A scene from “RBG,” a documentary about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Magnolia Pictures)

A scene from “RBG,” a documentary about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Magnolia Pictures)

How Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a meme — and why that’s surprising

The new documentary “RGB” takes a look at the notorious Supreme Court justice’s unexpected fame.

  • By Robert Barnes The Washington Post
  • Sunday, May 6, 2018 1:30am
  • Life

By Robert Barnes / The Washington Post

At one point in the new documentary “RBG,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her granddaughter Clara Spera are looking over a scrapbook Ginsburg’s late husband, Marty, put together for her.

Marty’s idea was to solicit letters from his wife’s admirers on the occasion of her 50th birthday. His own submission said that Ginsburg could take great pride in her accomplishments as a lawyer and judge but that there is “no way you take greater pride than I do.”

Spera asks her grandmother: “Do you read these often?”

Ginsburg answers nonchalantly, never looking up: “No, I never read them.”

“You should. They’re very nice,” Spera says. “If you ever need a boost of self-confidence.”

Seems unlikely. Self-assurance would be an essential attribute for a woman born in the 1930s, the first in her family to go to college, one of nine women among a Harvard Law School class of more than 500, the second female to sit on the nation’s highest court after about 200 years of only men.

Now, she’s the Notorious R.B.G. and she has created a whole new way for the public to look at a Supreme Court justice. The documentary adds to the fame, of course, but also reveals how it emerged and why it’s unexpected, given the life that preceded the meme.

The Ginsburg without photoshopped sunglasses and a crown fueled a revolution with lawsuits instead of protests. She believed in incremental progress instead of bold gestures. She was projected to be a conciliator on the court, not its pre-eminent liberal dissenter.

Now, “everyone wants to take a picture with me.”

Has Ginsburg too eagerly embraced the fame? All of the speaking engagements and interviews have presented Ginsburg a platform to speak about the #MeToo movement, the need for an Equal Rights Amendment, Colin Kaepernick and, most notably, Donald Trump. It has not endeared her to those who believe Supreme Court justices should be read and not heard.

And it is particularly surprising given that Ginsburg has always been recognized as big in the brains department and underserved in pizazz, especially compared with the gregarious Marty and her larger-than-life best friend on the court, the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

And yet, lines stretch for blocks when she appears on college campuses and at synagogues, and her octogenarian likeness is tattooed on millennial muscles (she disapproves: “so permanent”).

“RBG,” the documentary work of Betsy West and Julie Cohen, launched this weekend. A feature film called “On the Basis of Sex,” with Felicity Jones as Ruth and Armie Hammer as Marty, is scheduled for the fall. There’s a limited TV series based on her and Sandra Day O’Connor in the works.

She has been featured in a comic opera and a workout book. There’s a popular Tumblr fan blog, a children’s book, a compilation of speeches. She has her own impersonator on “Saturday Night Live.” Her face is on tote bags and coffee cups and T-shirts, which she has been known to give to friends.

“She has become perhaps the best-known justice in the history of the court,” Michael Yelnosky, dean of the Roger Williams University School of Law, said when he welcomed Ginsburg to his school in February.

It was among 13 speaking engagements the 85-year-old has made so far in 2018.

Keeping in shape

Her liberal supporters once wanted her to retire so President Barack Obama could appoint her replacement, and now, that ship having sailed, depend on her to outlive Trump’s time in office. The feminist Jewish blog Lilith has published “A Prayer for RBG’s Long Life.”

“How’s your health?” is the question that opens the documentary, and co-director West said she believes Ginsburg allowed them to film her regular workout planks and push-ups to show “she’s proud of keeping herself in shape to do this job.”

Ginsburg is used to being doubted. She recalls in the film that when she arrived at Harvard, a woman told her that Marty, in the class ahead of her, had been boasting to everyone that his wife was so smart she was going to make law review.

The woman added: “You look like a little twerp.”

Beloved husband

A surprise for some in the documentary about the feminist icon may be the importance of the man in her life, who died in 2010.

At the recent Washington premiere, the actress Michelle Hurd rose during the question-and-answer session with the filmmakers to address Ginsburg.

“Thank you so much, if I could, Notorious R.B.G.,” Hurd said. “For not only your service, but for the love story that you shared.”

In the film, Ginsburg recalls that her mother, who died of cancer as the young woman nicknamed Kiki graduated from high school, gave her two pieces of advice. Be a lady, which meant not giving in to unnecessary emotion, such as anger. And be independent. That meant, Ginsburg said, it will be great if Prince Charming comes along, but be prepared to “fend for yourself” if not.

