Column

RBG and the Notorious Meme-ification of Female Leaders

Memes don’t glorify female leaders — they flatten them

Meghan Daum
GEN
Published in
7 min readJul 8, 2020

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she presents the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Inaugural Woman of Leadership Award
Photo: Shannon Finney/Getty Images Entertainment

In recent weeks, on top of the baseline fury over everything else — deep-rooted systemic racial injustices, the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus, Russian military aggressions that Trump doesn’t seem to care about (take your pick!) — a new and rather surprising tendril of outrage began to blossom: outrage at 86-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

As targets of anger go, you’d think Ginsburg would be low on the list. Beloved by progressives and lionized by many feminists, her voice has been a lifeline, or at least an emotional balm, for liberals who are terrified by the right-leaning direction of the court. In 2013, her thundering dissent in a landmark decision against voting rights gave rise to her rebranding as a Tumblr hero and designated badass among young millennial women. Shana Knizhnik, then an NYU law student, bestowed her with a catchy nom de guerre, Notorious R.B.G., an homage to the rapper Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G. By 2015, Knizhnik, along with writer Irin Carmon, had authored a bestselling book, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Soon, the nickname was a brand. There was RBG merchandise (made by sellers unaffiliated with the book), including earrings shaped like the collar Ginsburg famously wore with her jury robe whenever she was about to issue a dissent. There were children’s books, coloring books, Saturday Night Live sketches, a tattoo craze, and documentary film as well as a scripted biopic. Images of Ginsburg’s tiny body working out with tiny dumbbells in a sweatshirt reading “Super Diva” (culled from footage from the documentary) became a symbol of steely, granny-ish defiance to patriarchal status quo. Though Ginsburg had made an art of resistance long before the era of #Resistance (she was arguing women’s rights cases before the Supreme Court back in the days when women often couldn’t get their own credit cards) she had suddenly become a meme unto herself.

But now, the collective crush on Ginsburg seems to be crushing some progressives’ souls.

“Hey, everyone, RBG is MAGA now,” tweeted popular podcast host Wayne Dupree late last…

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Meghan Daum
GEN
Writer for

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything. www.theunspeakablepodcast.com www.meghandaum.com