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Citizens mourn the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo taken from Victoria Pickering on Creative Commons, titled "Vigil for RBG."

Stop morphing RBG into an icon; she wasn’t infallible

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

On Sept. 18, 2020, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87, prompting millions on the internet to express their overwhelming grief. Similar to every other possible topic, the internet has taken Ginsburg’s death five steps too far; whether it’s making Christianized edits of a vocally Jewish woman, selling “RIP R.B.G.” t-shirts or having violent public meltdowns over her death, fans have fervently obsessed over the late justice, turning her into more of a meme or leftist icon. However, this well-intentioned glorification disrespects both her life and legacy as a legal scholar as well as those who have been harmed by her controversial rulings. 

To begin with, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a Jewish woman. Editing her to look like the Virgin Mary, creating RBG Christmas ornaments or putting her image on Mexican prayer candles both erases that part of her identity as well as subtly mocks the culture the images come from. (While we’re on the topic, the Jewish tradition says, “May her memory be for a blessing” in place of the Christian “Rest in peace.”) 

Many have also criticized her very nickname “Notorious R.B.G,” which she earned for her intense dissents to majority Supreme Court decisions, for creating a sanitized form of Blackface that derives humor from placing a 5’2” Jewish judge in the place of a 90’s rapper. 

Furthermore, putting a cartoon of Ginsburg in a Biggie Smalls’ crown on a tote bag does not honor her Supreme Court rulings or acknowledge her position as one of the country’s nine most powerful judges. Rather, it distorts her into a representative or image of left white feminism and both cheapens her impact as a well-educated, driven legal scholar and discourages valid criticisms — whether of her statements regarding social and political change or her decision not to retire in 2015. 

Memeifying Ginsburg also discounts her flaws as an influential government figure, such as her support of the Atlantic Coast pipeline, her comments on Colin Kaepernick and athletes’ peaceful protest or even her partisan critiques of the 2016 election. This idolization leaves zero room to acknowledge her human fallibility, nor is there room for valid criticisms of the work she’s done or the change she’s evoked. 

Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize that it was not Ginsburg’s role to be a leftist icon, political activist or even a representative. She was appointed to the Supreme Court to hear cases and interpret constitutional law. Therefore, assigning her the role of failed activist or endearing meme not only diminishes the weight of her position but overlooks her record on the bench as a justice and brilliant constitutional law scholar. 

Contrary to popular belief, objectively, Ginsburg was not a liberal justice; the only reason she was identified as so was because she joined the bench’s left wing as the Court became more conservative over the last 30 years. While she was a strong and vocal proponent of women’s rights, as well as those of the LGBTQ+ community and other minorities, it is important to note that her support was legal based, not social. She was never a political activist or a staunch supporter of partisan agendas. She didn’t have to be, and in her position as a justice of the Supreme Court, she couldn’t be. 

Now more than ever, it is important to acknowledge the triumphs as well as the shortcomings of our political leaders. While the aura of respect, admiration and awe that surrounded Ginsburg was not entirely undeserved, it would be both foolish and shortsighted to put her on a pedestal as an unerring beacon of female power, as well as disrespectful to the existence of the many people who suffered as a direct result of her political decisions.