Despite launching a website featuring Ryan Gosling that became an overnight hit, and recently publishing a book filled with Gosling’s broodingly sexy photos, Danielle Henderson is not a Ryan Gosling fan-girl. The New York native is actually a graduate student in women and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin and began the site as way to create “flashcards” to memorize complicated feminist theory.
After its first night on the web Feminist Ryan Gosling was featured on Jezebel, and soon after Henderson was getting calls for a book deal. We chatted with Henderson about Ryan Gosling’s masterful face-acting, the fans of FRG and the surprised reactions she gets when people find out she’s a black woman behind the whole thing.
You’re a native of New York. What was it like growing up?
I grew up in Warwick, NY which is about an hour away from Manhattan, but I was raised by my grandmother who is from Harlem. Feminism was never a word expressly used in my house, but all of the women in my family were extremely independent and strong. I was taught from an early age not to let my race or my gender stop me from doing anything. I used to read Sassy magazine with my grandma, and we would discuss the issues highlighted in there. I graduated from a really small high school where I was one of five black families, and I just couldn’t wait to get out of there. I went to college for a year and left and then worked a string of interesting jobs and traveled including working for the U.N and living in Alaska for four years.
You created the tumblr as a way to memorize some of the theory you were learning about and it became an overnight hit. What was your initial reaction?
I posted the site on a Friday and the next day my husband and I went out to buy groceries when my friend called me and said, ‘Hey did you know your site is being featured on Jezebel?’ To say that it was overnight is quite literal, but it’s still such a hard thing to wrap my mind around. In promoting the book I have had to look up some of the stats about the site, and so even though I know how many visitors I have everyday I still can’t believe it.
Are you still in your graduate program?
Yes, I am. I’m getting a masters in gender and women’s studies and I have a year left.
How do you find the time for school, the site and publishing a book?
I have a very regimented schedule. I only allow myself to be online for two hours everyday. As far as the site goes all of it comes from my homework or the theories that I’m currently studying. I actually wrote the book over the winter break because I knew I would have four weeks of time to devote to it without anything else. I read about 35 feminist theory books to have enough material for it.
You had a launch party for the book last week in New York City. What was it like meeting some of the people who follow the site in person?
It was wonderful, they are all so varied. There were a lot of professional people, men and young women especially. I even had a fan of the site from Croatia who was in New York on vacation, she told me that there are so many people in Croatia who love the site, which is really exciting. What I took away from the launch party was that the people who are visiting my site are intensely different people who cannot be pinned down by any stereotype and that’s great.
When you’ve spoken about the site previously you mentioned that it’s more of an outlet and is secondary to your schooling. Has that changed?
No, school and teaching, because I am also a TA, are my main priority. The site doesn’t really take me a long time to do because I use each post as like a flashcard of whatever theory I’m studying and then I Google images of Ryan Gosling to put alongside them. For me it’s fun, and it needs to stay fun. I have a lot of other intense things I have to read and do through the course of my study so if the site ever stopped being a fun thing I wouldn’t do it anymore.
What’s been the reaction of your peers and professors?
They have all been really supportive, but thankfully they don’t really talk about it or dote on it.
Are people ever surprised when they learn that you are a woman of color?
Yes. When it came out that the book was being launched it seemed like thousands of people were saying, ‘I had no idea she was black, this changes the whole thing for me’. I’m not sure if that reaction is because I am a black woman and that’s not typically equated with feminism or because I am using a white male’s photos to discuss feminist theory. But there are also the people who kind of miss the whole thing and will say, ‘This is great! Where did Ryan Gosling say this?’
You sort of hit on the point that feminism is not traditionally considered as being racially diverse. What have been your experiences?
There is a real problem with diversity in feminism right now because you have the same people that a lot of people don’t relate to talking about things in a way that no one understands. As someone who was raised in the eighties and nineties I see feminism as being in a really weird place right now. Right now feminism is in a place where it’s simultaneously stagnant and really fresh. Stagnant because of the same talking heads everywhere but really fresh because of the Internet, ‘zines and local meetups that people do. What is interesting about all of that is that feminists use media in a very traditional way, it’s not necessarily as revolutionary as it purports itself to be.
What do you think the book accomplished the most?
I really think the book serves to let people approach feminism in a way that they previously haven’t. For me this is the way I have always talked about feminism and it comes from a place where I can talk about these serious things and still be humorous, which I think people aren’t used to. My hope is that someone who would never even be interested in this topic will read the book and find that they enjoy it either because of what they learn or because they find some part of it humorous, especially young women.
How do you decide which Ryan Gosling photos to pair with certain theories?
It’s all driven by what I’m studying at the moment, but I basically will look through a series of photos of him and see which expression he has that most mirrors what I’ve written. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t necessarily find him attractive, which people tend to harp on and I think is missing the point. Just because I’m not ridiculously attracted to him or starstruck by him doesn’t mean that I don’t think he’s a wonderful actor. Part of why I chose him for the photos was because he is so expressive with his facial expressions and body language.
Obviously the goal of the project isn’t to meet Ryan Gosling, but if he were to reach out to you what would you hope he would say?
I hope he wouldn’t hate what I’m doing or feel like none of these are things he would actually agree with. I’ve brought thousands of feminists to his door and I think that’s pretty cool.
What’s the future for Feminist Ryan Gosling? Will it end after you’ve completed your studies?
It will definitely end and I think that it should. These things always have an expiration date, and I actually have an end date already chosen though I’m not going to share it publicly yet. Even though I have loved doing the site I don’t want to be tied to it creatively forever, and the longer you take to sever yourself from something the harder it becomes.
Hey girls, Feminist Ryan Gosling: Feminist Theory (as Imagined) from Your Favorite Sensitive Movie Dude is available on Amazon or indiebound.com.