Notorious R.B.G. history: The origins and meaning of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s badass Internet meme.

How Did Gentle, Quiet Ruth Bader Ginsburg Become Notorious R.B.G.?

How Did Gentle, Quiet Ruth Bader Ginsburg Become Notorious R.B.G.?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 16 2015 4:51 PM

Justice LOLZ Grumpycat Notorious R.B.G.

How a gentle Supreme Court justice became a badass gangsta Internet meme.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo. Photos by Jim Young/Reuters and Thinkstock

Happy 82nd Birthday Ruth Bader Ginsburg! She turned 82 on Sunday.

For most of her two decades at the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, like virtually all her colleagues, was an obscure name to most Americans, able to do her grocery shopping in peace. Despite the fact that lawyers and academics had long dubbed her “the Thurgood Marshall of Women’s Rights,” in person Ginsburg was diminutive, soft-spoken, and reserved—very much a hat-and-gloves product of New York City in the 1950s and ’60s. Ginsburg was so institution-minded and retiring in her first decade at the high court that it was often difficult to reconcile her presence with the monster Supreme Court litigator whose work with the ACLU Women's Rights Project in the 1970s led to five victories in six appeals, a record that would reshape U.S. gender law forever. Yet, on and off the bench, Ginsburg always looked and sounded like the most dangerous weapon she could possibly be carrying would be a potato kugel.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

That all started to change about a decade ago, and while it’s hard to carbon-date the shift, some say Ginsburg became a more outspoken and fiery presence at the high court around 2005, when her colleague Sandra Day O’Connor retired, leaving her as the sole female on the bench. She hated being the only woman, she hated being forced to speak for all women, and she saw the court tacking to the right on issues she had worked on for decades. So when her all-male colleagues issued a slew of opinions that seemed to be moving women’s rights backward, Ginsburg began to issue dissents that sounded markedly different from her former mild-mannered, collegial style.

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The first came in 2007 with the court’s so-called partial-birth abortion case. Fired-up and furious, she elected to read it aloud from the bench in a move that was rare at that time but now quite common. Other such dissents followed, including in the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay case, which then–New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse pegged as the moment “when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg found her voice, and used it.” Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, a friend of Ginsburg’s, told Greenhouse that year that Ginsburg’s “style has always been very ameliorative, very conscious of etiquette. … She has always been regarded as sort of a white-glove person, and she’s achieved a lot that way. Now she is seeing that basic issues she’s fought so hard for are in jeopardy, and she is less bound by what have been the conventions of the court.”

Still, Ginsburg’s public image—to the extent she had one—remained gentle, collegial, and generally small. That image only really turned upside-down very recently when a cadre of young women began to paint her as—to use the Internet search term now almost irrevocably tied to her name—a “badass.” The Ginsburg social media revolution came about in 2013, after she fired off yet more heated opinions in a Texas affirmative action case called Fisher v. University of Texas and in the landmark Shelby County v. Holder, which drove a stake through the heart of the Voting Rights Act. That’s when NYU law student Shana Knizhnik launched the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr, likening the tiny jurist to the rapper Notorious B.I.G., and suddenly a Tumblr/T-shirt/bumper sticker revolution was born. Ginsburg, like Lara Croft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was a force to be reckoned with.

But Ginsburg’s current rock-star status was only fully realized in the hours after she read aloud her dissent in the Hobby Lobby case last spring, when her accusations directed at the majority’s cramped views on gender, reproduction, and work became a cri de coeur popularized in viral Facebook memes and a tribute song. Notorious R.B.G., crown and all, became the face of the female employees in Hobby Lobby, and female workers everywhere whose bosses’ religious preferences might trump their right to birth control. As Rebecca Traister observed last summer in the New Republic, Ginsburg Mania was part of an unprecedented celebration of the power of older, politically authoritative women by a “democratized, raucous communicative organ that is the Internet, in which a diverse rabble of young people make their own messages.”

Less than a year after Hobby Lobby, the Ginsburg as national badass meme has exploded. “Ruth Baby Ginsburg” won Halloween last year, Sheryl Crow announced herself a fangirl, Knizhnik sold a book titled Notorious R.B.G.: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and readers of the legal blog Above the Law overwhelmingly named the then 81-year-old the lawyer of the year. At a meeting of law professors this winter, Georgetown Professor Wendy Williams, Ginsburg’s interlocutor in an on-stage Q&A, suddenly revealed that she was wearing a Ginsburg T-shirt under her scarf and suit jacket, to the audience’s delight.

