National News

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Freakish Online Strength

Posted September 12, 2019 12:41 p.m. EDT

Last month, when news broke that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 86-year-old Supreme Court justice, had received radiation therapy for a cancerous tumor, my brother’s former high school English teacher posted this on Facebook: “Today I changed my organ donor status so that now all of my organs go to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, even if I’m still alive.”

This is a familiar meme format on the left, where Ginsburg possesses an almost talismanic power. In the liberal imagination, she is styled as “Notorious R.B.G.,” cast as an action figure and used to market an improbable fitness plan. (“Notorious,” a nickname cribbed from rapper the Notorious B.I.G., is of a trendy class of digital blackface that seeks to imbue professional white women with black male swagger.) Fans operate as if this tough-gal persona might ward off all-out Republican rule — maybe even death itself.

The gap between Ginsburg’s petite physicality and her judicial weight is stretched for a laugh, but there are graver power differentials at play. Ginsburg holds one of the most powerful jobs in the country, and yet the zealous cheerleading around her functions as if she is somehow underappreciated. The whole exercise feels oddly strained.

Maybe it’s because the fandom around Ginsburg arose just as she transformed into a writer of fiery dissents — in other words, as she started to lose. In her fandom, real judicial losses can be refashioned into rhetorical wins. Cultural victories act as Band-Aids for political wounds.