How Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became the Supreme Meme Queen

The psychology behind the ‘Notorious RBG’ phenomenon.

Sady Doyle

A collection of memes featuring Justice Ginsburg (via NotoriousRBG.Tumblr.com)

Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg makes for a spec­tac­u­lar­ly unlike­ly Inter­net celebri­ty. She’s 82 years old, for one thing, born in 1933, two years before the Hoover Dam was com­plet­ed and just 13 years after women were guar­an­teed the right to vote. She’s instant­ly rec­og­niz­able— dis­tinc­tive glass­es, hair tight­ly pulled back, lace col­lar — but, unless volu­mi­nous black robes are your thing, she’s not eas­i­ly described as glam­orous.” Nor is she very hip; her abid­ing musi­cal pas­sion is opera. (Her ear­ly 1990s exer­cise class­es, she once not­ed, were set to loud music, sound­ing quite awful to me.”) She lives for work, and her work is writ­ing tech­ni­cal legal opin­ions in a style she describes as bland.” Indeed, unlike famous fem­i­nist fire­brands, Ruth Bad­er Ginsburg’s affect bears the marks of a time when women’s emo­tions and expres­sion were even more strict­ly policed than they are now; she is qui­et, polite, lady­like. She believes that being angry is a waste of time. Despite dis­agree­ing with fel­low Jus­tice Antonin Scalia on pret­ty much every impor­tant ques­tion of our day, Gins­burg is friends with him.

Ginsburg isn’t the first or the only female Supreme Court Justice, nor the only liberal justice, and she is far from the only justice ever to offer a memorable dissent. So how did she go from simple respect to cult status? How did a quiet 82-year-old opera fan become the face of feminist rage?

And yet. The kids are real­ly into Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg— aka Noto­ri­ous RBG, a play on the name of rap­per Noto­ri­ous B.I.G., and the title of a pop­u­lar Tum­blr by Shana Knizh­nik. Gins­burg has become a fem­i­nist and pop cul­ture icon. A quick Inter­net search turns up pic­tures of her face Pho­to­shopped onto Marvel’s Black Wid­ow and Game of Thrones’ Khaleesi. T‑shirts are sold, embla­zoned with You Can’t Han­dle the Ruth” and Ruth Badass Gins­burg.” (One fea­tures a car­toon of Gins­burg flip­ping off the view­er, with the word DIS­SENT” beneath it.) Planned Par­ent­hood and the Human Rights Cam­paign have both used her work as a start­ing point for their social-media cam­paigns. Natal­ie Port­man is slat­ed to play her in the biopic and Kate McK­in­non par­o­dies her on SNL (catch­phrase: You just got Gins­burned”). This is rel­a­tive­ly unprece­dent­ed for women in pol­i­tics. By way of con­text, googling Hillary Clin­ton memes” turns up an image of Hillary with the words WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT BENG­HAZI? YOU DIRTY WHORE SLAG” typed over her face. It’s one of the nicer options.

Noto­ri­ous RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg is also the title of Knizh­nik and Irin Carmon’s new biog­ra­phy of Gins­burg. It turns out that beneath the volu­mi­nous robe beats a heart of steel. RBG’s tough­ness” is not pure­ly men­tal: The woman has said she can func­tion on one or two hours of sleep, sur­vived can­cer twice with­out miss­ing work, and insist­ed on going to the gym when she had two bro­ken ribs. She also, sur­pris­ing­ly, makes fash­ion state­ments: Each of those lace col­lars has a mean­ing. When she wears the dis­sent col­lar,” watch out.

The book is light — visu­al and meme-inclu­sive, as befits its Tum­blr ori­gins— but, Car­mon tells me, the Inter­net has taught us that you don’t real­ly have to choose between being sub­stan­tive and hav­ing a lot of fun.”

