Two new films about Ruth Bader Ginsburg reveal her continued impact on pop culture

Mar 29, 2019 | Culture, Drama

“How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” In 1956, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was at dinner with the eight other female students out of a class of 500, when the current dean of Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold, asked the women this question. It’s a scene seen in the trailer and it opens the film “On the Basis of Sex.”

Despite facing such blatant gender discrimination during her time in law school, Justice Ginsburg went on to become a trailblazer in eradicating gender inequality one step at a time. Her strong devotion to eliminating gender discrimination and her ascension to a seat on the highest court in the land has attracted a growing fan base and led to Justice Ginsburg’s unlikely rise not only as a role model but as a pop icon. 

Two films in 2018 reflect the public’s interest in her: “On the Basis of Sex,” which stars Felicity Jones in the biographical legal drama film on the life and early cases of the Supreme Court Justice, and “RBG,” a documentary that chronicles more of her life and later career.

The two films depict her emergence as a pop culture icon and role model by covering different aspects of her life. “On the Basis of Sex,” released in December, traces Justice Ginsburg’s life from a humble start at the beginning of law school to her work to change the legal system in a male-dominated world. The film focuses heavily on the start of her career, and the central conflict is built around one of her earliest cases concerning the Social Security Act that favored women over a man because it granted certain benefits to widows but not widowers (Wienberg vs. Weisenfield). 

This was one of the six landmark cases regarding gender equality (for both men and women) that she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the documentary “RBG,” which debuted at Sundance and was released in May, takes audiences through her life, beyond the earlier cases and into her lifelong fight for women’s rights. Both films give careful consideration to the significant strides Justice Ginsburg has made in improving gender equality and her impact on the public.

Justice Ginsburg’s celebrity status can be traced to 2013 with “The Notorious RBG” meme. The highly stylized photo of Justice Ginsburg wearing a crown and trademark lace collar was created by NYU student Shana Knizhnik, who created a viral Tumblr blog that shared excerpts from several dissenting opinions 

authored by Justice Ginsburg (Knizhnik would go on to co-write the bestselling biography Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg).

The meme depicts Justice Ginsburg as a gangster-like figure, riffing off the stage name of the hip-hop performer The Notorious B.I.G. The image took off on social media, usually accompanied by captions like, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Justice Ginsburg is 5 feet 1 inch tall and below 100 pounds but remains physically and mentally strong even after several health obstacles including cancer recurrence. Her “tremendous trailblazing force” despite her small stature coined her catchy title.

“She’s the least likely person to seek celebrity in the way that she’s achieved it now,” said Knizhnik, now an attorney. “That contradiction between her personality as a very serious person and the larger-than-life ‘Notorious’ title is what’s so funny and cheeky about her.”

 While in 2019 protests often highlight contemporary activism, promote unity, and give voice to groups striving for power, Justice Ginsburg identified her skepticism of the results stemming from protests. “Protests are important, but changing the culture means nothing if the law doesn’t change,” she stated. However, she is often referred to as a judge who supports gender equality activism. 

Justice Ginsburg strives to have her granddaughters read the Constitution with the notion that women and men are “persons of equal stature” and that is a fundamental principle of society.

Out of the 114 justices who have served on the US Supreme Court, only four of them have been women. Currently, Justice Ginsburg is only one of three female justices—but she is working to include more women on the court and has an ultimate goal of appointing nine female justices. Through her celebrity status, Ginsburg is inspiring another generation of women to pursue her objective.

An indomitable force as a litigator, a respected figure on the Supreme Court, and now a pop icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has changed the makeup of the United States and continues to do so.