RBG gains fame among younger demographic through her appearances in pop culture

October 12, 2020 — by Apurva Chakravarthy
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The Supreme Court Justice’s media-awarded nickname “The Notorious R.B.G.” speaks to her influence as a feminist icon.


In 1959, when 26-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School, she had no idea that through her groundbreaking work as a Supreme Court Justice, she would be on the forefront of the fight for gender equality.

When Ginsburg passed away at age 87 from pancreatic cancer on Sept. 18, America not only lost a long-term and influential member of the Supreme Court, but also a champion for women’s rights and a pop culture icon.


The Notorious R.B.G.

Ginsburg rose to fame in mainstream media in 2013 when a New York University law student, Shana Knizhnik, created the “Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr” as a nod to the famous rapper Notorious B.I.G. According to Entertainment Weekly, in an interview with The New Republic, Knizhnik described the name as a humorous juxtaposition between a large, imposing rapper and a 90-pound Jewish grandmother, and the word “notorious” was used to signify how impactful Ginsburg’s career was. 

By 2015, Ginsburg’s popularity in pop culture was expressed through stickers and posters all over Washington stating “Can’t Spell the Truth Without Ruth,” according to the New York Times. Her merchandise industry, dubbed “Ginsburgiana,” included greeting cards, T-shirts and even homemade Halloween costumes — for toddlers, it was Ruth Baby Ginsburg.

Following these events, Ginsburg’s pop culture presence expanded. In 2015, Kate McKinnon debuted her impression of Ginsburg on “Saturday Night Live” — a “foulmouthed rabble-rouser fond of lobbing ‘Gins-burns’ at opponents.”

The justice's workout routine with comedian Stephen Colbert also garnered widespread attention, reaching nearly 3 million views on YouTube. In the gym of the Watergate Apartments in Washington, D.C., Ginsburg showed Colbert how she performs leg and arm exercises with her trainer Bryan and walks on the treadmill. Ginsburg, 85 years old at the time, stated that she worked out religiously. 

Ginsburg’s impact and legacy were chronicled in two films: “RBG,” a documentary, and “On the Basis of Sex,” a biopic. “RBG” covered her personal life and career, focusing on her early legal battles and how they changed the world for women. “On the Basis of Sex” portrays a young Ginsburg, a new mother and struggling attorney, as she and her husband tackle on the historic  Moritz v. Commissioner case, which would change both the direction of her career and the way courts viewed gender discrimination. 

Popular movies like “Deadpool 2” and “The Lego Movie 2” also referenced Ginsburg. “Deadpool 2” showed Ginsburg’s headshot as the first applicant for the X-force, and “The Lego Movie 2” included Ginsburg as an official figurine.


The rise to fame

In 1993, then-president Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, making her the second woman to serve the court, following Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Although she advocated for gender equality throughout her whole career, her birth as a pop culture icon came nearly two decades after her appointment on the Supreme Court, according to Entertainment Weekly

According to Oyez, after graduating from Columbia Law School, Ginsburg clerked for District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri, served on the Columbia Project on International Civil Procedure and taught at both Rutgers and Columbia University. 

She then directed the influential Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union during the 1970s, successfully arguing six landmark Supreme Court cases against gender discrimination. Under President Jimmy Carter, she served in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia before being appointed to the Supreme Court. 

Ginsburg began gaining political fame following O’Connor’s retirement in 2007. She wrote dissent memos — statements disagreeing with the majority opinion — for two major cases, and according to Entertainment Weekly, these dissents would lead the New York Times to mark her term as one “remembered as the time when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg found her voice, and used it.” 

 According to Entertainment Weekly, Ginsburg’s launch into Tumblr and pop culture followed her dissent in Shelby v. Holder, a case that nullified a core provision of the Voting Rights Act that required federal preclearance to voting law changes. 

Preclearance means that states have to seek the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice before changing their voting laws. This was done to reduce discrimination, increase voter turnout and ensure a fair election. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Supreme Court ruled to nullify this provision because many conservatives believed that Jim Crow discrimination, which was the reason this provision was added in 1965, no longer existed. 

To this, Ginsburg wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

In light of this decision and Ginsburg’s response, Knizhnik decided to start Ginsburg’s Tumblr page. As her page started gaining traction as more people learned and read about her dissent memos, waves of memes and merchandise followed. 


A modern hero 

Because of all these influential cases, many have looked up to Ginsburg as a feminist icon and role model, including junior Jordyn Sin.

“R.B.G. was such an inspiration to me because even through the challenges she faced personally with sexism, she never stopped in her fight for gender equality,” Sin said.

Ginsburg became a pillar of strength for liberals across the country following President Donald Trump’s inauguration. In a time where many wondered about the fate of reproductive rights and other crucial gender equality issues, Ginsburg provided reassurance of those rights.

“She paved the way for so many women, especially in government, and I do not believe women would have the same opportunities we have today without her,” Sin said.

Days before Ginsburg’s death, she expressed a fervent wish to her granddaughter, Clara Spera, that she “not be replaced until a new president is installed,” according to USA Today. Even in her suffering, she focused on making sure that future generations would live in the better world that she fought for. Her whole life, Ginsburg served as an inspiration to millions as she fought for something bigger than herself.