RBG and the Notorious Meme-ification of Female Leaders

Memes don’t glorify female leaders — they flatten them. In recent weeks, on top of the baseline fury over everything else — deep-rooted systemic racial injustices, the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus, Russian military aggressions that Trump doesn’t seem to care about (take your pick!) — a new and rather surprising tendril of outrage began to blossom: outrage at 86-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

As targets of anger go, you’d think Ginsburg would be low on the list. Beloved by progressives and lionized by many feminists, her voice has been a lifeline, or at least an emotional balm, for liberals who are terrified by the right-leaning direction of the court. In 2013, her thundering dissent in a landmark decision against voting rights gave rise to her rebranding as a Tumblr hero and designated badass among young millennial women.

Shana Knizhnik, then an NYU law student, bestowed her with a catchy nom de guerre, Notorious R.B.G., an homage to the rapper Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G. By 2015, Knizhnik, along with writer Irin Carmon, had authored a bestselling book, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Soon, the nickname was a brand. There was RBG merchandise (made by sellers unaffiliated with the book), including earrings shaped like the collar Ginsburg famously wore with her jury robe whenever she was about to issue a dissent. There were children’s books, coloring books, Saturday Night Live sketches, a tattoo craze, and documentary film as well as a scripted biopic.

Images of Ginsburg’s tiny body working out with tiny dumbbells in a sweatshirt reading “Super Diva” (culled from footage from the documentary) became a symbol of steely, granny-ish defiance to patriarchal status quo. Though Ginsburg had made an art of resistance long before the era of #Resistance (she was arguing women’s rights cases before the Supreme Court back in the days when women often couldn’t get their own credit cards) she had suddenly become a meme unto herself.

But now, the collective crush on Ginsburg seems to be crushing some progressives’ souls.

“Hey, everyone, RBG is MAGA now,” tweeted popular podcast host Wayne Dupree late last month.

“RBG objectively sucks and anyone who celebrated her should be embarrassed,” the account for Current Affairs, the left-wing magazine, tweeted.

Writer Sam Thielman was more concise. “Fuck Ruth Bader Ginsberg,” he tweeted.

Ginsburg’s transgression? Siding with the majority in a 7–2 vote ruling that asylum seekers who enter the U.S. unlawfully and are quickly screened out by immigration officials can be subjected to fast-track deportations. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who is generally liberal-leaning, joined in the majority ruling, with Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissenting.

Never mind that Ginsburg and Breyer made clear that their votes were based on what they felt were overly vague details of the particular claim of the plaintiff in this case and that the court’s door should remain open for asylum-seekers with stronger cases. Never mind that most of the outraged Twitter users appeared to have very little grasp on the specific facts of the ruling, which, it so happens, does not affect any of the roughly three-quarters of asylum-seekers who are deemed right away to have a credible fear of returning to their country of origin (nor does it affect any asylum-seeker that comes into the country at a legal port of entry).

What mattered, as usual, was that the Trump administration favored the policy. Therefore, Ginsburg’s decision to interpret the law dispassionately rather than vote according to her own ideology threatened to alienate some of her supporters and gum up the works of the Notorious machine.

Not that things weren’t already getting a little sticky. Ginsburg took heat from her fans last summer when she praised, in what some might conclude were acts of judicial diplomacy, two of her conservative colleagues, including Brett Kavanaugh, as “very decent and very smart individuals.” In 2016, she was also chastised for making critical off-the-cuff remarks about NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking the knee during the national anthem. She walked that one back, as she did comments that same year about Trump (then the presumptive Republican presidential nominee) as a “faker” with “no consistency about him.” (She added that if her husband were still alive he would have suggested a move to New Zealand rather than living under a Trump presidency.)

I hope that as girlboss feminism gives way to something more inclusive, more substantive, and more befitting of grownup women, we can begin to rethink what it means to pay tribute to those we admire.

Oh, and there was the whole matter of her unlikely friendship with outspoken right-wing Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she shared a love of opera, travel, and precision of language. “When I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation,” Ginsburg said in a tribute following Scalia’s death. “Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots… and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion.”

