If you spend much time on the internet, you’ve probably come across the excellent Feminist Ryan Gosling meme created by Vulture contributor Danielle Henderson. Even though it’s been around for years, it’s popped up again in the last few days: The Washington Post, UProxx, and a bunch of other outlets have run stories stating that a new study shows that the meme makes men more feminist. So what’s the deal?
It’s important to point out that this wasn’t a full-blown, peer-reviewed study; rather, it was a poster the authors, Linzi Williamson and Sarah Sangster, both PhD students in psychology at the University of Saskatchewan, presented at the Canadian Psychological Association conference last June (you can see it here — when researchers present a poster, it basically just means they’re offering up the findings of an experiment they haven’t written up as an article and submitted to a journal for peer review). For the experiment, they had 69 women and 30 men look at either one of the Gosling memes or a photo of Gosling without text, and then answer a few questions. One was simple: “Do you self-identify, or consider yourself to be a feminist?” The other questions were part of a slightly more complicated scale aimed at measuring respondents’ level of belief in, as the researchers put it on the poster, “Conservatism, Liberal Feminism, Radical Feminism, Socialist Feminism, Cultural Feminism, and Women of Colour Feminism.”
Williamson and Sangster found that the memes had no effect on the yes-or-no question, and no effect on women’s level of endorsement of the different forms of feminism. Among men, however, those in the meme group exhibited “significantly more endorsement for radical feminism … and marginally more endorsement for socialist feminism[.]”
So the meme works, right? It makes men more feminist? Well, not necessarily. A couple of things stick out here as potentially muddying the results.
For one thing, the control group wasn’t like most control groups. Think about it this way: The goal of the experiment is to test the potency of the Ryan Gosling feminist meme, so you want at least one group exposed to the meme and one group not exposed to the meme. A reasonable control group, then, might see feminist messages on a blank page, or feminist messages interposed on a random celebrity’s face. In this control group, though, participants just got Gosling’s face. Nothing else. They were sorta exposed to the meme — as Williamson pointed out in an email to me, “many people are familiar” with it already — so they didn’t constitute a true control group.
The question of what constitutes a “true” control group is slightly nerdy and depends on what, exactly, you’re testing. So in this experiment, you could also have a control group whose members read some neutral text or view a neutral image — in that case, you’d be testing the potency of the meme versus no exposure to feminist messaging at all. And a big, well-controlled experiment — one you couldn’t fairly expect Williamson and Sangster to do for what was, again, a poster rather than a full-blown study — would probably have at least one meme group, one group that saw feminist messaging but no Gosling, and one neutral control group.
There’s also the question of how long the effects last. Survey researchers have found that if they phrase questions about controversial issues in certain ways, they can briefly nudge respondents’ opinion in one direction or another. Maybe, among the members of the group that saw the meme, that’s what was going on here: They were exposed to an argument and the argument nudged them a bit. Since the control group didn’t see any argument, it’s a reasonable interpretation. In that case, it wouldn’t really be the meme doing the work, but rather the text. The interesting thing to test would be how long the difference observed by the researchers lasted: If, a week after exposure to the meme, it dissipated, then that would mean that from a persuasion standpoint the meme — or at least a onetime “dose” of it — isn’t all that different from other forms of briefly nudging text.
I am of course being a buzzkill here — this was still a fun and interesting study. But the question of how to change people’s beliefs is insanely complicated and interesting (check out this example pertaining to gay marriage that Science of Us covered in December), and people sometimes fall for the trap of thinking that messages that resonate for them and people like them will resonate with people on the other side — that is, with the people who need convincing the most.
But whether or not this study tells us much, there are still a million reasons to love Feminist Ryan Gosling. Think of what a wonderful way it is to introduce people to feminist ideas, to build online communities around these ideas, and so on. It went megaviral for a reason. The question of whether it actually changes people’s beliefs in a sustained way is only a tiny part of the meme’s appeal and usefulness.