The Secret of Gosling
by Masha Tupitsyn
Like everyone, I’ve been fascinated by Ryan Gosling for a long time. I’ve also been writing an essay about him for just as long. And like everyone—but maybe before everyone—I’ve found Gosling’s performances of masculinity undeniably interesting and alluring, though for different reasons at different times. I find him less interesting and convincing today, while a few things do still hold up. Last night I watched him host Saturday Night Live and made some new observations. Here is some of what I thought.
The secret of Ryan Gosling’s appeal–“beauty”
(which I’ve had moments of seeing myself, especially early on when he was:
- Heavily bearded in The Notebook, donning a crisp white shirt and red wool blanket to stand for mourning and infinite devotion.
- Strung out and thin in Half Nelson (the kind of thin that suits his thin face), brown haired, cheap rubber bands piled up on his wrist. 80s Casio watch on the other wrist. The kind I wore all through my 20s.
These are literally the two poles of my sexual tastes)
is his ability to package, a skill he likely earned from his years in the Mickey Mouse Club, where tweens are trained to imbibe and ape the gimmicks and moves of adult stardom. Like sexually suggestive beauty pageants for little girls.
If you look closely at Gosling’s face, a lot is kind of wrong, or not particularly/exclusively right: his eyes are too small. His nose too long for his all-long face. His lips are basically two thin lines. The shape of his clown-face too concave narrow. Sometimes his trademark smirk is just plain stupid. But he knows how to dress it all up. He knows how to accessorize his masculinity: how to contour it, move it, accent (there is literally his vocal accent, which is adopted and non-native) it, contextualize it, tailor (his tight-fitted clothes look like they’re made just for his body, his great thighs) it. And then there is his excellent craftwork—his acting. During his SNL appearance on December 5, 2015, he literally made himself, and the cast, laugh the entire time. He threw non-diegetic laughter like a wrench into his craftwork and into everyone else’s. And it’s not simply because he found it all too funny. As a highly gifted and skilled actor, he knows how to laugh and not laugh. When to laugh and not laugh. Actors know how to feign and control what they don’t really feel. Breaking character in every SNL skit was merely one of his tricks, which in this case was charm. For this particular job, he cared more about having fun than doing a good job. Or he already knows he can do a good—a great—job, so he chose to have fun instead.
When you look at Gosling you are actually looking at everything he likes and wants you to see, like a mise en abyme of masculinity that he uses to bolster and shape his own. Our ubiquitous desire for him is a meta-desire. His beauty is piecemeal—code and arrow for a glossary of tastes—both ours and his. He is an index of everything he wants you to think of and associate with him when you think of him, which is why you think of him. It’s a very 21st kind of reflexive desire and stardom. It’s a man-made man. Gosling is publicist, trainer, stylist, singer, and ad executive wrapped into actor wrapped up as your dream man. And stardom is authenticity wrapped as the right kind of artifice and that is just for you. Through these mirrored associations, he connotes the ultimate cross-purpose sexual appeal. Like Vogue’s best-of something list, Ryan Gosling is the ultimate ad campaign for a meta-masculinity that feels original and authentic in its final signified. That is, as Barthes noted in Image, Music, Text: the cultural that is always read as natural.
About the Author:
Masha Tupitsyn is a writer, critic, and multi-media artist. She is the author of the books Like Someone in Love: An Addendum to Love Dog (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), Love Dog (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), a multi-media art book, LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (ZerO Books, 2011), Beauty Talk & Monsters, a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007), and co-editor of the anthology Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights, 2009). The final installment of her immaterial trilogy is the sound film, Love Sounds, a 24-hour audio history of love in cinema (2015), which is being exhibited and screened both in the US and abroad. Her blog is: mashatupitsyn.