The Notorious R.B.G.: How Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an unlikely pop culture icon
R.I.P. to the Notorious R.B.G. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is perhaps the best-known Supreme Court Justice in American history, an unlikely celebrity in a country where most people can't name a single member of the nation's highest court. Her death on Friday provoked a massive outpouring of grief, a show of mourning on a scale rarely if ever seen in response to a justice's passing. But more than that, Ginsburg held — and continues to hold — a space in pop culture completely unique to her, a fixture of memes, merchandise, and the cultural lexicon in a manner truly unprecedented for an American jurist. How, exactly, did that happen?
As only the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court (after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor), Ginsburg held a place as a feminist symbol bolstered by her lifelong advocacy for women's rights. Yet her pop-cultural stardom wasn't cemented until two decades into her tenure on the Court, with a series of strongly worded, tightly composed dissenting opinions. Many observers cite O'Connor's 2006 retirement, which left Ginsburg the only woman on the Court, as a key turning point in her judicial career. The next year, she read two stinging dissents aloud from the bench, then a rare move to signal intense disagreement with the Court's decision. The New York Times noted that the term would "be remembered as the time when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg found her voice, and used it."
In 2013, after another round of furious dissents — particularly in the landmark Shelby County v. Holder case, which gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act — NYU law student Shana Knizhnik launched the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr, riffing on the moniker of iconic rapper The Notorious B.I.G., who, like Ginsburg, was a native of Brooklyn. The internet, as it's wont to do, ran with it. A proliferation of memes and merchandise quickly ensued, with another dissenting opinion from Ginsburg, in the 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, boosting the viral sensation.
“The name is obviously a reference to Notorious B.I.G., who is this large, imposing rapper, a really powerful figure; and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is this 90-pound Jewish grandmother," Knizhnik told The New Republic that year. "The juxtaposition of the two made it humorous, but is also a celebration of how powerful she really is.”
The viral phenomenon became a full-blown cultural phenomenon over the next several years. Kate McKinnon debuted her impression of Ginsburg on Saturday Night Live in 2015, playing the justice as a foulmouthed rabble-rouser fond of lobbing "Gins-burns" at opponents. A documentary about Ginsburg (titled simply RBG) was released in 2018, along with a biopic, On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones as a young Ginsburg embarking on her legal career. Movies ranging from Deadpool 2 to Booksmart to The Lego Movie 2 gave her shout-outs.
But Ginsburg's iconic status was truly galvanized by Donald Trump's election in 2016. As the oldest justice on the bench and the de facto leader of the Court's left-leaning faction, Ginsburg became a champion for liberals who dreaded Trump's potential to shape the future of the Court. She was no longer merely a judicial hero; she was a symbolic barrier against a decades-long conservative Supreme Court majority. Her workout routine to stay fit and healthy soon became another part of the R.B.G. mythos.
For her part, Ginsburg — typically soft-spoken and reserved in public, despite her fiery dissents — usually spoke of her newfound status with demure amusement. "I haven’t seen anything that isn’t either pleasing or funny on the website,” she told Katie Couric of the "Notorious" Tumblr in 2014. “I think she has created a wonderful thing with Notorious R.B.G. I will admit I had to be told by my law clerks, what’s this Notorious, and they explained that to me, but the website is something I enjoy, all of my family do.” The same year, the justice said she had "quite a large supply" of "Notorious R.B.G." T-shirts, and that she gave them out as gifts.
Of course, Ginsburg's foremost concerns were always the law, human rights, and movement for change. Speaking at the Sundance premiere of RBG in 2018, the justice said, “I’d like to see this Court do the job that it has been doing for now well over 200 years, to do it in a way that’s faithful to the Constitution that I believe was made to govern us through the ages, for one generation to the next. I have said many times that our Constitution starts with the words, ‘We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.’ I hope I can continue to be part of making that more perfect union."
She also expressed her hope that more women would follow the path she blazed. “The more women who are out there doing things, the better off all of us will be for it," she said. "That’s something that my dear colleague Sandra Day O’Connor often said: the more women who are out there doing things, the more young women will have the courage to go on. And I am heartened by the number of women who will be in races for our Congress and governorships and state legislative positions. It was a favorite expression of Martin Luther King, Jr.: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’”
That's the true legacy of the Notorious R.B.G.: Doing her utmost to bend that arc toward justice, and inspiring others — through memes, dissents, or otherwise — to do the same.