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Big Bird and Binders: Social Media’s Badge of Honor

October 19, 2012 | Elizabeth F.

If asked which topics in the first two presidential debates resounded most with average Americans, you might be tempted to answer Big Bird or “binders full of women” before you picked Benghazi or bailouts. Though many are frustrated with the undying focus on silly memes that poke fun at some of the conservative arguments put forth during the presidential debates, those who sympathize with such arguments should see the humorous media attention as a badge of honor.

Soon after Governor Romney’s reference to Big Bird in the first debate, memes and photos of an unemployed Big Bird spread like wildfire through the blogosphere. During the second debate, within ninety seconds of Governor Romney’s “binders full of women” comment, bindersfullofwomen.com appeared on the Internet and the Wednesday morning almost 300,000 people had “liked” the “Binders Full of Women” Facebook page.

The largely young and liberal social media wonks responsible for the viral images of Big Bird and “binders full of women” are no dummies.  They realize that the arguments and topics that Big Bird and binders represent are core issues facing our country during this election. Those who have perpetuated the memes and images also realize that what Governor Romney actually said regarding these core issues – aside from some awkward phrasing – represented a solid argument for conservatism. Rather than focus on the content of these arguments, however, the Big Bird/binders memes have sought to distract the American people from valid arguments worthy of discussion. In doing so, however, social media – whether it has intended to or not – has actually affirmed the conservative arguments behind the jokes as worthy enough to combat.

Allow me to elaborate. If what Governor Romney said about Big Bird and “binders full of women” were not important, social media would have no reason to substitute a focus on the underlying message of his arguments for a surface-level focus on his phrasing. If he had promoted policies that advanced the status quo, social media would not have needed to silence them with humorous images. And, if what he said had not threatened radical feminists, then they would not have felt the need to retaliate via social media. Perhaps social media jumped on Big Bird and binders because the underlying topics of government spending and female empowerment truly resonate with people who want to see change.

Those who disagree with a conservative take on these issues see the need to silence the arguments by turning attention to something else, something funny. That is precisely how humor works; when something is slightly uncomfortable, we laugh to draw attention away from it. What is so uncomfortable about firing Big Bird or looking through documents of qualified women for hire? I would argue that it is not necessarily the phrasing that made liberal social media bloggers jump on Governor Romney’s phrasing, but the strength of the arguments behind them. But, thanks to effective social media campaigns, you probably don’t remember them.

Let’s review.  Governor Romney referenced Big Bird when he explained his “test” for determining which government programs he would cut: “Is the program so critical it is worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?” According to Governor Romney’s argument, it is immoral for the government to be spending money borrowed from China so that future generations are stuck with an insurmountable amount of debt. Thus, more important than the termination of Big Bird, is the belief that future generations should not be buried in debt to China.

Similarly, right after Governor Romney described the “binders full of women” that he used to find qualified females to join his cabinet while he was governor of Massachusetts, he explained the importance of providing “flexible schedules” so women can spend time with their children and families if they desire. He also went on to describe that women want opportunities for jobs just as men do. Focusing on building the economy then will allow for more opportunities for both women and men.

Are these two arguments – both moral and economic arguments – so uncomfortable that we need to laugh at them? Only if we are threatened by them. Whether we agree with Governor Romney’s arguments or prefer the policies of President Obama, it is important we understand the underlying messages, not the surface-level language, of both. By perpetuating the Big Bird and “binders full of women” memes, those in the social media realm who are threatened by conservative arguments have given them a badge of honor by conceding that they are worthy enough arguments to require a distraction.

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