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Binders full of memes

Is the phrase "binders full of women" actually funny?

First, in case you missed the second presidential debate: a young lady was asking the candidates what they would do to correct pay inequality for women. Obama said some stuff about the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. Since Republicans didn't support that bill, Romney had to resort to telling an anecdote about his term as governor of Massachusetts, when "we made a concerted effort to go out and find women . . . to become members of our cabinet."

Here is the offending sentence: "I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks?' and they brought us whole binders full of women."

There are a few reasons why Romney's answer wasn't very good. One of them is that it ignored the young lady's question: he just used it as an opportunity to portray himself as a good guy who cares about females. (In fairness, most of the responses by both candidates in the debate departed from the actual questions in order to speak generally upon the "the larger issues" at play.)

Another reason is that Romney's story was false. In fact, the "binders full of women" were created independently by MassGAP, an organization dedicated to putting women into leadership roles in the state government. This happened in 2002, before Romney was elected; when Romney took office in 2003, the binders were waiting on his desk. He proceeded to appoint several women to senior-level positions, but he restricted them mostly to unimportant agencies, and their numbers steadily declined until the end of Romney's term. Both his predecessor and his successor in Massachusetts did better in this area.

Still, this doesn't answer the question: is the phrase "binders full of women" really all that amusing? The reason I ask, of course, is that moments after Romney uttered it, the term went viral on the Internet. Twitter mocked him for it. Bloggers mocked him for it. A Facebook page called "Binders Full of Women" currently has about 350,000 likes. Basically, everyone reacted as though Romney's syntax had generated some comically awful blunder.

A "meme," according to Merriam-Webster, is "an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture," but nowadays the word almost always refers specifically to something funny (or ostensibly funny) that people pass along on the Internet, the pleasure of which comes in large part from the sense of community we get from sharing an "inside joke."
The first-ever presidential debate Internet meme probably was 2004's "You forgot Poland." John Kerry had noted the absence of international support during Bush's invasion of Iraq, claiming that only Great Britain and Australia had stood behind the United States. Bush's rebuttal, which was funny because, although true, it was lamer than saying nothing at all would have been, was "Actually, he forgot Poland." I guess MySpace and AIM blew up.

Is "binders full of women" comparable? I have to admit that the phrase passed unnoticed by me when Romney said it. If you stare at it for a while, it does seem like an odd locution, sort of. You can force yourself to imagine an enormous Trapper Keeper in which women are held hostage. Moreover, the word "binders" does bring to mind the thought of women being "bound" - i.e., fettered by social prejudice, which conservatives have, on the whole, been reluctant to attempt to correct. So, yeah, Romney probably should have said "binders full of women's résumés" or something. But - let's be honest - the phrase isn't really all that striking.

Some Democrats are using it as a way to draw attention to Romney's poor record of hiring women at Bain Capital. I started reading about this the day after the debate, though: on Tuesday night, I sensed only comic glee, and maybe a little relief that, with the event already almost half finished, Romney had finally produced a (kind of) meme-able moment, akin to the previous debate's "#SaveBigBird."

I've lately seen a bunch of articles expressing the notion that if on debate night you're not keeping at least one eye on Twitter as the candidates duke it out, you're not really getting the full, modern political experience. On the TV, all you hear is the silly junk that Obama and Romney are selling, but with Twitter, you get the expert commentary and expert humor that make the whole thing worth your time. On the other hand, it might be argued that the main problem with TV debates is that they consist of two-minute sound bites, not substantive arguments - an issue that Twitter, with its 140-character limit, surely is the technology least equipped to fix.

The desire to make everything we watch into a meme is a desire not for more substance but for less. Some people may blame "The Daily Show" for convincing us that politics is really all about locating ridiculous behaviors in our opponents, stripping them of context, and converting them into quick, easy particles of entertainment, but the urge to transform something larger into something smaller and more e-shareable - a vacation becomes an Instagram, an experience becomes a status update - goes way beyond politics.

Rarely does our desperation to create memes become as transparent as it has during this "binders full of women" episode. As a political tactic, it probably has backfired: surely all the unhip people (correctly) view our pouncing on Romney's innocent phrase as smart-alecky liberal smugness, an alienating PC cruelty. As a way of producing Internet content, I guess it's worked, insofar as liberals scattered across the nation were able to go bed on October 16 feeling that they'd taken part in an important shared entertainment experience and had not just spent the evening alone watching two guys say the same stuff they've been saying all year.

Tagged: Binders full of women, memes