'RBG': How Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a legit pop-culture icon
The most looked-up-to person in Washington stands just 5-foot-1.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's withering dissents and unrivaled work ethic have made her a formidable force on the Supreme Court floor for more than two decades. The diminutive justice, who has barely cracked 100 pounds on the scale for most of her adult life, is a giant to liberals.
A badass in every sense of the word, Ginsburg has for decades defied the rules and chose, instead to make her own, leading to her historic appointment to the nation's highest court.
Like her start in the legal world, she's vowed to never be diminished by odds. In recent years as her health has made a turn for the worse, Ginsburg has shown no signs of slowing down, physically or mentally.
She survived colon cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009, received a stent in a heart procedure in 2014 and has been injured in previous falls. She had cancerous growths removed from her lung this week but still reportedly cast her vote on an asylum ruling from a hospital bed.
Ginsburg's perseverance has transformed her to legend status and her fierce attitude and push to break barriers has allowed her to become an icon to many liberals. You can see her face on aprons, T-shirts and even memes with the words "I dissent." Someone even photoshopped sunglassed on the 85-year-old Justice for a range of "Notorious RBG" products.
That attitude led to her being the star of an uplifting documentary, RBG, which charts her lifelong fight for women's and minorities' rights.
The film also explores the octogenarian's unlikely foray into the spotlight in recent years: as a regular character of Kate McKinnon's on Saturday Night Live; the subject of upcoming biopic On the Basis of Sex, starring Rogue One's Felicity Jones; and perhaps most recognizably, the inspiration for a wellspring of T-shirts, tattoos, Halloween costumes and Internet memes.
RBG directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West first noticed Ginsburg's growing online fame in 2015 and wanted to know more about the trailblazer, who co-founded the ACLU's Women's Rights Project and served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals before she was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993.
In recent years, "it seemed that her dissents had really connected with a lot of people, especially Millennials," West says. "It's this incongruousness of an 85-year-old Jewish grandmother who is speaking truth to power. That took off with Saturday Night Live, and every time you put 'R.B.G.' into social media, you see thousands and millions of entries. She really is a galvanizing force."
The most prominent Ginsburg meme is that of "Notorious R.B.G.," a play on the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., which features a visage of the justice wearing a crown and her trademark lace collar. It began as a blog by former New York University law student Shana Knizhnik in summer 2013, when Ginsburg delivered a particularly scathing dissent about the imperative of voting rights in states with histories of racial discrimination.
Ruth Joan Bader was born March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York. She joined an equal pay campaign in 1963 after realizing her salary was lower than her male colleagues at Rutgers Law School in the 1960s. In the 1970s, Ginsburg worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and co-founded the Women’s Rights Project.
She's handled sex discrimination complaints, supported the Equal Rights Amendment and found success with gender discrimination litigation.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court and she hasn't slowed down since -- and even beat cancer twice. Since her appointment, she's gained quite the following.
Featuring inspiring quotes and pictures of Ginsburg, the Tumblr page caught fire among young people, inspiring feminist merchandise, a parody music video and a 2015 biography.
"She's the least likely person to seek celebrity in the way that she’s achieved it now," says Knizhnik, an attorney. "That contradiction between her personality as a very serious person and the larger-than-life 'Notorious' title is what’s so funny and cheeky about (the meme). But people are also hungry for icons that have been doing the work of social justice for as long as she has. Her own experience of being discriminated against, overcoming that and reaching the highest level of the judicial system is really inspirational to young women."
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The "Meme Supreme" doesn't mind the attention, happily signing books and taking pictures with fans who approach her, although she says some of their tattoos of her are "a step too far," Cohen laughs. Ginsburg also enjoys McKinnon's elastic impression of her on SNL, launching the catchphrase, "You just got Ginsburned!"
"She understood that it really wasn't like her, and yet she still appreciated the comic dissonance to her persona," Cohen says. "There's some dialogue, but a lot of it is just raunchy dancing. Truthfully, the raunchier the dancing got, the more hilarious she seemed to find it."