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Ginsburg has been delighted with the late-in-life rock-star treatment. As she told NPR’s Nina Totenberg this fall, since a law clerk explained the Tumblr site to her, she’s been a dedicated fan; indeed she cops to having “quite a large supply” of the Notorious R.B.G. T-shirts and hands them out to friends.

But perusing the images that have cropped up around Ginsburg, it’s hard not to be struck by the extent to which so many of the T-shirts and tote bags reflect a kind of amped-up and hyper masculine representation of power. Here for instance is a typical “badass” R.B.G. shirt:

Notorious RBG

Photo courtesy CafePress

Another ubiquitous image is this one:

150316_DX_RBG_gavel_hand_strong_tshirt

Photo courtesy CafePress

At one level, it must be stipulated that these images are flat out hilarious. The juxtaposition of this itty-bitty woman and the gangsta pictures is what makes it all so funny and viral. But as they proliferate and become the new public language of Ginsburg, I keep finding myself wondering what she herself would say about a career spent fighting male power and misogyny, now depicted in viral messages that more or less say that the Constitution demands that this painfully shy octogenarian fuck you up, like, right now.

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I keep wondering how, as a feminist, Ginsburg feels about these hyper-male expressions of girl-power.

“It really speaks to the degree to which in popular discourse, our only vocabulary for admiration of strength of any kind is the vocabulary of extreme masculinity and extreme masculine power,” says Traister, in a phone interview. “This whole celebration of pure brutishness and muscle has absolutely nothing to do with Ginsburg’s legacy or the history of her advocacy.”

To be sure, Traister adds, the imagery is compelling chiefly because of the humor: “The crucial thing is that this small, seemingly frail Jewish lady—a survivor of multiple bouts of cancer—is juxtaposed with this enormous masculine strength.” Professor Neil Siegel, who teaches law at Duke, and clerked for Ginsburg, adds that all the threatening imagery is funny precisely because “it is so discordant with who she is, which is unfailingly professional, polite, calm, and not at all physically imposing.” If she were in any way intimidating physically, he adds, the R.B.G. meme wouldn’t work. “It’s so funny because she so obviously isn’t about violence or misogyny. That’s why she can smile at it.”

Siegel argues that what the Notorious R.B.G. meme has done is about “picking up on something that has changed in the justice. She’s angrier. She’s angry on behalf of individuals facing down corporations or powerless people facing institutions.” He emphasizes that expressly connecting Ginsburg to Notorious B.I.G. and the feinting at violence and protest that are part of rap culture touches a nerve right now precisely because this kind of music is “a threat to the man, to the status quo; it makes polite people uncomfortable. … She is speaking on behalf of people who are not represented in the halls of power and privilege, and not represented by the conservatives at the court.”

I asked Shana Knizhnik whether she was explicitly connecting Ginsburg to hyper-masculine culture when she launched the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr, and she says not at all. “I didn’t think about it in terms of masculinity. I was mostly thinking of the catchy nickname and how she was such a powerful force. Here you had this diminutive person, this tiny human, and nobody saw her as a badass. But when you see what she has done, over years, with such dignity and grace, it represented that.”

Finally, it’s probably also no accident that the cult of the badass R.B.G. arose at almost the same moment when academics and public intellectuals on the left began to announce it was time for her to retire; that political expediency and timing meant that if she stepped aside when Obama could still confirm a replacement, it would save the court from years—if not decades—of conservative control. Part of lionizing Ginsburg as a menacing giant is a way of saying, well, yeah she’s had two cancer scares and that heart thing and sometimes she looks like if you handed her the Restatement of Torts she’d fall over, but she can still kill you while you’re sleeping, using nothing but a lacy jabot. It’s a bit of magical thinking, perhaps, but also a young feminist’s answer to ideas of male power, longevity, and authority as expressed in the popular media. It’s a way of crossing your fingers and defending Ginsburg for staying on, even if she looks frail and falls asleep at the State of the Union.

People who watch the court for a living, like me, don’t know quite what to make of the whole Notorious phenomenon, or the fact that nobody is enjoying this notoriety more than Ginsburg. But Ginsburg has been saying for years that the generations of young women who came after her needed to step in and fight the fight she’s been leading since before they were born. Tumblr, Twitter, and images of huge rippling biceps might not be Ginsburg’s first choice for weapons in the gender war. But given that they appear to be engaging so many young women, maybe they’re weapons Ginsburg’s willing to deploy.