Our heroes, it is often said, reveal a lot about us. Alas, if you take even a cursory glance at today’s third-wave feminist heroes—one might say “heroines,” but that would probably be a dated, gender-binary, and vaguely oppressive mistake—you may rightly conclude, among other things, that the women’s liberation movement has long gone completely off the rails.
Take Lena Dunham, the modern feminist poster child, frequent train wreck, and creator of HBO’s “Girls,” who spends the bulk of her time wandering through the mists of an eager media, resembling a confused, woefully opinionated vending machine that only dispenses terrible ideas. Then there’s “feminist icon” Hillary Rodham Clinton, a presidential candidate who rocketed to fame largely because of her husband, and who is also, unfortunately for those who celebrate her, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
One of the more recent entrants into the hall of “You Must Love Her, Because Every Woman Does!” feminist fame, however, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the diminutive Supreme Court justice who adores abortion, occasionally flirts with eugenics—more on that later—and who is the subject of a newly-released, gushing hagiography entitled “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
“Notorious RBG,” of course, is a loopy play on the late “Notorious B.I.G.,” a rotund rapper from Brooklyn named Christopher Wallace. Wallace, also known as “Biggie Smalls,” “Big Poppa,” and sometimes simply “Biggie,” became famous in the 1990’s by rhyming things like “escargot” and “my car go,” spouting anthems like “Big Booty Hoes,” and rapping lines like “your daughter’s tied up in a Brooklyn basement.” He was a pretty good rapper, I guess. He was not a very good feminist.
This is not to demean the cultural and historical impact of Biggie Smalls. His largest commercial success, 1997’s “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems”—which also featured Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and the rapper Mase—exploded as a massive hit, especially in the factory where I worked that summer to help pay for college. Ah, the memories: We’d insert tiny screws into tiny valves, bored out of our gourds, to the tune of “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems”; we’d stamp in O-ring after O-ring, Biggie blazing, haunted by our supervisor’s warning that it was a carelessly inserted O-ring from this very factory that had blown up the Challenger space shuttle. (Full disclosure: It was not.)
My love for “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems,” interestingly, came at a time when one of my main problems was not having any money at all. Such is the power of a good old-fashioned rap/pop anthem, I suppose: In the end, the words don’t really have to mean anything. This foggy standard also holds true in other, more political realms; I’ll have more on that later as well.
Ginsburg’s transformation into the “Notorious RBG” came at the hands of Shana Knizhnik, who created a blog of the same name in 2013. Then a law student and now a law clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals, Knizhnik was inspired by Ginsburg’s salty dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, a case dismissing a portion of the Voting Rights Act. Since then, her blog has inspired various strains of out-and-out Ginsberg mania, at least in certain circles, including a flood of cheerful “Notorious RBG” memes, t-shirts, greeting cards, and baby onesies.
Ginsburg, as Irin Carmon recently wrote in The New York Times, has quickly morphed into a “pop culture icon.” Thanks in part to Knizhnik’s blog, she added, “legions of young women have chosen the octogenarian as their quiet-voiced but steel-spined” object of adoration. With this in mind, Carmon, an MSNBC contributor, teamed up with Knizhnik to bring the viral blog’s concept to book form. The result: “Notorious RBG,” which is 227 froth-filled pages of Ginsburg love.
A Ruth Bader Ginsburg Cartoon
To be sure, “Notorious RBG” has its endearing moments. In many ways, Ginsburg did blaze an early and legitimate feminist trail, going where few women—Harvard Law School, then the Harvard Law Review, just for starters—had gone before. There’s also Ginsburg’s unlikely and charming friendship with Antonin Scalia, her longtime love with her jocular husband, Marty (his pork loin recipe appears on page 183), her tough-lady workout routine, and her singular passion for the opera.
Unfortunately, the book’s endearing sprouts often get buried under 17 thick-frosted layers of ridiculousness. In “Notorious RBG,” everything that Ginsburg writes is either blow-your-mind brilliant or a “burn.” The book is, quite literally, cartoonish: Side-margin sketches show smug male justices like John Roberts saying “LOL” about racism; only RBG, queenly and stoic, is there to correct him. In this wide-eyed, balloon-lettered world, even an anodyne Ginsburg letter to the postmaster general holds the drama of the Peloponnesian War: “That man may not have known what hit him,” Carmon writes, breathless. Well, there’s a decent chance he did, but okay.
More troubling, but unsurprising, is the book’s easy acquiescence to modern feminist dogma, in which abortion means everything, soulless corporations block hapless women from the most basic forms of birth control, and the government serves as the ultimate father figure. In this lens—and, largely, in Ginsburg’s—partial-birth abortion bans are merely a ruse to keep women in the kitchen, not an act against brutality; the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case had nothing to do with religious liberty, meanwhile, and everything to do with The Man.
Ginsburg’s most infamous elephant in the room never fully hoists its trunk in “Notorious RBG”—which, I suppose, should also surprise no one. In a 2009 interview with New York Times Magazine, Ginsburg set the Internet ablaze with the following comment, which seemed to come straight from Eugenics 101, as taught at Eugenics Community College in Eugenicsville, USA: “Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”
Yikes. Three years later, at the concerned prompting of the same interviewer—Slate’s Emily Bazelon—Ginsburg assured the world that nothing sinister was afoot. She was merely referring to the global craze for general population control that surged in the 1970s, she averred, and nothing more. Unfortunately, this doesn’t explain the second part of Ginsburg’s quote—“and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of”—and it certainly doesn’t clarify her unfortunate choice of the word “we.” It also doesn’t explain why she gave that particular answer when discussing abortion access for, you guessed it, the poor.
Words, Words Words
Don’t worry, though: The Notorious RBG is big on obvious hints. Just last year, in an interview with Elle magazine, Ginsburg responded to an earnest question about poor women’s lack of access to abortion with the following: “It makes no sense as a national policy to promote birth only among poor people.” Ginsburg’s questioner came from a clear angle of sympathy for poor women being denied “basic health care”; Ginsburg, equally clearly, saw the main problem as a matter of managing questionable populations.
But never mind, friends, never mind. Words, as I hinted at earlier, don’t have to mean anything we don’t want them to. “Think of how the Constitution begins,” Ginsburg tells Carmon in an interview. “’We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union. And one of the perfections is for the ‘we the people’ to include an ever enlarged group.’”
Well, maybe; or maybe certain groups of people just matter more than others. We already know, for instance, that unborn children are easily expendable, at least in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s book. What about other “undesirables”? Only the Notorious RBG knows for sure—and few of her die-hard fans can be bothered to care.