At Cornell, she found Marty early on, when she was still 17, he a year older. He was, she said, the first boy she had ever gone out with “who cared that I had a brain.”

“Meeting Marty was by far the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me,” she says in the film.

The filmmakers found a trove of home movies that show a beautiful young couple, laughing with school friends and posing on vacation. They married when Ginsburg finished college; he served in the Army, and they had two children, Jane and James.

Ginsburg has said she believes women can have it all, but perhaps not all at the same time.

It was radical for her to join her husband at law school. But when he graduated and found work at a firm on Wall Street, she followed him to New York and finished her final year at Columbia. While he concentrated on making partner as one of the city’s top tax lawyers, she did the lion’s share of work at home.

But the woman’s movement came along, and as a law professor and at the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg became perhaps its leading legal strategist. Marty, too, saw the importance of what was happening, and their roles switched. “I became the person whose career came first,” she says in the film.

She argued six cases at the Supreme Court aimed at laws that treated men and women differently, and won five. Jane, as the story goes, once told people that there was an equal division of labor in the Ginsburg household: Her dad did the cooking, and her mom did the thinking.

When President Jimmy Carter nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Ginsburg says, everyone was shocked that her husband followed her to the new job, giving up his partnership to teach at Georgetown University.

And when there was an opening on the Supreme Court in 1993, Marty mounted an extraordinary letter-writing campaign — overzealous, some said — to make sure President Bill Clinton considered his wife for the job.

Ruth was not one to toot her own horn, their friend and law professor Arthur Miller says in the film, so Marty became “the New York Philharmonic.”

At the premiere, co-director Cohen talked about their partnership.

“You know, Marty Ginsburg and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s marriage would be extraordinary by today’s standards,” Cohen said. “It’s almost hard to imagine a relationship like that starting in the 1950s.”

Back to work

After Marty’s death, there was a period of mourning, granddaughter Spera says, and then Ginsburg threw herself back into her work.

By then the senior justice among the court’s four liberals, she issued pointed dissents when the conservative majority prevailed in important cases. Her status among liberal college students, particularly women, rose almost overnight.

“She called out the majority,” said Shana Knizhnik, who created the Tumblr (and, with Irin Carmon, subsequent book) “Notorious R.B.G.” after a friend used the term as a hashtag. It’s a play, of course, on the rapper Notorious B.I.G., and Ginsburg had to ask her clerks for the connection.

Now it is part of her shtick: “We were both born and bred in Brooklyn.”

Ginsburg can get a laugh, of course, just by saying the word “rapper.”

“I think the ‘notorious’ thing was organic, it’s not something she sought out,” said co-director West.

“I think we were all so hungry to hear from Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said Aminatou Sow, who helped create the “Can’t Spell Truth Without Ruth” meme.

Ginsburg stepped up the speaking engagements and interviews, and conservative commentators argued that she sometimes was too free with opinions about issues that might come before the court.

Even her supporters were surprised by her comments on Trump. In interviews in the summer of 2016, Ginsburg called him a “faker” and worried about the fate of the court and the country if he were elected.

Several days later, she issued a statement: “On reflection, my recent remarks in response to press inquiries were ill-advised and I regret making them. Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office. In the future I will be more circumspect.”

In the film, criticism comes from Helen M. Alvaré, a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. It’s “not just a matter of decorum, it’s not understanding her constitutional role,” she says.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, a friend of Ginsburg’s long before she became a judge, says she was “flabbergasted” by the comments about Trump.

Totenberg pauses before delivering judgment. “It’s inappropriate.”

The filmmakers asked Ginsburg, and it is the one time in the film the justice seems less than sure-footed.

“The notion that I don’t comprehend that my job is to interpret the law fairly, that I’m going to vote one way based on who I might have voted for president, is just …” she trails off. “None of us, even if we wanted to, could be successful if that’s the attitude that we have.”

But the most surprising aspect of the Ginsburg in the film, Cohen said, is the sober judge has a good sense of humor.

As they were finishing shooting with Ginsburg, they showed her clips of Kate McKinnon’s impersonation on “SNL,” with her huge glasses, black robe and white jabot. The justice simply can’t stop laughing as she watches.

“It’s marvelously funny,” Ginsburg says finally.

Does it remind you of yourself, she’s asked.

“Not one bit,” Ginsburg replies. And then, with a beat of her own comedic timing:

“Except for the collar.”

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