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How Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the ‘Notorious RBG’

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.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    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.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    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.

  • Shana Knizhnik:

    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.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    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.

  • Shana Knizhnik:

    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.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Once unleashed, the legend of RBG only grew.

  • Actor:

    Here now to comment is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Solidified in the larger cultural landscape by Kate McKinnon on "Saturday Night Live."

    Her Ginsburg singed opponents with the Gins-burn.

  • Kate McKinnon:

    That's a third-degree Gins-burn.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The phenomenon was captured in the 2018 documentary "RBG" co-directed by Betsy West.

  • 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.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The joke doesn't work unless there's a kernel of truth there, right?

  • Betsy West:

    Exactly. That's what made it funny and I think gave it the power to just launch her as a superstar.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    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.

  • Felicity Jones:

    Your Honor.

  • Stephen Colbert:

    Let's get shredded. Let's get stupid strong.

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

    Let's go.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ginsburg herself seemed to enjoy the ride.

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

    Pretty good.

  • Stephen Colbert:

    Thanks.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Allowing Stephen Colbert to join in her by then famous workout routine.

  • Stephen Colbert:

    I'm cramping, and I'm working out with an 85-year-old woman.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Which, by the way, the "RBG" documentary revealed was done while she watched the "NewsHour."

  • Stephen Colbert:

    Justice Ginsburg?

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

    Yes?

  • Stephen Colbert:

    High-five?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    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.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    You ever consider being a rapper?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

    I don't think I have that talent.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ginsburg, says Betsy West, saw the RBG character as a way to reach more people.

  • Betsy West:

    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.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    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.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Francesca Zambello is artistic director of the Washington National Opera, and a longtime friend of Ginsburg's.

  • Francesca Zambello:

    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.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    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."

  • Francesca Zambello:

    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.

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

    The most valorous Krakenthorpians have been women.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    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.

  • Natalie Maines:

    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.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You do?

  • Natalie Maines:

    I do, yes. So, she is an icon, for sure.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    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.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    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."

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