ISSN: 1740-4622 (Print) 1740-4630 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rcmt20
“Nobody puts baby in a binder”: Using memes to
teach visual reason
To cite this article: Emily Stones (2017) “Nobody puts baby in a binder”: Using memes to teach
visual reason, Communication Teacher, 31:3, 137-142, DOI: 10.1080/17404622.2017.1314525
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17404622.2017.1314525
Published online: 25 Apr 2017.
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COMMUNICATION TEACHER, 2017
VOL. 31, NO. 3, 137–142
ORIGINAL TEACHING IDEAS—SINGLE
“Nobody puts baby in a binder”: Using memes to teach visual
Department of Communication, Regis University, Denver, Colorado, USA
Courses: Visual Rhetoric, Political Communication, Media and
Objective: Students trace a social hierarchy created through the
visual reason of memes.
Received 6 May 2016
Accepted 22 July 2016
Introduction and rationale
Images are the foundation of contemporary life, and the communication field is frequently
called upon to make sense of how images affect our sociopolitical environment. Our students possess valuable skills and knowledge of social media and other new technologies,
but because of their intimacy with these technologies, they sometimes lack the reflective
space that is needed to assess them critically.
Visual rhetoric scholarship offers us a rich and nuanced understanding of visual
culture, as academics have vigorously responded to what Mitchell (1994) calls the “pictorial turn” in Western societies, one that alters not just our modes of representation (from a
primarily linguistic/written culture to a highly visual one), but also changes the nature of
power structures, ways of knowing, and our means of communicating with others. Indeed,
scholars often emphasize the primacy of images in our meaning-making activities of
everyday life and the visual imperative such actions demand (Birdsell & Groarke,
2007; Debord, 1994; Finn, 2012; Hartley, 1992; Hill & Helmers, 2004; Olson, Finnegan,
& Hope, 2008; Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles, 2002).
Hariman and Lucaites’ (2007) articulation in No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs,
Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy of how a visual democracy functions best captures
the concept of visual reason.1 They claim that democratic discussion and decision-making
takes an epideictic form, and political issues must be negotiated through the social
relations we imagine ourselves as part of, even if we never come face to face with those
we perceive as fellow members. The authors explain,
The visual public sphere activates public identity as a web of associations rather than as structure of arguments. Arguments are not erased, but they have to work through social networks
… One sees who is being discussed, and the act of seeing them activates one’s own sense of
social awareness. Critical reason is intertwined with social reflection. Images become mirrors,
arguments are set in the context of social knowledge, and conclusions have to fit with or
motivate adjustment of one’s own relationships with others. (p. 301)
CONTACT Emily Stones
© 2017 National Communication Association
Their assertions about societal dynamics magnify the importance of viewer-viewed
relationships and expand on the notion that images “choreograph a space between the
observer and what is observed” (Garland-Thomson, 2001, p. 339), or what Mitchell
calls the “recognition scene” that frames much of the discipline’s analysis and theory
(p. 33). The concept of visual reason also articulates the connections between social
order, the performance of mainstream values, and the complexity of verbal-visual
When initially presented, visual reason can appear abstract and amorphous, and therefore potentially confusing to students. Concretizing this concept through a hands-on
activity helps students explore the impact of perceived relations and social order in political discourse. It also enhances student reflection about the interplay of cultural knowledge
and visual communication in their own decoding of political issues and events.
Prior to class, the instructor spends some time browsing sites such as Know Your Meme to
get a sense of political meme series that are familiar to the students. Two meme series that
have proven to work well in past iterations of this exercise include “Binders Full of
Women” (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/binders-full-of-women) and “Casually
Pepper Spray Everything Cop” (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/casually-pepperspray-everything-cop). The instructor makes copies of 8–10 memes in each series to distribute during the activity.
The activity typically takes 45 minutes from start to end. Using “Binders Full of
Women” as an initial example, the instructor shows a clip from a 2012 presidential
debate to contextualize Mitt Romney’s controversial response to a question about
pay equity for women (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfXgpem78kQ). The
instructor asks students to speculate why some critics deemed his statement about
“binders full of women” inappropriate. Students may struggle at first, as the
comment does not sound overtly offensive in the original context. They will eventually
suggest it is somewhat objectifying or does not pay homage to the skills these female
employees had to offer.
One way to introduce the meme series (see Figure 1) is to describe the images as individual interpretations of Romney’s statement, contextualized within mainstream cultural
knowledge. The instructor emphasizes that the purpose of the exercise is not to judge
Romney’s statement as prejudicial or not, but to see how members of the public made
sense of Romney’s statement by imagining him within a particular social order. To start
the analysis, the instructor distributes the memes to groups of three or four students
and asks them to rank Romney’s “treatment of women” in comparison to other cultural
figures. Students can create a numbered list or lay out the images in a visual hierarchy.
