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'Notorious RBG': The Supreme Court Justice Turned Cultural Icon

Ginsburg (center) on a white-water rafting trip in Colorado in 1990.
Courtesy of Burt Neuborne Dey Street Books
Ginsburg (center) on a white-water rafting trip in Colorado in 1990.

Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia ride an elephant in India in 1994.
Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States Dey Street Books
Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia ride an elephant in India in 1994.

Notorious RBG features a collection of tributes to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (right) Ginsburg is seen her chambers with a young fan.
Molly Baltimore, Andrea Aurmanita, Matthew Winters Dey Street Books
Notorious RBG features a collection of tributes to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (right) Ginsburg is seen her chambers with a young fan.

Supreme Court justices are generally robed and mysterious figures. Their faces are not emblazoned on tee shirts, painted on fingernails, tattooed on arms and shoulders, and their characters are not parodied on TV programs ranging from Saturday Night Live to Scandal. At least not until Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a cultural icon at about the same time she turned 80. Much of that iconic status is attributed to a Tumblr called "Notorious RBG," which now has been transformed into a graphic non-fiction book, due out Tuesday.

Like any Tumblr, "Notorious R.B.G." allows people to post pretty much anything and do it anonymously. And so it was that Shana Knizhnik, enraged by the Supreme Court's 2012 ruling gutting the Voting Rights Act, created a tribute Tumblr for the equally furious dissenter in that case: Justice Ginsburg. "Notorious RBG" quickly took off like a bobsled on ice.

Soon Ginsburg heard about the Tumblr. She laughingly explained in an interview with this reporter that one of her law clerks told her about it. The clerk, she added, "also explained to me what Notorious R.B.G. was a parody on." Giggling while telling the story, she continued, "Well, my grandchildren love it, and I try to keep abreast of what's on the Tumblr."

The "Notorious R.B.G." tumblr is a reference to the late 300-pound rapper, Notorious B.I.G., known as "Biggie," whose lyrics are raunchy enough that it's hard to find a printable line.

"Obviously, the humor is in the contrast," Knizhnik said. "It's about thinking of this ... small, Jewish grandmother, as contrasted to this larger than life persona that was Notorious B.I.G.." They have something in common, she observed. Besides both being from Brooklyn, they both "pack a verbal punch."

Knizhnik created the "Notorious R.B.G." Tumblr when she was still in law school at New York University. Now she and Irin Carmon, an MSNBC reporter, have written a highly illustrated non-fiction book about the iconic rise of R.B.G., who she is, how she got to the Supreme Court, and why young women want to be like her.

"I don't think the iconic status that she's achieved could happen without social media at all," Carmon said, "because I think the Internet has given young women the opportunity to choose our own heroes." And the reason that so many young women have chosen the octogenarian justice as their hero, she maintained, is that "there's this desire on the internet to find something that feels authentic, and real and raw."

What Carmon and Knizhnik learned in working on their book is that Justice Ginsburg's life embodies way more than they knew. They knew she had been the architect of the legal fight for women's equal rights in the 1960s and 70s. They didn't know that when she entered Harvard Law School, the dean told her she was taking the place of a man. They didn't know that she already had a daughter back then, that her husband was battling cancer, and that she moved with him to New York where she graduated first in her class from Columbia Law School and was recommended for a Supreme Court clerkship.

But, being a woman, she was not even interviewed. It was so difficult in those days for a professional woman to get a job that she hid her pregnancy while a professor at Rutgers; she didn't want to screw up her chances of getting tenure.

The book has lots of these stories, tons of photos, drawings, a selection of annotated opinions, dissents, and doodles by RBG, and the Notorious RBG workout. Yes, her workout, which, as Carmon observed, includes 20 pushups: "Every time I tell somebody that she can do 20 push-ups, no one believes me. But, we fact-checked it."

Indeed, Knizhnik recalled the first time she met Ginsburg was a prearranged introduction at the Court that turned out to be just a few days after Ginsburg had a stent put in her heart to correct a blockage. "We asked how she was doing, and what we could tell her followers, and she said, 'tell them I'll be back doing push-ups in a few days.'"

But what surprised Knizhnik and Carmon the most was Ginsburg's derring-do, her parasailing, her waterskiing, and her white-water rafting well into her 60s and 70s. Carmon tells the story of a rafting trip where a Ginsburg friend tried to persuade the diminutive justice to move from the front of the raft to the back because he feared she would be swept away in the unprotected front seat.

R.B.G.'s response: "I don't sit in the back."

"One thing we learned while we were writing the book was that she's been underestimated her whole life," Carmon said. Some thought her "not radical enough, not liberal enough, too female, and too much a mother," according to Carmon. Others called her "dull," her writing "not intellectual enough."

"She's proven all those myths wrong," Carmon declared. "So I think a lot of young women know what it's like to be underestimated in that way, and they're inspired by the fact that she ... has so much integrity in who she is."

"The first Ruth Bader Ginsburg meme I ever saw was on Election Day 2012," Carmon said. "It was a portrait of her that said 'Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not have cancer twice and never miss a day on the bench, so you could stay home and not vote.'"

On a lighter note, the book also includes a section called "R.B.G.'s Swag," about the judicial collars she wears on the bench, with a black beaded number reserved for dissents. The authors note as well that Ginsburg often wears lacey gloves in public, but they admit that they didn't know why. To be sure, it's fashion, but also to hide the permanent bruises on her hands from her chemotherapy years ago.

The book also contains a "How to be like R.B.G." section. Things like, "Think about what you want, then do the work ... but then enjoy what makes you happy."

As the young authors put it succinctly, "R.B.G. gets out — a lot."

And finally, there is even a lyrical remix of Biggie's "Juicy" called "R.B. Juicy" rewritten for R.B.G., and captured on YouTube:

"Damn right, I'm gonna speak my mind

Because if we're not ahead, we're behind

And it's all good..."

After this treatment, surely, Biggie would agree that R.B.G. truly is notorious.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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