How ‘Notorious’ Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a pop-culture icon


The most looked-up-to person in Washington stood at just 5-foot-1. 

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday at age 87 after overcoming four bouts with pancreatic, lung and colon cancer. She is remembered for her withering dissents and unrivaled work ethic that made her a formidable force on the Supreme Court floor for nearly three decades. The diminutive justice, who barely cracked 100 pounds on the scale for most of her adult life, was a giant to liberals. 

And she became a pop-culture icon.

A badass in every sense of the word, Ginsburg defied the rules and chose to make her own, leading to her historic appointment to the nation’s highest court. 

Like her start in the legal world, she vowed to never be diminished by odds. In recent years as her health made a turn for the worse, Ginsburg showed little signs of slowing down, physically or mentally. 

Ginsburg’s perseverance transformed her to legend status and her fierce attitude and push to break barriers allowed her to become an icon. You can see her face on aprons, T-shirts and even memes with the words “I dissent.” Someone even photoshopped sunglasses on the Justice for a range of “Notorious RBG” products. 

That attitude led to her being the star of the Oscar-nominated 2018 documentary, “RBG,” which charted her lifelong fight for women’s and minorities’ rights. 

The film also explored the justice’s unlikely foray into the spotlight in recent years: as a regular character of Kate McKinnon’s on “Saturday Night Live“; the subject of 2018 biopic “On the Basis of Sex,” starring “Rogue One” actress Felicity Jones; and perhaps most recognizably, the inspiration for a wellspring of T-shirts, tattoos, Halloween costumes and Internet memes.

Since the movie, Ginsburg remained supreme and relevant. She had done everything from share her thoughts about #MeToo, to complete a TV workout with Stephen Colbert.

“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 said in a 2018 interview with USA TODAY. “It’s this incongruousness of a 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. 

Featuring inspiring quotes and pictures of Ginsburg, the Notorious R.B.G. 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,” Knizhnik, an attorney, said in a 2018 interview. “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.” 

Related: RBG likes Kate McKinnon’s ‘SNL’ impression and supports Me Too

More: Whoa! See Felicity Jones’ amazing transformation into Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The “Meme Supreme” didn’t mind the attention, happily signing books and taking pictures with fans who approached her, although she thought some of their tattoos of her were “a step too far,” Cohen said. Ginsburg also enjoyed 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 said. “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.” 

Contributing: Carly Mallenbaum

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘RBG’: How Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a ‘Notorious’ pop-culture icon

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