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Editor reflects on RBG's profound influence on pop culture


     In today’s day and age, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is practically a household name when discussing American politics and history. The former Supreme Court Justice, who passed away last month at the age of 87, was a landmark figure in women’s rights throughout the late 20th century. She defiantly stood against countless laws and deep-rooted American prejudices which “kept women in their place,” and took numerous court cases before the Supreme Court to argue that sex-based discrimination was unconstitutional. After her own appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993, her advocacy for gender equality continued until her death from pancreatic cancer on Sept. 18, 2020.

     When looking deeper into the life and career of Justice Ginsburg, another interesting aspect of her legacy stands out: her unexpectedly massive pop culture influence. Despite leading a career firmly entrenched in law, Ginsburg became a nationally recognized icon with her slight stature, quiet smile and serious sense of humor. Across the United States, merchandise with her face and beloved nickname, “The Notorious R.B.G.” (coined by a law student in response to Ginsburg’s dissent in Shelby County v. Holder), can be seen and purchased. This begs an interesting question: how does an elderly Supreme Court Justice become such an enormous cultural icon? To answer that, we must first understand the nature of her life’s work.

     Ruth Bader Ginsburg (born Joan Ruth Bader) was born to a strict Jewish family in New York City in 1933. Her mother firmly impressed upon the young girl that


Graphic by William Becker

she had value above what society considered her to have as a woman. Defying the limitations imposed upon her from an early age, she was able to earn her law degree through periods at Cornell, Harvard and finally Columbia Law School. Despite difficulty finding employment at the beginning of her career, she soon went on to argue gender discrimination cases in courts across the nation, including six before the Supreme Court. Her advocacy for gender equality of both women and men throughout this era of her career raised awareness and support for the gender equality movement, and she soon found herself at the forefront of this long-awaited push.

     Ginsburg’s progressive advocacy is where I believe her pop culture presence originated. She served as an iconic leader for the gender equality movement that many underrepresented and mistreated Americans fell in line behind. This rapidly-growing modern movement largely consisted of the younger, more progressive members of society who were at the forefront of popular culture. Thus, it's almost to be expected that Ginsburg would become swept up into this modern scene. Unlike many of the politicians and lawyers of her generation who rapidly became outdated in their civil views during this time of societal and cultural upheaval, she essentially became a spiritual member of the younger generations and practically a cultural facet.

     Now, I want to take a look at two of the results of RBG’s pop culture presence: the 2018 films RBG and On the Basis of Sex. These films were both created to present Ginsburg’s work and legacy to a wider audience on the big screen. However, they both go about doing so in very different manners.

     The first of these films, RBG, is a documentary starring Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself. Through interviews, photographs, narrations, records and stories, the entire life of RBG is explored, from the very beginning to near the end. Her humble origins, challenging education, relationship with her husband Marty and dogged determination to achieve equality are all explored in their own distinct segments of both historical interpretations and recounts by Ginsburg. The unique personal perspectives it offers bring the stories within it to life and reminds viewers how recently many of these discriminatory acts were still occurring.

     I found that watching a strictly factual interpretation of Ginsburg’s life answered many of the questions I harbored about her, having made few inquiries into her life’s work prior to beginning my research for this article. Understanding the long, exhausting weeks, months and years she put into her quest for gender equality gave me a better appreciation of the slight, unassuming woman who had become such a massive figure in contemporary America.

     Turning the tables a bit, On the Basis of Sex is a heavily cinematic biopic film starring Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer as Ruth and Marty Ginsburg. Unlike the previously discussed documentary, this film is confined to a 30-year-period between RBG’s education in the early 1950s and her growing advocacy for gender equality into the late 1970s. Also unlike its factual counterpart, it can be analyzed from a largely cinematic perspective. So how do these portrayals of Ginsburg differ when compared to each other?

     The key difference between the cinematic and factual portrayals of RBG that I noticed was her persona being slightly redesigned as a more ‘likeable’ character. By many close accounts, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an extremely serious woman. She was very kind and polite, but she rarely smiled, laughed, or cracked a joke. According to many of her close friends, her marriage with the outgoing and high-spirited Marty Ginsburg functioned so well because they balanced each other out. Now this isn’t to say she was an unlikeable individual. On the contrary, she was adored by her friends and family. However, cinematic protagonists are commonly designed to be favorable in order to give the audience a character to identify with. The serious and analytical nature of the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg may not have worked as well when it comes to a cinematic film. When taking that into consideration, I would consider a character change such as this acceptable as long as the story is kept intact. Thankfully, screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman kept the film’s narrative true to Ginsburg’s work, which greatly helps On the Basis of Sex succeed as a film.

     When considering the advancement of equal rights in the United States, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s lifelong contribution to gender equality cannot be forgotten. Her avid support of the underrepresented members of American society resulted in her being cemented as a metaphorical giant in both political and pop culture, a legacy which continues to this day and will into the foreseeable future. Ginsburg’s status as a cultural icon has given rise to various retellings and portrayals of her life story, some more factual than others. However, they all keep her central principle intact: gender equality. Whether it is from Ginsburg herself retelling a case she worked on or Felicity Jones portraying her character and ideals through a cinematic lens, that central element remains. These films, along with countless other records and memories, truly prove that the legacy and influence of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on American culture will be preserved and cherished for decades to come.

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