And the sub­stance is there. RBG’s most impor­tant briefs and opin­ions are excerpt­ed at length and clean­ly anno­tat­ed. For exam­ple, the sen­tence In addi­tion to its reliance on a sex-based stereo­type no less invid­i­ous than one racial or reli­gious, the reg­u­la­tion invoked against peti­tion­er oper­ates as an uncon­sti­tu­tion­al infringe­ment upon petitioner’s right to pri­va­cy in the con­duct of her per­son­al life and her right to free exer­cise of her reli­gion” turns out to (a) for­ward the con­tentious idea that women can be treat­ed as an oppressed class in the eyes of the law, and (b) say, It’s not OK for your boss to fire you if you get pregnant.”

This, in part, is what has turned Gins­burg into an icon of dis­sent. The memes about her feroc­i­ty stem from the rel­a­tive­ly few dis­sents she has issued: against the 2006 gut­ting of the Vot­ing Rights Act, against the Hob­by Lob­by deci­sion, against Cit­i­zens Unit­ed. While it’s fun to imag­ine Gins­burg mow­ing down her ene­mies with tar­get­ed insults, the fact is these dis­sents are pow­er­ful pre­cise­ly because Gins­burg is so coop­er­a­tive and reserved. When the woman who has a rule against get­ting vis­i­bly angry sounds upset, then you know that some­thing is real­ly wrong,” Car­mon says. It’s not that she nev­er gets angry. She just thinks about the right time and place to show it publicly.”

This explains why Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg deserves your respect, but it doesn’t quite explain her Inter­net fan­dom. Gins­burg isn’t the first or the only female Supreme Court Jus­tice, nor the only lib­er­al jus­tice, and she is far from the only jus­tice ever to offer a mem­o­rable dis­sent. So how did she go from sim­ple respect to cult sta­tus? How did a qui­et 82-year-old opera fan become the face of fem­i­nist rage?

One answer, hint­ed at in Noto­ri­ous RBG, is that Ginsburg’s sto­ry is, in many ways, the sto­ry of women in the 20th cen­tu­ry. From an upbring­ing in which her moth­er told her nev­er to get angry, to rais­ing chil­dren while attend­ing law school, to being out­right asked by a pro­fes­sor why she was tak­ing a spot away from a male stu­dent by being there (she told him it was so that she could be a more under­stand­ing wife to her lawyer hus­band — a lie), to hav­ing a fem­i­nist click” moment while teach­ing young female stu­dents in the 1960s, to nego­ti­at­ing an egal­i­tar­i­an domes­tic rela­tion­ship with her hus­band (he did the cook­ing — after tast­ing hers, the deci­sion was inevitable), to earn­ing a seat on the Supreme Court, every gain made by women in the 20th cen­tu­ry has been played out in the gains made by Ruth Bad­er Ginsburg.

Peo­ple can see them­selves in her,” Knizh­nik tells me. She has gone through strug­gles and she hasn’t always had things easy, and her work eth­ic and her stance on life is to always get back up.”

Gins­burg is not just like us”; she is, obvi­ous­ly, extra­or­di­nary. That is not to say she is per­fect. Her deci­sion not to retire dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion has irked some pro­gres­sives who believe it leaves the Court open to a far-right takeover if the Democ­rats don’t win the next elec­tion. (“Any­body who thinks that if I step down, Oba­ma could appoint some­one like me, they’re mis­guid­ed,” she told Elle in 2014.) But she is a sym­bol of how far fem­i­nism has tak­en women in this cen­tu­ry, and of the hope that it might take them fur­ther still.

There is also this: Whether or not she want­ed to be, the Noto­ri­ous RBG is now per­ma­nent­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the act of dis­sent. For women and young peo­ple — both of whom tend to feel under­rep­re­sent­ed in the polit­i­cal process — it is inspir­ing to see a woman in the nation’s high­est court whose pow­er comes from say­ing no.” The iconog­ra­phy of the Noto­ri­ous RBG speaks to the hunger for a woman who can talk back to pow­er. Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg is the Woman Who Says No. And we need those women, bad­ly, in part because it is so very hard, and thank­less, and nec­es­sary, to say no” ourselves.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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