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Anne Azzi Davenport
Anne Azzi Davenport
Ruth Bader Ginsburg made legal history in academia beginning in her 20s, working her way through the legal ranks to become a Supreme Court justice at age 60. But when she was in her 80s, something surprising happened: she became a pop culture icon. Jeffrey Brown reports as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
Finally tonight: Ruth Bader Ginsburg had made legal history in academia starting in her 20s, then worked her way through the legal ranks and became a Supreme Court justice at age 60.
But, when she was in her 80s, something new happened. She became a pop culture icon.
Jeffrey Brown has our look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Appropriate for the age of social media, the cultural stardom of Ruth Bader Ginsburg began in 2013 with a Tumblr account, the Notorious RBG, a takeoff on the well-known rapper the Notorious B.I.G.
It was the creation of then-NYU Law student Shana Knizhnik, inspired by a powerful Ginsburg dissent defending voting rights.
The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg": Justice Ginsburg's words were sort of this beacon of hope and a call to action to those us who cared about those issues.
Knizhnik would co-author a "Notorious RBG" book, and get to know the justice herself, who even presided at Knizhnik's marriage.
The power of the cultural symbol, she says, spoke especially to young people.
Particularly young women don't have that many examples of older women who have achieved the sort of status that she had achieved, but more so who had experienced discrimination herself, and then turned around and actually fought that discrimination.
So, I think the intergenerational aspect of the Notorious RBG phenomenon is something that I always was extremely proud of.
Once unleashed, the legend of RBG only grew.
Here now to comment is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Solidified in the larger cultural landscape by Kate McKinnon on "Saturday Night Live."
Her Ginsburg singed opponents with the Gins-burn.
That's a third-degree Gins-burn.
The phenomenon was captured in the 2018 documentary "RBG" co-directed by Betsy West.
It was so incongruous in some ways.
Here is this tiny, shy elderly woman, very retiring, serious person, and yet there was something true at the core of Notorious RBG. I mean, she was standing up, she was strong, she was powerful.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
I am 84 years old, and everyone wants to take a picture with me.
The joke doesn't work unless there's a kernel of truth there, right?
Exactly. That's what made it funny and I think gave it the power to just launch her as a superstar.
T-shirts, tattoos, and bobble-head dolls, real-life babies and an 8-year-old dressed as her superhero.
The documentary was followed by a film dramatization of her life, "On the Basis of Sex," with Felicity Jones ones as Ginsburg.
Let's get shredded. Let's get stupid strong.
Ginsburg herself seemed to enjoy the ride.
Allowing Stephen Colbert to join in her by then famous workout routine.
I'm cramping, and I'm working out with an 85-year-old woman.
Which, by the way, the "RBG" documentary revealed was done while she watched the "NewsHour."
And she had fun with the pop culture tie to rap music, though it was not her genre. In 2016, she talked with our late colleague Gwen Ifill.
You ever consider being a rapper?
I don't think I have that talent.
Ginsburg, says Betsy West, saw the RBG character as a way to reach more people.
She saw it as an opportunity to spread her message, her ideas about our Constitution, about equal rights, about the 14th Amendment.
Here was a way to spread that message to a lot of people who really don't pay much attention to what's going on in the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg was not only loved by the culture; she loved it back. She was a lifelong and constant theatergoer, often greeting cast and crew backstage.
Her greatest passion was opera, shared with her close friend and fierce ideological opponent on the court Antonin Scalia.
Francesca Zambello :
She was, in that sense, I say, really our greatest fan.
Francesca Zambello is artistic director of the Washington National Opera, and a longtime friend of Ginsburg's.
RBG was notorious for her love of opera. I think that it was the thing that gave her relief from her incredible pursuit of so many important issues.
But, also, she was very outspoken about the arts in general, and particularly opera. There is just no way that opera would reach the amount of people that it tries to reach without having a spokesperson like her explaining why the stories and the music and the characters were so important today, just as they were at the time that things were composed.
She became a subject of opera in composer Derrick Wang's 2015 work "Scalia/Ginsburg," inspired by the opinions of the two justices, and then a participant, when the justice herself appeared on stage in Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment."
There's a small speaking role in the second act where there's basically a marriage contract being brokered.
And I asked her if she would like to do it. And she willingly said yes. But she asked me, could I rewrite the text? And I said, if that's your only condition, sign on the dotted line. And so she rewrote the text. And it was very, very funny.
The most valorous Krakenthorpians have been women.
In recent days, images and reflections have poured in from other cultural figures.
Natalie Maines, lead singer of the band The Chicks, told us her thoughts about a woman she saw as a fellow strong chick.
I just love how she just never stopped. She just, I think, lived a great life and lived a genuine life and made a huge impact on democracy.
I have got her sticker on my oven.
I do, yes. So, she is an icon, for sure.
An icon and role model for many, and it's continued since her death, with new signs of her impact touching the cultural life in the America of 2020:, the lace, or jabot, collar she loved to wear now added to the Fearless Girl Statue in New York, masks in a time of pandemic, and a large mural painted on a Washington, D.C., wall now a gathering spot to remember RBG.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.
And you have got to love every bit of it. Just love that piece.
Thank you, Jeff.
And tomorrow night, we will present a prime-time "PBS NewsHour" special, "RBG: Her Legacy and the Court's Future."
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
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