The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sorry, it turns out Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not your liberal cartoon superhero after all

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg takes part in a conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. in 2016. (Mike Groll/AP)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is known for speaking her mind. It’s the very quality that has made her something of a living icon lately — especially for young liberals who count themselves as superfans.

But the Supreme Court justice’s dismissive comments about Colin Kaepernick and the other athletes who are dropping to their knees during the national anthem — their silent protest against racial bias and police brutality in America — has left much of her devout following reeling.

Is this the end of their long-time love affair with “Notorious RBG”? Or are fans just realizing they’ve maybe been projecting a little too much of their own worldview on a fiercely independent jurist?

For many of her fans, it seems incomprehensible that the same woman who has penned such staunchly liberal and quotably eloquent decisions advocating for the rights of women, minorities, gays and transgender people would go against the grain of their own thinking on the national anthem protest.

In an interview for Yahoo, Katie Couric asked the 83-year-old jurist what she thought about the athletes choosing to kneel. Ginsburg’s answer was blunt: “I think it’s dumb and disrespectful.” She emphasized that of course such actions should be protected by law — as they are — but added that she didn’t agree with the protesters themselves.

“If they want to be stupid, there’s no law that should be preventive,” Ginsburg said. “What I would do is strongly take issue with the point of view that they are expressing when they do that.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg calls national anthem protests ‘dumb and disrespectful’

For liberal fans, who tend to support Kaepernick’s protest as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, these were jarring words. Some promptly declared the end of Ginsburg’s reign as the “Notorious RBG” — the affectionate nickname (a riff on the late rapper Biggie Smalls, aka The Notorious B.I.G.).

The “Notorious RBG” meme was always a bit cartoonish; it first took off in 2014 after Ginsburg read aloud a fiercely-worded, 35-page dissent to the court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, which affirmed that owners of for-profit businesses don’t have to offer birth control coverage if it violates their religious beliefs. The meme quickly went viral; soon, “Notorious RBG” was on t-shirts and adult coloring books, emblazoned on smartphone cases and bookbags, and the concept behind a best-selling tribute book.

So the backlash hit pretty hard. The dream was over, many Twitter users declared — there would be no more cartoon gifs, no more ‘RBG’ swag, no more viral photos of adorable infants dressed as ‘Ruth Baby Ginsburg’ for Halloween, no more prancing cartoon RBGs shooting righteous rainbows from her fingertips.

But even as Ginsburg’s dismayed fans expressed their surprise, others pointed out that they probably shouldn’t have been so shocked. Her close personal friendship with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was a likely indication that she isn’t a strident liberal ideologue. And her record on the Supreme Court is more nuanced than some might realize, particularly when it comes to issues of concern to the Black Lives Matter movement. In recent Supreme Court cases like Utah v. Strieff, which focused on unlawful searches and seizures, and Mullenix v Luna, concerning a fatal police shooting, it was Justice Sonia Sotomayor alone who wrote passionately about the disproportionate impact of police abuse on minorities; Ginsburg did not join in those particular sections of Sotomayor’s dissenting opinions.

In her passionate dissent on race and police misconduct, Sonia Sotomayor spoke for plenty of Americans

Some critics charged that Ginsburg’s thoughts on Kaepernick epitomized “white feminism” — a failure to recognize or champion causes that affect women of color and other marginalized groups, they said.

“I wish I could dismiss Ginsburg’s comments as a one-off,” Jessica Mason Pieklo wrote in Rewire. “But I think they reflect a truth progressive white feminists need to deal with: Far too often, race isn’t centered in our political and cultural analysis, even if we believe it to be.”

But even if her opinions on Kaepernick veered from their own orthodoxy, others argued, it shouldn’t diminish her legacy as a whole.

“Justice Ginsburg’s opinion may stray from the progressive mainstream in this particular case, but perhaps that’s because she’s a thinking person with a complex set of liberal values,” Lizzie Crocker wrote in the Daily Beast. “To demonize her unpopular opinion on Colin Kaepernick is to contradict the very values, like tolerance, that progressive liberals claim to support.”

The ‘Notorious RBG’ was never more than a caricature, a glorified distillation of a complicated public figure. Now, Ginsburg’s fans have been forced to refocus on the three-dimensional version of her, the one who exists beyond pithy quips printed on a coffee cup. The one with whom they won’t always agree.