How Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became a Rock Star
The new doc ‘RBG’ chronicles the life of the trailblazing Supreme Court justice. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen write about their experience trailing Ginsburg for two years.
Over the past two years filming a documentary about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we have witnessed the phenomenon of an octogenarian legal scholar who is a genuine rock star, especially among the millennial generation. Her face launches a thousand memes. Her legendary workouts inspire books and articles. Her words are quoted on T-shirts and tote bags.
Supreme Court justices frequently travel around the country to participate in legal conferences or speak at law schools. When Justice Ginsburg arrives, she is mobbed. At Fordham Law School, where she was to participate in a seemingly dry conversation about the federal judiciary, ticketless students swarmed the entrance, even though the event had long sold out. “Just the thought that I might catch a glimpse of her is overwhelming,” one earnest undergraduate told us.
Surely, Justice Ginsburg’s late-in-life superstardom has been boosted by Kate McKinnon’s genius impression of her on Saturday Night Live and by the sly “Notorious RBG” moniker. But there’s something much more serious at its core: liberals are drawn to her sturdy opposition, written in language that resonates with non-lawyers, to conservative Supreme Court rulings.
The internet’s RBG frenzy took off in 2013 when she wrote a scathing dissent to the Shelby County v. Holder case. The Court’s decision removing some Voting Rights protections in southern states, she wrote, was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Sharp dissents in reproductive rights and affirmative action cases led to more fans, more memes and even an unlikely fashion trend: Ginsburg tattoos.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, while we were in the midst of shooting our film, we watched the phenomenon of RBG love from the left intensify. Now, at early screenings of our film, women don’t just carry the “I Dissent” tote bags; they show up in full RBG regalia—robe, collar and all. And, those distraught over our nation’s current leadership seem to take solace in the thought of Ginsburg doing planks and push-ups under the supervision of her military-grade personal trainer. “How’s her health?” Democratic friends invariably ask us.
The post-election phenomenon of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have bolstered the liberal view of Ginsburg-as-national-treasure.
RBG, as our film details, started fighting for equal rights for women under the Constitution at a time when that concept was downright radical. In a series of pioneering cases she brought before the Supreme Court as a litigator in the 1970s, she argued that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment guarantees equal rights for women, just as it does for racial minorities. It was a body of law she was largely responsible for developing, and that she capped off in 1996 by writing the definitive majority ruling on the subject in United States v. Virginia. In that case, which opened the historically all-male Virginia Military Institute to women, Ginsburg wrote: “This opinion does mark as presumptively invalid a law that denies to women equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.”
Today, while women at the grassroots level are finding their voices but the centers of government power are dominated by men on the right, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is more relevant than she’s ever been. She has become more than the sum of her impressive early legal career championing equal rights for women and her 38 impressive years on the federal bench. She has become a symbol of speaking truth to power—or Ruth to power, as the meme-makers prefer to say.
She told us that she was inspired to study law by the example of lawyers during the McCarthy era defending the rights of those wrongly accused of betraying their country.
Today, liberals see Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the last barrier protecting the principles they hold dear from a conservative Supreme Court, Congress and now White House—a tiny, 85-year-old jurist, grandmother and cancer survivor surveying the landscape and quietly but firmly saying, “I dissent.”
RBG is now playing in theaters.