Meme Supreme: Justice Ginsburg’s internet fame

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • October 23, 2014

Ruth Bader Ginsburg hasn’t been on the cover of Vanity Fair. There haven’t been Saturday Night Live skits poking fun at her pantsuits or the cadence of her speech. But after two decades as a judge in the highest court in the United States, the 81-year-old Ginsburg is the oldest sitting Supreme Court justice and arguably one of the most influential women in politics. With blistering judiciary dissents and viral Tumblr memes to her name, she has also become the coolest, with a distinctive popularity that harkens a new era of political engagement with America’s youth and a meaningful expansion of the Supreme Court’s pop culture capital.

Anecdotes of youthful political reticence are published in nearly every major paper. “While young Americans are not rejecting politics per se, they are fed up with the current system,” John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, told the Christian Science Monitor last December. Earlier this month, The Economist characterized young people as “passionate, opinionated and barely aware of the elections,” and deduced that it’s not that our nation’s newest generation of voters don’t care about politics, they just dislike it. Ginsburg, however, exists outside of the conventions implied by these conclusions.

More than the executive and legislative branch, the Supreme Court is the most removed from the 24-hour news cycle and the clickbait-ready political kerfuffles of the day. There’s no pomp and circumstance, and despite the fact that decisions can have effects that last for multiple generations, it is almost entirely removed from pop culture. The virality of Ginsburg’s internet persona challenges this, and brings into question how citizens should engage with the federal court most shrouded in mystery.

All nine justices have always had their own particular brand or ideological calling card that they are usually  counted on to fulfill: Justice Antonin Scalia is the devout Roman Catholic, Justice Clarence Thomas will sit mostly silent during oral arguments, and Justice Anthony Kennedy is usually the swing vote, teeter-tottering between the Court’s liberal and conservative blocs. But their cultural capital is much more straightforward than most other prominent governmental figures. On the other hand, Ginsburg—who has served on the court since August 1993—has entire Tumblr blogs and Instagram feeds dedicated to her trademark fiery liberalism.

The popularity of “Notorious R.B.G.,” a play on the rapper’s name, is bound by neither media nor medium, which only speaks to the expansiveness of her popularity. Buzzfeed lists the “Top 10 Ruth Bader Ginsburg Photoshops You Need In Your Life”, and a YouTube guitarist uploaded a video of himself singing a musical adaptation of the justice’s scathing Hobby Lobby dissent, in which she argued that the court had “ventured into a minefield” that could allow for-profit corporations to opt out of any laws they feel violate their religious convictions. Etsy retailers sell T-shirts affixed with photos of her small, slim frame and captioned with Beyoncé lyrics. “All them fives need to listen when a ten is talking,” suggests one heading.

This isn’t the first time political figures have been absorbed into the meme-friendly world of millennial social media, but it is among the most important. Business Insider writer Eileen Reynolds lists other notable female political personalities that have piqued the interest of online communities—including the Twitter account “Tweets from Hillary” and memes about the hot pink running shoes that Texas State Senator Wendy Davis wore during a memorable 2013 filibuster—but these women are plugged into the political arena in a way that Ginsburg isn’t.

This is what makes Ginsburg’s popularity most intriguing. It’s not through glossy campaign commercials or photo-op-friendly press conferences that she has achieved her status, it’s through her Supreme Court decisions and dissents—a far more banal form of exposure in comparison. Even in today’s age of smartwatches and delivery drones, the Supreme Court only allows audio—not video—recordings which keeps its deliberations cloaked in a certain degree of enigma. 

In The New Republic, Rebecca Traister wrote that Ginsburg’s internet reign “is a crucial expansion of the American imagination with regard to powerful women,” an idea I not only agree with, but broaden: Ginsburg’s internet reign is an expansion of our generation’s imagination regarding the larger political landscape as a whole. Pop culture and internet capital is no longer reserved for graffitied posters of presidential hope or jokes about a senator’s sartorial slights. Justices of the Supreme Court—arguably the least glamorous branch of our federal government, entrusted with the protection of the US Constitution—aren’t only relevant to the rights of young voters, but their Facebook feeds too.