At 5’1” and barely 100 pounds, Ruth Bader Ginsburg earned her nickname “The Notorious RBG” by the sheer force of who she was as a judge: a feminist icon, a rebel, an indefatigable advocate for justice and yes – an unparalleled cultural icon.
At 87 years old, the Supreme Court associate justice was the longest-serving female justice and a larger-than-life figure for progressives, especially women.
Much of her pop-culture fame, which went well beyond politics, likely started with a Tumblr account that Ginsburg said was made by a law school student over her 2013 dissent of the Shelby County case, which Ginsburg said “took the heart out of” the Voting Rights Act.
The nickname went viral, and soon “Notorious RBG” — derived from “The Notorious BIG,” the nickname of the late rapper Biggie Smalls — was on everything from T-shirts and mugs to bookmarks and shoes.
“She quoted The Notorious RBG after the famous rapper Notorious BIG because she knew that the two of us had one thing in common,” Ginsburg said of her nickname’s inception while speaking at the University of Chicago several years ago. “We were both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York. Anyway, from there it took out into the stratosphere.”
“Notorious RBG” became the name of a book on her life in 2015 and “RBG” was a 2018 Oscar-nominated documentary.
The story of her young life – fighting to be taken seriously as a Jewish woman in the “good old boys”’ world of the 1950s and ’60s – was also fictionalized in the 2018 award-winning film “On the Basis of Sex.”
Despite repeated cancer battles, the diminutive justice was also known for her vigorous workouts and for hardly ever missing a day on the bench.
Comedian Kate McKinnon’s sassy, strong and hilarious “Saturday Night Live” portrayal – arguably the most famous – infected Ginsburg’s studious and serious personality with more than a bit of snark some hip hop dance breaks. But it was never an insult; to those whom she inspired, it was a projection of her inner spirit.
McKinnon’s last portrayal of the legendary justice was a video made by the actress while the cast was shooting videos from home because of the coronavirus. During the satiric workout video, McKinnon’s Ginsburg says she plans to work out both her “tuchus” and her “critical thinking.”
Sometimes called “Queen” or one of the “Supremes,” (along with other female justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, in a reference to Diana Ross’ famous group) Ginsburg inspired a new generation of young progressives who were likely closer to the age of her grandchildren.
Her death Friday was a great loss to the judiciary for those on the progressive side of the aisle, but it was undoubtedly only the beginning for “The Notorious RBG” as an icon.