Ginsburg’s celebrity makeover is a relatively recent sensation. Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s intelligent 2015 biography “Notorious RBG” helped turned Ginsburg into a meme. The title played on the nickname of the late (and much larger) rapper Christopher Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G. — a deliberate, and wildly effective, incongruity. The phenomenon was inflated in 2018 by the documentary “RBG” and the biopic “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg.
By the time of Ginsburg’s death last week, the fantasy version of her powered an industry. Etsy offers nearly 15,000 T-shirts, jewelry, face masks and other Notorious RBG ephemera. Ginsburg’s personal trainer published a guide to her fitness routine that birthed a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Stone and Strand sells a single gold earring spelling out her initials for $125.
Of course many people admired Ginsburg as a working mother who reached the highest level of her profession. Many adored her as a boss and were grateful for the material impact she, and her work, had on their lives. There is something lovely about seeing little girls choose Ginsburg as a role model. But hero worship of a fictionalized version of Ginsburg could also be costly.
Fandom is more about enthusiasm than introspection, which is fine if the worst thing the object of adoration can do is release a bad album. But turning public servants into cultural icons inverts the proper relationship between citizens and the officials who are supposed to work for them. Unlike elected politicians, who can be held accountable for actions voters dislike, Supreme Court justices are appointed for life. Ginsburg had tremendous power to shape the law and little outside accountability, a combination that should have demanded more scrutiny from observers, not less.
Calling Ginsburg a queen and buying or sharing depictions of her fighting alongside superheroes like the Avengers or wearing the Notorious B.I.G.’s crown allowed many to focus on the most easily consumable version of their heroine. Certainly, some Ginsburg admirers love the substance of her legal work. But the pop cult of RBG emphasized style and cheery affirmation in a way that left little room for a more searching examination of her record, including her almost entirely White roster of law clerks and, more recently, a flip dismissal of a protest against racism, for which she apologized. None of that nuance fits on a baby onesie or tote bag.
As Ginsburg got older and sicker, and as her bet that Hillary Clinton would be the president who appointed her replacement went horribly wrong, valorizing her in some ways attempted to stave off impending disaster. Fictional characters live forever on the page. The same isn’t true of 87-year-old jurists who have been treated for five separate recurrences of cancer.
The signs in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood imploring those who wouldn’t wear a mask for themselves to don one “to protect RBG” were cute. So was a Ginsburg-inspired plank-in at the Supreme Court and late-night host Stephen Colbert’s offer to give Ginsburg his ribs after she broke hers in 2018.
But this deification was rooted in the wishful thinking that there was something ordinary citizens could do to protect the fragile justice, much like the New Yorkers who rally around an exhausted or outnumbered Spider-Man. Ginsburg’s survival shielded supporters from having to reckon with the potential cost of her decision to keep working: taking the chance that she would be replaced in circumstances that could reshape the court and, perhaps, the legacy of a presidential election. With her death, a strikingly different reality is playing out.
The ultimate icon of Ginsburg fandom was the collar she wore to issue dissents. The instantly recognizable necklace has been rendered as earrings and silk-screened onto shirts; a version was reissued by Banana Republic. But unlike in politics, where defiance can be fuel for an ongoing fight, when a justice dissents in a Supreme Court decision, the battle is over. However transcendent her look, it could not turn loss into victory.
That Ginsburg’s uniform of defeat morphed into an accessory of resistance illustrates how her celebrity distracted from substance and sober judgment, to the point of blinding acolytes to things we didn’t want to know. Ginsburg fans who want to honor her legacy would do well to ditch the merchandise and embrace the hard work represented by the black robe underneath the collar.
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