When the class reconvenes, they compare their rankings. Students will organize the
figures differently, depending on their age, knowledge, and differences in perceptions,
Figure 1. Example memes from “Binders Full of Women” series.
but certain themes will emerge, especially in the upper and lower echelons of their hierarchies (see Appendix A). The instructor asks students to explain their rationale and
debriefs the exercise (see the next section).
The second meme series is inspired by a 2011 incident at the University of California,
Davis, in which campus police officers pepper sprayed Occupy UC Davis student
protesters that refused to leave the campus. The instructor shows students a video of
the events (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmJmmnMkuEM) and explains the
context. The instructor asks students to formulate an argument against Officer Pike’s
actions, which transpires as something similar to “his actions are an unnecessarily
cruel retaliation against a peaceful protest.” The instructor gives each group sample
memes from the series and asks them to create a hierarchy that charts “how cruel”
his actions were compared to other cultural figures. Many memes will show Officer
Pike spraying children and animals, emphasizing his abuse of power on “innocent”
victims. The more remarkable memes will feature Pike in an already distressing
picture (such as in a WWII concentration camp), spraying someone who has already
been wronged and therefore suggesting that Pike is even worse than the original
Binders full of women
After completing the first activity, the instructor asks students to revisit their initial assessment of Romney’s statement. What do students learn from the meme series in regards to
valuing, respecting, and empowering women in meaningful ways? Compared to someone
like Ryan Gosling, where did Romney go wrong with his comments? The instructor points
out that the memes make Romney’s statement seem more offensive than they originally
perceived. Are the memes a fair representation of his comment or his character? What
happens when we use cultural figures and create social order to “discuss” women’s
rights? What gets left out of this conversation?
Pepper spray cop
After students complete the second activity, the instructor informs students of how the
incident played out, with Officer Pike receiving countless emails and phone calls, many
of them death threats (http://www.davisenterprise.com/local-news/ucd/pike-uc-reach38059-workers-comp-agreement/) and that UC Davis spent $175,000 to clean up their
online presence after the incident (http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-ucdavis-pepper-spray-20160414-story.html). The instructor asks students if they are surprised at the contempt Pike received after seeing the memes in which Pike is portrayed
as worse than, for example, Godzilla, Hitler, and Pontius Pilate. The instructor questions
if the memes helped to clarify or expand the students’ own thinking on the events. Does
Officer Pike’s punishment (i.e. social castigation) fit the crime? Did the meme take on a life
of its own? When are the memes more about injustice and the abuse of power and less
about Officer Pike’s specific actions? The instructor spends time reflecting about how political issues are expressed in contemporary culture and the benefits and drawbacks of using
memes—and the relations they (re)create—to inform political discussion and decision
In addition to teaching visual reason and how arguments travel through and by the
relations articulated in these images, this debriefing is an excellent opportunity to reinforce
concepts the instructor may have covered in class.
Images act as enthymemes, in which the audience fills in reasoning, claims, and evidence to make sense of an implied argument (Blair, 2004).
The movement and dissemination of images are important, as circulation changes the
messages’ meaning and impact (Finnegan, 2003; Johnson, 2007).
Memetic arguments stem from “visual commonplaces” and “digital topoi,” or the represented collective memories and cultural knowledge the public is presumed to understand (Hariman & Lucaites, 2007, p. 2; Sci & Dewberry, 2014, p. 232).
In political communication contexts, the claim that logic and rationality assist, but do not
determine political decision making sets the stage for perspectives that start with similar
proclamations, such as Lakoff’s (2004) emphasis on metaphors and framing.
The meme exercise allows the instructor to “bring it all together” and cement the paradigmatic shift students need to experience in order to process the implications of our
Memes are banal and humorous, and their significance sneaks up on students. After this
exercise, students have told me that they will “never look at memes in the same way.” I
have completed a variation of this exercise four times in visual communication courses,
and always at the end of the semester. At that point, the memes provide a fresh lens
through which to review concepts we explored all semester. During the exercise, students
gasp, chuckle, and click their tongues, demonstrating their embodied engagement in the
material. Anytime we can laugh and learn simultaneously in class, this instructor is pleased.
1. I use the term visual reason to encompass the sense-making processes explained in this essay.
None of the authors cited explicitly use this term.
Notes on contributor
Emily Stones received her Ph.D. from Indiana University and is a faculty member at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Her primary research interests include non-profit fundraising rhetoric,
disability visual activism, and political image-making, topics which greatly inform some of her
favorite courses to teach on disability culture and political communication.
References and suggested readings
Birdsell, D. S., & Groarke, L. (2007). Outlines of a theory of visual argument. Argumentation and
Advocacy, 43, 103–113.
