It’s kind of breathtaking when the entire Internet seizes on the same thing at the same moment, but that’s what happened Tuesday night during the second presidential debate, when “binders full of women” became a meme, a website, a Twitter account, a Facebook page, an Instagram, a tumblr, a Pinterest board, and a sought-after boutique gift item on Etsy about 45 seconds after the words came out of Mitt Romney’s mouth.
All day Wednesday and Thursday, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were jam-packed with Photoshopped pictures and links to reviews of binders on Amazon and all manner of commentary on the phrase, be it graphic, literal, or metaphorical. It is kind of amazing how quickly something can catch onto the popular imagination in the digital age.
I was watching the debate on a 20-minute DVR delay, and at some point early on I took a peek at Twitter to see what all the funny people I follow were saying about the candidates’ performances. They were all (ALL) talking about Binders Full of Women. I found this puzzling, because I had not yet reached that moment in the debate, but when I got there, I was still puzzled. What, exactly, is so fascinating about this, this… I don’t even know what to call it. Slip of the tongue? Misstatement? I feel like “odd formulation” is the best way to put it.
The candidates were asked what they plan to do to ensure equal pay for women in the workplace. The questioner mentioned that women are still, in 2012, paid 78% of what their male counterparts earn on average. President Obama immediately pointed to the first piece of legislation passed under his administration, the Lily Ledbetter Act, which gave women (or minorities, or whoever) greater flixibility in filing a wage-discrimiation claim against their employer. It was sort of a half-dodge, because he didn’t say what he’ll do IN THE FUTURE to move gender pay equity forward, he at least addressed the topic.
When it was Romney’s turn to speak, he spoke of his efforts as an incoming Governor in Massachussetts to hire more women for his Cabinet, and so he contacted a women’s group and asked for qualified prospects and was given, in his words, “binders full of women.”
Now, admittedly, this was a really weird way to put it, not least because Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and as anyone who suffered through the HBO series Big Love will remember, fundamentalist Mormons (which Romney is not, so far as we know) choose their child brides from a binder full of women called a “Joy Book,” with each girl’s headshot, accompanied by photos of their hands and feet (fundamentalists evidently have even bigger issues than polygamy). But it certainly didn’t change what Romney was saying, which was that he asked for women applicants and got a whole stack of resumes.
Regardless, the giant hive-mind of the Internet locked onto the phrase the way my dog locks onto his tug toy, with a clear sense of relish that felt, to me, a little unseemly. Because, first of all, that odd formulation was like the fourth strangest thing about Romney’s answer to the question. The fact that he just straight-up didn’t answer the question (“What are you going to do to ensure fair pay for women?”) suggests that he has no answer to the question because he’s never given it a moment’s thought.
The fact that the story he told about valiantly marching into a headwind of chauvinism and returning with a hard-won set of women’s resumes was actually more than a little self-aggrandizingly revised (an activist women’s group actually initiated the effort, and presented Romney with the binders in question unbidden) suggests that, once again, Romney will say anything to anyone if he thinks it will help his cause — but there are much, much stronger examples of this principle on the record already.
The fact that, after 25 years in the high-finance business in Boston, the liberal (and, one assumes, gender-equality) capital of the U.S. (if not the world), and was still not aware, either by direct contact or networking connections, of any women qualified to serve in his cabinet points to some deeply ingrained gender issues in the man. Are they an artifact of his Mormon upbringing? Of a ‘Billionaire Boys Club’ mentality? I don’t know, but that’s more interesting to me than “binders full of women.”
To be fair, Romney didn’t just leaf through these binders and ogle the feet (or is that the other kind of binders?) — he had a good record of hiring equality in the Massachussetts Statehouse, not appreciably worse than Obama’s as president.
There are two problems with this meme: it doesn’t score any real political points, and more importantly, it really isn’t very funny. Certainly not funny ha-ha.
This whole thing reminds me of a few months back when Obama’s “You didn’t build that” was taken out of context and blown up into a meme of its own. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are populated by very few (vocal) conservatives, so I can only imagine, but I’m sure that the days after “You didn’t build that” were as action packed for Righties’ feeds as the last couple days have been for mine.
Everyone knew that Obama wasn’t actually saying that business owners didn’t build their businesses. He was saying that businesses need the infrastructure that government provides — roads, bridges, water supply, the Internet — in order to function. But Right-wingers played dumb and decided to pretend that he had said something he hadn’t said, in order to win that week’s news cycle. It was really disheartening and depressing to see the whole Republican convention built around this, even more so because every single speaker who referenced it (which is almost all of them) is smart enough to know what Obama was really saying, and that they were willfully misrepresenting it to score cheap points. It was a low point in the political discourse of the last 25 years — certainly not as low as the Band-Aids with the purple hearts on them in 2004, which was one of the few things in politics that actually made me viscerally angry — but a low point.
This is not nearly as bad as either of those, but that’s what Lefties are doing now with this “binders full of women” remark. Does anyone really think Romney has a Joy Book, or really thinks women can be kept in binders, or that he’s wildly sexist, or that he sees women as objects or commodities, or that they should be literally bound, or whatever? Or is that just the nearest cudgel to beat him with?
“You didn’t build that,” even though it was out of context and willfully misinterpreted by Obama’s critics (to use a nice word), provided them with real live recorded video proof, straight from Obama’s mouth, of all the awful things they’ve long imagined about him that are in no way reflected by his actual record: that he’s a Communist, that he’s a Socialist (not exactly the same thing, by the way), that he hates business, etc. They knew deep down that it wasn’t true, that it wasn’t really what he said, but they were so excited to have something to use against him they went ahead and did it with a relish that was unseemly. “Binders full of women” is giving Lefties the same thing: though his record does not particularly reflect it, Romney just has to be virulently anti-woman because ALL REPUBLICANS are anti-woman, and here finally is the proof!
There are a whole lot of real on-the-record reasons — policy positions, past track record, campaign promises, temperament, magic underwear — to vote against Mitt Romney, as the other 96 ½ minutes of the debate plainly showed. (I’m sure my friends who prefer Romney would say the same thing about Obama.) For example: Romney is on the record saying his economic plan is that once he’s elected, the economy will improve just because the business community will like him better than Obama, and he doesn’t actually have to do anything. Can’t we focus on things like that? It feels like the last three days the whole Left-wing Internet has been in a half crouch, arm fully extended to point a finger in Romney’s face, screaming “YOU SAID SOMETHING STUPID!! HAHAHA!! YOU SAID SOMETHING STUPID!!” with way, way too much glee.
Now, if the stupid thing he said were actually funny, that would be something else altogether. But it’s just not funny, or that revealing, or that offensive, and the fact that we all want this guy to lose doesn’t make it funnier/more revealing/more offensive. You’re crying wolf, just like the other guys. You’re exaggerating your outrage, just like the other guys. Aren’t we better than that?