for the comments.)