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How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became the Most Popular Woman on the Internet

Web culture's revolutionary celebration of powerful female leaders

Following last week’s Hobby Lobby decision from the Supreme Court, the internet rose up in a chorus of lusty appreciation for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the justice who wrote a withering 35-page dissent in the case. All over Tumblr and Twitter, links appeared to the dizzying array of t-shirts bearing the term “Notorious RBG”; others about hearting Ruth Joan Bader Ginsburg, asking What Would Ruth Bader Ginsburg Do?, and suggesting that we should all Fear the Frill; and some simply presenting RBG, y’all. Musician Jonathan Mann set the words of her dissent to music as part of his “Song a Day” project, producing a very catchy chorus around the words “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield,” a line that is now also available on a t-shirt.

Most of the RBG-philic paraphernalia wasn’t new. It first cropped up a year ago, after Ginsburg’s ferocious retorts to the Fisher v. University of Texas decision that weakened Affirmative Action laws, and the Shelby County v. Holder decision, which gutted the Voting Rights Act, made her the hero of the internet and at least some portions of the nation. 

That was when the NYU law student Shana Knizhnik created her Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr and when digital strategist Aminatou Sow and designer Frank Chi covered Washington, D.C. with their homemade Can’t Spell Truth Without Ruth stickers. That happened to have been the same week that Texas State Senator Wendy Davis filibustered a bill that would severely restrict abortion rights, with more than 183,000 people watching on livestream deep into the night and taking up as their symbol the image of the practical sneakers Davis wore for close to twelve hours. All that came in the wake of the success of the Texts from Hillary Tumblr, which played off of the now iconic image of the then-secretary of State staring at her smart-phone from behind sunglasses. The photo, Texts from Hillary co-creator Adam Smith recently told reporter Monica Potts, “stuck with me … It made her seem so strong and powerful,” so he and a friend turned it into a meme, in which a hard-ass Hillary owns it in imagined text exchanges with everyone from Barack Obama to her husband to Mitt Romney to Meryl Streep.

The ability to present women like Ginsburg, Clinton and Davis as bone-crushingly robust yet simultaneously appealing, revered—practically adorable!—in their rugged severity, is a crucial expansion of the American imagination with regard to powerful women.

We do not have a proud track record of flattering female ambition or strength. Short a handful of super-heroines—Wonder Woman, and some characters usually most effectively embodied by Angelina Jolie—we have rarely been able to put a positive spin on the kinds of women who present an intellectual, economic, professional, or political threat to entrenched male power. Throughout history, we have acknowledged male strength, especially in its seniority, as serious and authoritative. Older women, on the other hand, have existed mostly as nanas, bubbes! Those sturdy, ambitious souls who also staked claims to public eminence were cast as problematic; tough ladies who no longer slide easily into Lycra are ball-busters, nut-crackers, and bitches.

Overriding these entrenched assumptions has been nearly impossible, even in the hundred years since women have had the vote, and in the sixty years since the feminist revolution of the '70s. Recall that just six years ago, there was simply no popular script available to positively convey then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s identity as a strong and ambitious politician. She struggled mightily with self-presentation, awkwardly talking like Jimmy Cagney about how “we can’t be patsies” in dealing with China, then swaying arrhythmically, in an image that has been painfully burned on my cerebellum, to Celine Dion’s ”You and I.”

It was in those same years that Justice Ginsburg was barbequing the court’s decision to uphold the partial-birth abortion ban in Gonzales v. Carhart, furiously pointing out that the protection of reproductive rights is not about “some vague or generalized notion of privacy” but rather about “a woman’s autonomy to decide for herself her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.” Back then, when Twitter was just taking off and Tumblr was being launched, and we still were relying on a largely centralized media to bring us our news, there was no one who set those words to music (though there should have been).

Now, mercifully—finally—young people who are creating a new vocabulary, a library of visual and aural iconography that warmly appreciates female power in not just its nubile, but also its senior, its brainy, its furious, and its professionally brawny forms.

Shana Knizhnik, 25, explained that a year ago, after the Fisher and Shelby decisions, and Ginsburg’s disemboweling dissents, her social media feeds were aflame with gratitude toward the court’s eldest justice, now 81. One of Knizhnik’s friends was the person who first left a comment about Ginsburg with the hashtag #notoriousRBG. Knizhnik, aware of the enthusiasm for Texts From Hillary, realized quickly that her friend had stumbled upon a meme. “It is impossible not to be amazed by Ginsburg,” Knizhnik told me by phone from Washington, D.C., where she is working this summer in the public defender’s office. She made the website and designed a t-shirt the same night; she thinks she has sold somewhere just under 5,000 shirts; readers continue to submit their own photos, artwork, and videos to the site.

