Memes are an obligatory part of the internet. They’re eagerly shared through Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and other on-line social media sites. They occasionally make it off-line, finding their way onto someone’s cubicle wall or refrigerator door. And I bet most people have had their mom innocently forward them a meme or two, most likely featuring a cat. Memes are everywhere.
One notable meme, and the interest of this post today, began in 2008, when writer Douglas Reinhardt was home sick (and more to the point, bored). He started a new site, featuring photos of actor Ryan Gosling in sexy poses, superimposing the words “hey girl” and a catchy phrase to follow. He says himself that he was inspired by R&B culture, cold medicine, and his inability to flirt,1 but whatever it was, it was inspired indeed. The site attracted a decent viewing but really took off in 2010 when Ryan Gosling himself was handed a couple of the images during an MTV interview and asked to read them aloud.2 He played along, and in poking a little fun at himself, instantly increased his appeal. Spin-off sites were created, of which the Feminist Ryan Gosling site is the most notable.
Today, there are Hey Girl sites created for feminists, librarians, Silicon Valley-ists, poli sci enthusiasts and, yes, Mormons. The latter is no surprise, seeing that Mormons are also an obligatory part of the internet. Their presence ranges from online ‘I’m a Mormon’ profiles, to personal blogs subtly but frequently linking to lds.org or featuring a ‘I believe’ button on the sidebar, to the sites that make up the Bloggernacle. So it probably does not surprise anyone that Mormons play at the meme game as enthusiastically as anyone else. A quick search turns up dozens of sites, and many are enthustiastically pinned and repinned on Pinterest.
Memes like the one above can be seen as a form of digital material culture. Material culture helps categorize religious experience, whether it’s through establishing and strengthening relationships, constructing meaning, or signifying allegiance to a (religious) subculture. Believers have always expressed their religion through physical means, for example by displaying a crucifix on the wall (or a framed Proclamation on the Family, for that matter) or handing down a prayer rug from father to son. There is a relational aspect inherent to material culture, which helps embed an individual in a particular social world. These memes clearly demonstrate this. Not only does the act of sharing memes strengthen community feeling and further collective memory, memes also act as a kind of digital bumper sticker, informing others (unasked) of your cultural loyalties. They signify allegiance to Mormon culture whether passed on through email, on Facebook, or on Pinterest.3
While there are many memes out there, I feel the Mormon Hey Girl meme is notable for several reasons. First of all, it appropriates secular culture and successfully remakes the meme (not an easy feat). Secondly, it lovingly mocks Mormon culture from within. And lastly, it creates a safe space to talk about important issues. But to fully understand the Mormon Hey Girl meme, we need to first talk about the original version. Although the pictures suggest otherwise, they aren’t really about Ryan Gosling.
Ryan Gosling just has the trifecta of Hollywood-star meme-worthy attributes: an endearing picture personality, talent, skill and dedication, and a charismatic, attractive, photogenic off-screen presence. His star image goes back to the 2004 movie The Notebook, in which he plays a sensitive, caring, handsome man. The movie had such an impact that it continues to overwhelm the more macho picture personalities of other movies Gosling made later, such as the 2011 movie Drive. And because Ryan Gosling is obviously talented, it’s easier to both esteem and admire him and to rationalize that admiration (and thus the hours spent on Tumblr). His dedication to his craft also spills over into his romantic life; fans imagine him to be as dedicated to a woman as he is to his acting.
Lastly, his charisma, confidence and visceral affect are important. The memes often play with Gosling’s looks, for instance spoofing the many pictures that feature Gosling shirtless.
But, and this is critical, the heart-racing part of these memes isn’t about you looking at the Gos; it’s about you imagining him looking at you. Like I said, the meme really isn’t about Ryan Gosling at all. Rather, the core lies in its audience, generally found to be straight, educated, perhaps politically liberal women. Although these viewers appreciate Gosling’s star image, they appreciate the fact that it can be appropriated even more. In short, the meme switches gears. No longer are women expected to let themselves be picked up with a corny phrase, instead, they are the active participants here, using the meme as a safe space in which they can vocalize (female, heterosexual) desire along with their peers. But negotiation is critical here. What makes the meme so successful is the fact that the viewer is mocked along with the (outdated) ideas about masculinity and femininity presented here. This is especially true of the feminist version. As Anne Helen Peterson writes, the memes “combine rigorous feminist theory with something that’s not quite so rigorous — it couples the theoretical stances we believe in with the negotiated way we live them.”4 The next image is an excellent example.
This is where the Mormon Hey Girl meme meets feminism. Many Mormons, like feminists in this regard, are aware of the gap that may be in place between their life in theory (say, Sunday right after Sacrament meeting) and their life in practice (say, Friday night after a long week at work). It’s all about negotiation.
Sure, some viewers might just like hearing Mormon-speak from a good-looking, famous guy. But I would argue that other viewers enjoy it all the more because it is inherently subversive to take a picture of a Hollywood star (even if he is wearing a shirt) and make him say Mormon things.
In all these memes, Ryan Gosling appears as the ideal boyfriend. He’s ordinary and self-deprecating enough that you can imagine yourself actually being lucky enough to hang out with him at the local cupcake place, but extraordinary enough that you know you’ll be the envy of every girl there. That you can really imagine the Gos saying all these things is one reason the memes work so well. In a Mormon context, that is reinforced by him having been raised Mormon–he is already likely to be familiar with Mormon language. And while he’s left Mormondom, what could be sexier than being the one whose love brought Ryan Gosling back to the Church?
In a culture that relies on (female) modesty so much, and constantly cautions females against being ‘walking pornography’, the hey girl phrases work precisely because they turn the gaze around. Ryan Gosling isn’t looking at you, you’re looking at him imagining him looking at you. Thus the power stays with the female viewer and the meme remains a safe space to vocalize female desire in a Mormon context. Here, again, we see negotiation between principles and real life: even if you subscribe to the law of chastity, everyone likes to sigh over a hot guy. The internet now offers you a place to do so in a uniquely Mormon way. Such is the power of material culture.
There is so much more that can be said about these memes than can be offered in a single (albeit lengthy) post. Therefore, I’ll leave you with one last point, namely that the “hey girl” meme has one additional function. It demonstrates that Mormons have found their niche on the internet and are ready to participate in broader conversations without losing their Mormon distinctiveness. With Mitt Romney still in the race for the presidency and the Mormon moment not yet waning, it’s not a moment too soon.
1Q&A With Douglas Reinhardt, Know Your Meme.com, http://knowyourmeme.com/blog/interviews/qa-with-douglas-reinhardt-creator-of-fk-yeah-ryan-gosling
3For more on material culture, I recommend Colleen McDannell’s excellent book, Material Christianity (Yale UP, 1995).
4“The Ryan Gosling Meme Has Jumped the Shark”, http://www.annehelenpetersen.com/?p=2847. More reading about the hey girl meme can be found here: http://viz.dwrl.utexas.edu/content/hey-girl-i-made-meme-you?page=112