So the Notorious label fits, just not quite in the way many RBG stans were probably thinking when they ordered their Notorious RBG scented candle from Etsy. In fact, if you’re looking to enshrine a Supreme Court justice under the mantle of #Resistance, a better fit might be Sonia Sotomayor, who has generally been less compromising in her approach to working with conservative colleagues and even issued some scathing remarks about them in a dissent in an immigration decision in February. Even then, though, the fit wouldn’t be perfect, since, as with all the justices, she still voted with her ideological opponents a significant percentage of the time.

With that in mind, maybe it’s time to stop meme-ifying our heroes, especially our female heroes. After all, it’s getting a little old, especially since feminist memes of the Notorious/badass/girlboss “nevertheless she persisted” variety are closely associated with the kind of sanitized and capitalist feminism now often referred to as “white feminism.” And since this is the feminism upheld by the Sheryl Sandberg “lean in” mantra and exclusive all-women community spaces like The Wing, it’s easy to see why it was Ginsburg and not Sotomayor who was made into a pop culture icon.

But there are other factors in play, too. I’ve long suspected that part of Ginsburg’s iconic rise has to do with the fact that she doesn’t appear to fully grasp the extent of her meme-ification and therefore has done little to tone it down. Ginsburg was 82 at the time the Carmon and Knizhnik’s Notorious R.B.G. book was published. She was 85 when the RBG documentary was released, a project that, according to co-director Julie Cohen, Ginsburg never actually said yes to. “We were just sort of making the film and ultimately she started to participate,” Cohen said in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable discussion in 2018.

Watching that film, you can see how that would happen. Ginsburg’s gravitas is apparent throughout, but there’s also scene after scene in which she appears to be reciting lines fed to her by young advisors. It makes for adorable footage — she and Biggie Smalls “have a lot in common because we’re both from Brooklyn,” she says — but there are moments when you have to wonder if the joke has gotten away from Ginsburg. Would she recognize a photo of Biggie Smalls if she saw one? Is that Super Diva sweatshirt really part of her wardrobe or was it handed to her by some well-meaning if slightly mischievous assistant? Because while Ginsburg clearly seems to enjoy the spotlight, she’s no diva. The Notorious brand is just a little too clever, a little too arch, a little too manufactured for someone else’s amusement.

If anything, it’s Sotomayor that has the bigger, flashier personality of the two. (Though, given the quietness of Ginsburg’s demeanor, that’s probably true of every member of the Supreme Court.) But something tells me that if Sotomayor were given an ironic sweatshirt to wear on camera, she’d politely decline. That’s not just because she’s two decades younger than Ginsburg and probably a little more clued into the ways of the interwebs (including how anything can be weaponized). I daresay it’s because as a woman whose career has not been buttressed by the soft cushions of white feminism — and who more recently experienced nomination to the bench — Sotomayor knows better than to flatten herself into a meme. More precisely, she knows she can’t afford to flatten herself into a meme. The self-deprecating humor necessary to carry it off can too easily turn into a form of self-depreciation that amplifies the insults already lobbed her way.

Again, of course, race is only part of the equation here. Designated #badass Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who did not exactly ride to success on the winds beneath The Wing, has worked magic with social media and meme-driven branding, partly because she’s young enough to know how to control her own messaging. Not as young (but equally #badass if you’re into that designation) are figures like Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, Keisha Bottoms, Tammy Duckworth, Susan Rice, and Val Demings, women of color who are reportedly on Joe Biden’s short list of potential running mates. If any one of these women suddenly entered the spotlight, you can only imagine how the meme brigade would immediately begin turning her into a brand before the public could get to know much about her as a real person.

That’s why I hope that as girlboss feminism gives way to something more inclusive, more substantive, and more befitting of grown-up women, we can begin to rethink what it means to pay tribute to those we admire. A good start would be not turning our female leaders into pop icons but instead granting them the fullness of their humanity. That will not only help them succeed on their own terms. It will keep them from disappointing us by failing to live up to the cartoonish expectations we set for them.

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