“I couldn’t believe it,” my 70-something cousin told me after a recent visit from her teenage grandson. When they were deciding what movie to see, he told her, “We have to see ‘RBG’! She’s cool!”
I’d believe it in a heartbeat! The coolest, most dope superhero on screen now isn’t the Avengers. It’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. RBG, the 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice. Ginsburg, the subject of the engaging new CNN documentary “RBG,” is such a rock star that Lady Gaga is almost a warm-up act in her wake. Everyone from third wave feminists to hetero granddads is flocking to see the film. (The doc has grossed over $4 million, Vanity Fair reported. Most documentaries gross less than $1 million.) When I saw it, everyone aged from eight to 80 applauded not only when Ginsburg argues for equal rights (for women and men), but when she, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Super Diva,” pumps iron!
The release of “RBG,” co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, coincides with the 25th anniversary of Ginsburg’s appointment to the Supreme Court. (Ginsburg was appointed to the court by former President Bill Clinton in 1993.) As anyone not living on Mars knows, Ginsburg, beloved by liberals, feminists and the LGBTQ community for her support of women and marriage equality, is a popular Tumblr meme. We who are her fans can’t resist calling her the “Notorious RBG.” The moniker, a riff on the rapper Notorious B.I.G., was the title of a book about Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. “We were both born and bred in Brooklyn,” Ginsburg says of the rapper.
It’s hard to think of Supreme Court justices as living in this world rather than on Mount Olympus. “RBG,” through interviews with her friends, family and colleagues as well as archival footage of her late husband Martin (Marty), shows Ginsburg in her humanity. Her granddaughter calls her “bubbe,” and Marty says that her cooking is so bad that she’s banned from the kitchen. Whether listening to Ginsburg arguing cases in support of gender equality before the Supreme Court when she was with the American Civil Liberties Union, or watching her laugh as she views Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon’s impressions of herself, we’re seeing a vibrant, brilliant, woman — not an other-worldly monument. (Ginsburg was a ACLU Women’s Rights Project co-founder.)
It’s almost impossible to imagine today how restricted things were for women when Ginsburg came of age. In 1956, Ginsburg was one of only nine women in her class of some 500 men at Harvard Law School. Though she made the Harvard Law Review, the dean asked Ginsburg (and all the women in the class) why she felt justified in taking the place of a man. In that era, women couldn’t buy property, wear pants in public in some cities or eat alone in many restaurants.
Without Marty’s steadfast (and, for that time, exceptional) support, it’s unlikely that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have been able to raise a young daughter while going to law school. “RBG” makes it clear that her husband was instrumental in having his wife nominated to be a Supreme Court justice. Marty was her “New York Philharmonic,” says the couple’s friend and law professor Arthur Miller. “I became the person whose career came first,” Ginsburg says of her marriage.
Without making your eyes glaze over, “RBG” shows how Ginsburg has been a staunch and pioneering defender of women’s rights, marriage equality and reproductive freedom throughout her career — before and after going on the Supreme Court. “I ask no favor for my sex,” Ginsburg says, quoting 19th century abolitionist Sarah Grimke, “All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks.”
In the Trump era, the feet of our brethren are getting closer and closer to our necks. Here’s to RBG! May you be notorious forever!
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.