On Ryan Gosling: A Provocation

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.)

8 Comments on “On Ryan Gosling: A Provocation”

  1. Jonathan H. says:

    Antoshkka, how dare you make a post about Ryan Gosling before me?? And to call him “not-particularly-remarkable”??

    For shame.

  2. antoshkka says:

    I was holding back. Almost went with “unremarkable”

  3. Jonathan H. says:

    So I read the article, and I’m not convinced of the writer’s argument.

    First, I think it’s an egregious mistake to ever conflate an actor with his role in any film, especially when you’re trying to make sweeping statements about the zeitgeist. I think the writer overstates Ryan Gosling’s significance in this country. If this were a piece about Ryan Gosling’s significance in the pseudo-high-brow upper middle class subculture of this country, I think you have an argument there. But this is a guy who gets mistaken for Ryan Reynolds by the average American. The average American find the handsome guy from the Hangover movies far more relevant and sexy than Ryan Gosling. It’s pretty irritating and grating to hear people say America when they mean their small subculture of elitist Americans.

    Plus It’s especially nonsensical to argue that being “selfless,” to be a chameleon to fit the whims of needs of others, is a bad thing when one is an actor. Take Ryan Gosling out of the equation; you can make the same “critique” on any other actor.

    Second, the film Drive is an adaptation of a slim noir novella by James Sallis by an artsy Danish filmmaker; the write gives the film a cultural relevance it hardly deserves. Remember, the movie was a commercial flop and grossly mis-marketed. To argue that the film functions as a “patriarchal fantasy” for the (overwhelmingly male) American movie-going audience, who in reality found it unpalatable and rejected it, is to overstate the film’s significance. The movie is more of a cult film than anything else.There are plenty of “patriarchal fantasies” that are far more popular than Drive that would serve the writer’s argument (see: any Fast and the Furious movie). He’s really stretching to make his point here.

    Third, his argument about the character of Jacob in Crazy, Stupid, Love is way off. The viewer is never asked to admire him for his alpha male ways; rather, we see him for the shallow, callow player that he is. The crux of the film is in his redemption when he finds true love blah blah blah.

    I’m not saying that there’s not something to be said, or written, about the Ryan Gosling phenomenon (Goslinsanity, if you will). But this piece isn’t it. The whole piece reads to me a bit like somebody with an impressive vocabulary trying to make a new or unique point or argument for the sake of making a new or unique point or argument. But I guess that’s what we tell our liberal arts undergrads is important and what we teach them to do.


    And as to your comment on his being “unremarkable,” see his performances in Half Nelson and Blue Valentine. Ryan Gosling is famous because he is really really good at what he does. With the untimely passing of Heath Ledger, Ryan Gosling is arguably the best actor of his contemporaries. I can only think of James Franco and Michael Pitt as his peers, but James Franco has some misses and Michael Pitt doesn’t have quite as broad a range.

  4. antoshkka says:

    I thought the writer tried a bit to distinguish Gosling from the kind of cultural persona that’s been built around him. But yeah, I agree it’s too much to generalize from these two films.

    The one thing I’d probably disagree with in what you wrote is “Take Ryan Gosling out of the equation; you can make the same “critique” on any other actor.” I think Gosling is the perfect contender to be converted into an avatar because he’s been relatively uncontroversial and unpolitical*, as opposed to say Leonardo or George Clooney. In a way, James Franco is something of the anti-Gosling, in that he’s so out there in a distinctive way that he’s hard to turn into a voicebox. I guess there are lots of others actors besides Gosling that can be projected onto in this way, but certainly not all of them. That in the end is probably a more plausible theory for this Gosling phenomenon than anything based in the recent roles he’s taken.

    * One thing Gosling did get a lot of attention/praise for was the statement he made about the MPAA’s double standards in depicting female sexuality in films (http://www.hugoschwyzer.net/2011/01/26/tell-me-how-i-should-be-on-blue-valentine-and-ryan-goslings-preternatural-sex-appeal/). And that’s certainly a thing he should be applauded for, but it’s interesting that it does coincide so well with this authors description of Gosling’s Jacob character in Crazy, Stupid, Love.


    On the arguably most talented actor of his generation thing: He’s certainly good. But it’s almost an unanswerable question whether there are better actors. The way we select people to be famous is a cascading and self-fulfilling prophecy. Which actors get lucky at a casting call and get to go from acting on off-broadway plays or mfa acting programs into Hollywood is such a completely arbitrary and faddish thing. I guess of the handful of people we get to consider ‘actors of our generation’, we could do a lot worse.

  5. Jonathan H. says:

    My point is that all great actors should aspire to be “selfless” chameleons and have the ability to disappear into their roles.

    What’s interesting about Ryan Gosling as a cultural phenomenon among a certain educated class is that his fans (particularly women and man-crushing dudes) use him as a blank canvas to project their ideal modern male fantasy object–a man who is handsome, sexy, intelligent, educated, strong, hip, and fashionable, but also authentic and sensitive and feminist. I don’t think it’s necessary a myth he’s created of himself, but his public persona or image has basically been deliberately co-opted by his fans. And there’s a definitely certain sense of irony or tongue-in-cheekness to it. It’s a very knowing and self-aware idol worship.

    But I don’t think his appeal has to do with any sort of blankness to him, but rather that he is a really good-looking dude who comes across as highly intelligent and hip and he built his career making hip indie movies. I think James Franco could’ve played a similar role as a sex symbol for the thinking woman (or gay man), except that he started his career doing more mainstream work, so he lacks a certain indie cred or so-called “hipster” authenticity, which he’s trying to make up for in spades.

    An interesting article could probably be written (if it hasn’t already been written) on the connections between hipsterism, authenticity, and artifice as it relates to Ryan Gosling.


    By the way, the Hugo Schwyzer article you linked to nails his appeal.

  6. Diana L. says:

    Johnny – you think Ryan Gosling is “arguably the best actor of his contemporaries”? What about Leonardo DiCaprio?

  7. Jonathan H. says:

    Maybe it’s because he’s been acting for longer, but I always feel like Leo is part of an older group of actors. I don’t think Leo and Ryan are competing for roles.

    And I do think that Ryan Gosling is a better actor than Leo. I think Leo has a bit of a “I’m so tortured” shtick that creeps into all his roles. If he’s not careful, he just might turn into Sean Penn.

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