Aminatou Sow, a digital strategist who is now 29, was living in Washington, D.C. when the Voting Rights Act decision came down. With a designer friend, Frank Chi, she was discussing Ginsburg’s blistering dissent; Chi took a photo of the Justice and added the Basquiat crown. Together, the two toyed with ideas for text, eventually settling on Can’t Spell Truth Without Ruth. They printed up stickers and plastered them all over Washington, D.C., where they became so ubiquitous that a reader wrote to Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column with an etiquette question about whether she had been right to approach Justice Ginsburg in a restaurant and ask her about the street displays. 

Later in the summer, another NYU law student and friend of Knizhnik’s, Kelly Cosby, worked with Fordham law student Beth Gavin and other colleagues on a video, playing off of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” with lyrics about Ginsburg: “You always fight/for equal justice/A diva in our eyes/Originalists can’t touch this.” The song also made reference to “getting Hillary’s texts,” making it clear that creators of these memes are at least partially aware of the larger work they’re doing in pulling these senior women into new contemporary contexts.

“The Notorious RBG stuff was already happening, and the Basquiat crown was an homage to hip-hop,” Sow told me by phone. “What makes this all possible, honestly, is Tumblr. This hyper-visual platform was born and everybody was really hungry to see powerful women on it.” 

The difference is between a consolidated media—television networks, newspapers and magazines controlled by older, usually male, usually white gate-keepers—and the democratized, raucous communicative organ that is the internet, in which a diverse rabble of young people make their own messages.

One of their chief tools is humor. “The name,” Knizhnik explained of her Tumblr, “is obviously a reference to Notorious B.I.G., who is this large, imposing rapper, a really powerful figure; and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is this 90-pound Jewish grandmother. The juxtaposition of the two made it humorous, but is also a celebration of how powerful she really is.” Sow made a similar observation. “There is something very subversive about this kind of humor,” she said. “It’s cloaking RBG in hip-hop culture, but it’s almost saying the joke is on everyone else: this woman is incredibly powerful and she gets it and she’s totally a G.”

Ironically—given assumptions about the unbridgeability of generation gaps—these expressions of admiration also lend their subjects a shimmer of juvenescence. Young people see in these women a youth to which the mainstream commentariat is often blind to. “You get this sense that she is young at heart, and she plays really well into internet culture,” said Sow of Ginsburg, whose online following has unearthed and popularized images of her as a toddler and as a foxy undergraduate—and has expressed their enthusiasm for her not only via hip-hop homages, but also in nail art.

Sow has observed—and participated in—a similar phenomenon around Hillary; Images of the former Secretary as a college student and young lawyer, as “smokin’” hot in her “hippie days” now abound. And then there was Texts from Hillary’s mash-up of Hillary with the Ryan Gosling “Hey Girl…” meme, producing the Tumblr entry that Clinton—improbably and hilariously!—named as her favorite.

It certainly helps that the women seem happy to play along. Hillary famously met with the Texts from Hillary guys, and used its now-iconic image of her as her Twitter avatar. Meanwhile, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Ginsburg is aware of and happy about all the appreciative hooting happening around her. Not only did the “Dear Prudence” writer show her the stickers in the restaurant, but nearly every one of the creators of Ginsburg-iana claims to have seen emails from the justice expressing her admiration for the tributes. Matthew Ahn, a recent law school graduate who did the sound editing and some of the writing on the “Juicy” video, heard from a friend who attended a New York City Bar talk in February that the video was playing on a loop before speeches began; when the friend inquired about it, she was told that it was at the request of Justice Ginsburg. 

For a figure like Ginsburg, who is often met with calls to retire, these expressions of awe must be nice. But for Clinton—for whom youth support was elusive in her last presidential bid—they might be strategically invaluable.  Just this week comes a new Tumblr: Beyoncé Voters, a play on this silly season’s new catch-phrase for the powerful, unmarried, young female electorate … exactly the people on whom Clinton, and all future female politicians, will be relying for votes. It’s a breath-catching gallery of the contemporary worship and respect for powerful women, including Clinton, GinsburgMichelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren, woven with fresh attitudes and good humor about what’s possible in the world, using images and hashtags and jokes and scraps of lyrics to invert old prejudices about vulnerability and maternity and femininity into embodiments of brawn and might.

What all this shows, Sow said, is that “we are so hungry to see powerful women in the places where none of them have been before that we pour all our hope and enthusiasm into them.” A longtime fan of Clinton, Sow said she’s unsure if the new lexicon of cool toughness “will give her any kind of political capital” going into a 2016 election. “But what is very exciting,” she said, “is that it does expand the conversation about her…I hope she gets the Texts from Hillary dudes to be on her campaign in some capacity.”

As for Ginsburg, there is a particular poetry in this form of celebration. Ginsburg has previously spoken of how, when she was appointed to the court as only its second female justice, alongside Sandra Day O’Connor, the two women were given t-shirts that read “I’m Ruth, Not Sandra” and “I’m Sandra, Not Ruth.”

Now, while the court’s decisions may only have gotten grimmer, at least there are a whole passel of better t-shirts for Ginsburg and her fellow female justices to wear under their robes.