Blair, J. A. (2004). The rhetoric of visual arguments. In C. A. Hill & M. Helmers (Eds.), Defining
visual rhetorics (pp. 41–61). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Debord, G. (1994). The society of the spectacle (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). New York, NY: Zone
Books. (Original work published 1967)
Finn, J. M. (2012). Visual communication and culture: Images in action. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford
Finnegan, C. A. (2003). Picturing poverty: Print culture and FSA photographs. Washington, D.C.:
Garland-Thomson, R. (2001). Seeing the disabled: Visual rhetorics of disability in popular photography. In P. K. Longmore & L. Umansky (Eds.), The new disability history: American perspectives (pp. 335–374). New York, NY: New York University.
Hariman, R., & Lucaites, J. L. (2007). No caption needed: Iconic photographs, public culture, and
liberal democracy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
Hartley, J. (1992). The politics of pictures: The creation of the public in the age of popular media.
Hill, C. A., & Helmers, M. H. (2004). Defining visual rhetorics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Johnson, D. (2007). Mapping the meme: A geographical approach to materialist rhetorical criticism. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 4(1), 27–50.
Lakoff, G. (2004). Don’t think of an elephant: know your values and frame the debate: The essential
guide for progressives. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). Picture theory: Essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago.
Olson, L. C., Finnegan, C. A., & Hope, D. S. (2008). Visual rhetoric: A reader in communication and
American culture. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Parry-Giles, S. J., & Parry-Giles, T. (2002). Constructing Clinton: Hyperreality and presidential
image-making in postmodern politics. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Sci, S. A., & Dewberry, D. R. (2014). Something funny? The Laughing Joe Biden meme as digital
topoi within political argumentation. In C. Palczewski (Ed.), Disturbing argument: Selected
works from the 18thNCA/AFA Alta Conference on argumentation (pp. 232–237). New York,
How Stories Argue: The Deep Roots of Storytelling in Political Rhetoric
Author(s): Andrew Leslie
Source: Storytelling, Self, Society , Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 2015), pp. 66-84
Published by: Wayne State University Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.13110/storselfsoci.11.1.0066
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How Stories Argue
The Deep Roots of Storytelling in Political Rhetoric
Storytelling has long been an important part of both campaigning and
creating and maintaining community. However, the relationship between
stories and rational argument has been problematic in the study of public
moral debate. The question remains unsettled: How do stories argue? How
do stories have a persuasive role in political rhetoric? Rather than the view
that narrative reasoning is based in a different paradigm of reasoning, I
argue that the persuasive use of stories goes back to early rhetorical training
and that stories have always been used along with rhetorical argument as
part of persuasive discourse. Vladimir Propp’s work on the morphology
of folk- and fairy tales demonstrates that stories use topics, or topoi, in a
manner similar to those used to generate lines of argument in rhetoric. I
offer four aspects of narrative that affect the persuasive reception of stories:
performance, adaptation, context, and iconicity. These aspects of rhetorical
storytelling, combined with the topoi of the story, give us a new analytical
framework for evaluating the persuasive potential of political storytelling.
It was said in the old days that every year Thor made a circle around Middle
Earth, beating back the enemies of order. Thor got older every year, and the
circle occupied by gods and men grew smaller. The wisdom god, ‘Woden,’ went
out to the king of the trolls, got him in an arm lock, and demanded to know of
Storytelling, Self, Society, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2015), pp. 66–84. Copyright © 2016 by Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI 48201
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Leslie n 67
him how order might triumph over chaos.
“Give me your left eye,” said the king of the trolls, “and I’ll tell you.”
Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye. “Now tell me.”
The troll said, “The secret is, Watch with both eyes!”1
he author and critic John Gardner used this mythic anecdote as an allegory
of art and criticism. The artist and critic beat back the forces of chaos, but
those multiply while Thor’s hammer gets heavier to wield every year. In On
Moral Fiction, Gardner uses the hammer on postmodern writers such as William
Gass for spending their talents on fiction that glories only in self-referential irony,
undercutting characters and themes that might strike an ethical chord in their
audience—that might, in short, have a persuasive moral effect.
There has been much speculation over the years about how stories function
persuasively, that is, how they argue. That stories, or to use the more academic
term “narratives,” have persuasive impact has long been understood.2 Yet the
relationship of stories to rational argument structures has to date been rather
muddled. There are a number of ways to approach this relationship, which I
explore in this essay.
There is also broad agreement that narrative is important in politics, though
just exactly how may be somewhat uncertain. In its recent preliminary analysis
of the 2014 election, the Democratic Party found that, while their policies find
favor with the American people, the Republicans create a better narrative, which
makes them more attractive. Thus the analysis suggests the creation of a “national
narrative project” that will “create a strong values-based national narrative that
will engage, inspire, and motivate voters to identify with and support Democrats”
(“Democratic National Committee”). Narrative seems to be the balm in Gilead
that will heal all political ills.
Stories have long been used for persuasive intent, yet the relationship of narrative to argument in public moral debate has remained unsettled. How do stories
argue? This essay addresses that question starting from Walter Fisher’s influential
essay “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm.” Fisher, drawing from
Kenneth Burke, posits two dimensions of judgment that audiences use in evaluating whether narratives offer “goo ...
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