Life & Culture

In praise of the notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an unlikely cultural icon - but she's taking hold of the internet, and even has a Tumblr dedicated to her


Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an unlikely cultural icon. For most of her two decades on the US Supreme Court, the diminutive 82-year-old grandmother has kept a low profile. When Bill Clinton nominated her in 1993 to be only the second woman, and the first Jewish woman, to sit on America's highest court, Ginsburg was considered "a judge's judge" - and a cautious one at that.

That changed two years ago when Ginsburg, now the undisputed leader of the court's liberal wing, delivered a series of scathing dissents to controversial decisions on affirmative action and voting rights handed down by its conservative majority.

On social media, a 25-year-old law student, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an unlikely cultural icon., saw scores of Tweets from grateful liberals praising Ginsburg. One of her friends added his, followed by the hashtag #notoriousRBG.

While Ginsburg, with her bird-like features, oversized glasses and penchant for frilly lace blouses, bears little resemblance to the late African-American rapper, Notorious B.I.G., Knizhnik loved the meme and designed her own website and T-shirt to pay tribute to the newly dubbed Notorious RBG. Then, two Washington friends mocked up a picture of Ginsburg wearing a Basquiat crown, adding the slogan "Can't Spell Truth Without Ruth", covering the city with stickers bearing their creation.

A year later, Ginsburg delivered another withering dissent- among her milder rebukes - "The court falters at each step of its analysis" - when the Supreme Court narrowly decided that companies with religious owners cannot be forced to pay for contraception in health insurance coverage, as Obamacare required them to do. It sparked a new surge in Ginsburg-related tribute items: Notorious RBG T-shirts, mousepads, mugs, badges, onesies, fridge magnets, even a "I love Ruth Joan Bader Ginsburg" bib.

Beyond the internet, signs of Ginsburg's popularity abound. Last month, Time magazine chose to place the Supreme Court justice in the "icon" category of its 100 Most Influential People. She shared the accolade with Pope Francis, musicians Taylor Swift and Bjork, and the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. Production is also expected to begin in the autumn on a film of her life, On the Basis of Sex, in which Natalie Portman will play Ginsburg.

While Ginsburg admits that her law clerks had to explain to her the Notorious RBG reference, the manner in which she reels off details of the merchandise bearing her name suggests the Supreme Court justice is enjoying her unexpected emergence in American popular culture. If anything, the two-time cancer survivor who lifts weights twice a week with her trainer and performs Canadian Air Force exercises every day, appears keen to stoke it. But there is nothing ironic about the regard in which America's youthful left hold Ginsburg - a regard that is likely to grow further later this month if, as is expected, the Supreme Court strikes down state bans on same-sex marriage. Ginsburg's position is hardly in doubt.

Last year, she became the first Supreme Court justice to officiate at a same-sex wedding. In the steady public acceptance of gay marriage, mirrored in the growing number of states that have already legalised it, Ginsburg sees a parallel with the women's rights movement. It is a cause she knows well: as a law professor and head of the women's rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, Ginsburg helped bring a series of cases to the Supreme Court which targeted government rules that treated men and women differently.

That Ginsburg ended up on the Supreme Court and became a hero to liberals is, perhaps, not surprising. But that her closest friend on the Supreme Court is the irascible hardline conservative Antonin Scalia is rather more so.

This summer Scalia/Ginsburg, an opera about the unlikely duo, will premiere in Washington.

Their friendship - before his death, Ginsburg and her husband regularly spent New Year's Eve with the Scalias - stems, in part, from a shared love of opera. But, in a recent joint appearance, Scalia hinted at why, even among her opponents, there's more than a sneaking regard for America's first female Jewish Supreme Court justice: "What's not to like," he asked. "Except her views on the law?"

Read Knizhnik's Tumblr, Notorious RBG here

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