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
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
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
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
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