In 2014, Kate Livingston created a quirky Halloween costume for her 12-week-old son. It featured a black, sleeved onesie. And a white silken collar. And a pair of large, plastic-rimmed glasses. Livingston snapped a picture of the cosplaying infant—he provided the cool scowl—and then added a caption, in blunt all-caps, to the photo she took: “I DISSENT.” Ruth Baby Ginsburg was born.
Justices of the Supreme Court have traditionally existed above the fray. They wear body-obscuring black robes, stay stoic at the State of the Union address, and prioritize a long-view approach to human events. But Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died today at age 87, changed that model, because Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived within the fray: Particularly in her later years, she was a justice who was also a celebrity. There was Notorious RBG, the meme and the Tumblr and the book. There was On the Basis of Sex, the 2018 biopic telling the story of Ginsburg’s early years as a professor and a litigator. There was RBG, the documentary. There were Kate McKinnon’s swaggering impressions on Saturday Night Live (“You’ve been Ginsburned!”). And there was the array of RBG-themed goods: the prayer candles, the dolls, the coloring books, the jewelry. There are the collections of RBG-inspired collars. Hers is a visible fandom.
The celebrations, as outgrowths of an internet culture that has turned irony into an aesthetic, often amount to a form of kitsch. They revel in their own playful collisions, the Bubbie and Biggie. But they are not frivolous. And, following Ginsburg’s death, they have an epigraphic feel. Ginsburg’s celebrity was an adjunct to her legal career that recognized something essential about that career. One way you can read Ginsburg’s work, after all, is as a long-running assertion—conducted over decades, within lower courts and the highest in the land—that the law itself is much more personal than the staid traditions of the Court might imply. SCOTUS makes decisions on behalf of people’s bodies. It arbitrates on behalf of people’s minds. Civic participation, privacy, personhood, parenthood, family, love—these are not arguments; they are the warm facts of people’s lives. The RBG fandom, in its way, recognized that intimacy. In an era when too many American leaders treat human lives as abstractions, the fandom, even at its cheekiest, insisted on the Court’s humanity. The personal is political; the memes, like the person they celebrate, insisted that the personal is also judicial.