Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Notorious RBG: Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg through her biggest pop culture moments

Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live (Screenshot); Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2018 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images); Felicity Jones in The Basis Of Sex (Focus Features)
Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live (Screenshot); Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2018 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images); Felicity Jones in The Basis Of Sex (Focus Features)

Supreme Court justices are rightfully well-known figures in the United States, but it’s arguable that none have ever permeated American pop culture as much as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Friday of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer at the age of 87.

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Raised in Brooklyn, and educated at Cornell University before attending Harvard and Columbia law schools, Justice Ginsburg graduated at the top of class, but still had trouble getting hired at a law firm because of her sex. The college professor first entered the national stage in the 1970s, when she argued and won a series of monumental sex-discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. After co-founding the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg spent 13 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit before President Clinton nominated her for the Supreme Court in 1993.

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Ginsburg’s profile elevated to new heights in 2013, after her impassioned dissent from the conservative court’s decision to remove voting rights protections. The move earned the soft-spoken and small-framed Justice the nickname “Notorious RBG,” which inspired viral memes and Halloween costumes (even for babies). In the final years of her life, Ginsburg became the focus of a documentary, the subject of a well-received biopic, and one of the most popular impersonations on Saturday Night Live. Here’s a look at those three projects.


RBG (2018)

As The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote when reviewing Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s 2018 documentary, RBG examines “Ginsburg’s transformation from a lawyer with a knack for arguing gender discrimination cases before the all-male Supreme Court in the 1970s (part of the strategy involved male clients, as in Weinberger V. Wiesenfeld and Califano V. Goldfarb, both in defense of widowers who had been denied Social Security survivors’ benefits), into a cautious liberal-leaning justice.” While well-reviewed by many outlets, Vishnevetsky found RBG to be a bit “lightweight”—but his review still acknowledges the impressive legacy Ginsburg leaves behind.

Her stances on women’s rights made Ginsburg a vilified figure for right-wing talk radio (RBG even opens with an audio montage of epithets) and, later, a liberal pop culture figure. There’s a reason, however, that Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions in high-profile Supreme Court decisions like Bush V. Gore and Burwell V. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. are much better known than her majorities; her judicial stance has always been that of a pragmatist, a moderate, and a middle-of-the-road Democrat. There are moments in RBG that offer fleeting insights into Ginsburg’s thinking as a legal strategist and a jurist—mostly its short interviews with Stephen Wiesenfeld, who was her client in Weinberger V. Wiesenfeld, and with Ted Olson, the future solicitor general who unsuccessfully argued on behalf of the then-all-male Virginia Military Institute in United States V. Virginia. But like all of the talking heads in RBG—which range from Bill Clinton to the co-author of the slacktivist hagiography Notorious RBG: The Life And Times Of Ruth Bader Ginsburg—these end up as generic testimonials to Ginsburg’s brilliance. The worst we hear—repeatedly—is that the octogenarian justice is a terrible cook.

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On The Basis Of Sex (2018)

Starring Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer, and written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, director Mimi Leder’s On The Basis Of Sex tells the Justice’s story, beginning with her first year of law school, and ending with her celebrating her fiery argument before the Denver Circuit Court of Appeals during 1970's Moritz v. Commissioner case. But, as our Caroline Siede wrote in her review, “On The Basis Of Sex is ultimately less about one woman blazing a trail for herself and more about the slow, pointed deconstruction of an entire sexist social order.”

On The Basis Of Sex emphasizes the limits of faux allyship by pointedly demonstrating what a true male ally looks like in Ginsburg’s husband, Martin Ginsburg (a charming Armie Hammer). As was compellingly explored in this year’s Ginsburg documentary RBG, the dynamics of Ruth and Marty’s marriage of equals were unusual for the time period. Marty handles the domestic duties of the Ginsburg household, including the cooking and emotional caretaking of their two children. His natural nurturing instincts tie into the court case at the heart of the film, one in which Ruth has to convince a trio of skeptical appellate court judges that it’s possible that an adult man might actually want to lovingly take care of his sick mother, not just use her as an excuse to cheat the tax system. On The Basis Of Sex asserts that the battle to defeat sexism can’t just be about women entering the professional sphere. It has to be about men being empowered in the domestic one, too. That’s an issue that’s plenty relevant today.... On The Basis Of Sex builds to an effective courtroom climax that argues that slow-and-steady legal change is just as important as flashier social revolution, especially when the two work in tandem.

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Saturday Night Live (2012— )

NBC’s sketch comedy series has always been home to some of TV’s best celebrity impersonations, but few have ever been as popular as the show’s original characters. Kate McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the few exceptions. In reviewing a 2016 episode hosted by Dave Chappelle, our Dennis Perkins commented the following:

McKinnon, the only cast member besides Leslie Jones who had much airtime tonight, came out as her Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this time more determined than ever to stay alive so that Trump can’t fill her seat. (She also urges President Obama to just go ahead and appoint GOP-blocked nominee Merrick Garland—which he can apparently do—if only so she can finally retire to that hermit shell crab in Aruba she’s had her eye on.) Downing an ungodly amount of that immune-boosting powder, McKinnon’s Ginsburg, as ever, is cranky and indomitable, doling out her patented “Ginsburns” to Trump associates Rudolph Giuliani and Mike Pence (“Sorry you watched Magnum P.I. and got a quarter chub and you’ve been mad about it ever since”), and doing her little victory dance.

McKinnon most recently channeled Ginsburg during SNL’s first remote episode, which was hosted by Tom Hanks in April. Filmed at McKinnon’s home (presumably on her phone or computer), the Emmy winner impersonated the Justice doing one of her infamous workouts. “Kate McKinnon had hand-drawn posters on her apartment walls for an appearance from her Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” wrote Perkins, “the indefatigable Supreme Court justice’s home workout routine making use of household items (Q-tips, batteries, a single piece of mostaccioli) as McKinnon made do without her RBG wig. (A doily around her neck the only nod to judicial finery.)”

Even in death, Ginsburg continues to influence the country she served for her entire adult life. “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” Ginsburg dictated in a statement to her granddaughter that was obtained by NPR following her death Friday. At the time of publication, it was reported that Trump already had a shortlist of candidates ready to submit for confirmation, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has released a statement vowing that “Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate”—despite the fact that the Republican-controlled Senate argued in 2016 that they should not consider replacing Justice Antonin Scalia so close to a presidential election. Scalia died eight months before the 2016 election. It is only 46 until Election Day 2020.

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A.V. Club Editor in Chief...but really just a She-Ra, Schitt’s Creek, Grey’s Anatomy, Survivor, Big Brother, Top Chef, The Good Place superfan.

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