The moment could hardly be riper, the stage better set for “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” a new multimedia retrospective based on the eponymous best-selling book, now on view at the Skirball Cultural Center. Several years after a Tumblr launched the Supreme Court justice’s alter ego, the ensuing media frenzy has yet to peak, with a feature biopic due in December. At 85, Justice Ginsburg is marking her 25th year on the bench, defying puny mortal conventions (you know — sleep, age) and embracing, at least nominally, her role as millennial superhero.
Her illustrious career and recent celebrity would be reason enough to be fascinated with RBG; but midterms are upon us, and indignation over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is still fresh. That provides a certain urgency, and an electrifying lens through which to view the historical forces that shaped Ginsburg as a legal architect of the women’s movement, and a justice attuned to righteous understandings of equality and inclusivity. As Americans witness the erosion of fundamental human rights protecting minorities, workers, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, women and the environment, many look to Ginsburg for guidance.
Part civics lesson, part immersive biography, the Skirball exhibition moves chronologically through Ginsburg’s life and work, organized by titles and motifs borrowed from the book. “We wanted to speak to the visual language that the book created, so we’ve lifted some of those elements,” explained Skirball associate curator Cate Thurston, who created the show with Notorious RBG book authors Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik.
The exhibition also borrows a lace pattern from the book, modeled on one of Justice Ginsburg’s jabots — the decorative collars she uses both as accessory and mood telegraph. “This is my dissenting collar,” she told a CBS reporter in a TV segment shot in her chambers. “It’s black,” she said dryly. “And grim.” As Ginsburg moved away from quiet, congenial decorum and into notoriety as a vocal dissenter over the last decade or so, the jabots have become a charged symbol, tidily expressing certain complexities of female strength, and spawning marketable pop-feminist slogans.
One particular RBG dissent, read aloud from the bench after the court took a vicious swipe at the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder, 2013), inspired Knizhnik, then a law student, to create the Tumblr that would launch a thousand tote bags.
“She was sending a message to her fellow colleagues but also to all of us,” said Knizhnik, now a public defender in New York City. Beyond the outrage, she recalled an optimism in Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion, which informed the RBG Tumblr as “a place for both dissent and celebration.”
“I think Justice Ginsburg has a reputation for being a very serious person, and when Shana dubbed her the Notorious RBG that was perhaps part of the joke, that she was an unlikely person to be paired with a gangster rapper,” Carmon, a senior correspondent for New York Magazine, told L.A. Weekly. “But in fact Justice Ginsburg has a very impish sense of humor, and she’s totally loved being notorious.”
Artifacts peppered among the simulations bear witness to systemic discrimination, coloring events that shaped the kind of career Ginsburg would pursue — as a young Jewish girl in Brooklyn known as Kiki, as one of a handful of women in law school, as a civil servant in Oklahoma, where she was demoted for being pregnant and where institutional discrimination against Native Americans provoked in her a sense of the broader injustices faced by minorities.
Love notes from her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg (“Marty”), and his glass-encased cooking utensils are tucked in the canary yellow kitchen, and there is a closet with black robes near an Instagram-friendly replica of the bench. It’s like the dollhouse version of one of the country’s most shrouded sanctums of power.
Knizhnik said she encountered Ginsburg’s warmth and generosity as she dug further into archival research. “That is something again that is just a part of her story — how much she didn’t act alone. She was part of a larger movement, a fight for equality that so many people had a part in. Her ability to keep in touch with all the people who have helped her achieve what she has is truly inspiring,” Knizhnik said.
To that end, a wall is dedicated to lawyer and civil rights activist Pauli Murray, along with ephemera situating her as Ginsburg’s ideological predecessor, working at the intersection of race and gender discrimination, and laying the groundwork for Ginsburg’s use of the 14th Amendment to argue for women’s equality.
In her first Supreme Court brief, as an ACLU attorney in 1971, Ginsburg prevailed in Reed v. Reed, in which the court struck down a state law automatically favoring males as estate administrators, and opened the door to challenging discrimination on the basis of sex. Although they hadn’t worked on it directly, she added Murray’s and ACLU colleague Dorothy Kenyon’s names to the brief, acknowledging their contributions, in an act curators posit as expressly feminist.
You can trace Ginsburg’s meticulous approach through detailed displays and listening stations illustrating pivotal cases, including several anti-discrimination cases she argued on behalf of men. And there is the one that got away: In Struck v. Secretary of Defense (1972), Ginsburg almost got to make a broader case about reproductive autonomy as a condition of equality, representing a pregnant Air Force Captain who did not wish to either have an abortion or quit, the two options available to her at the time. In her view, this made a far stronger foundation than the privacy argument that determined Roe v. Wade and spawned decades of tumult. Ginsburg’s structural critique of Roe initially made her unpopular among women’s rights groups.
There is a collage of popular images, a costume from the forthcoming feature film On the Basis of Sex — and a few fine art pieces as coda: woven dissent collars by artist Roxana Alger Geffen and small portraits by Maira Kalman and Ari Richter, who is married to Carmon. Ginsburg officiated at their wedding.
Notorious RBG is super lovable on a plain human level, too. But as Jill Lepore recently wrote in The New Yorker, trivialization is not tribute: “Ginsburg was and remains a scholar, an advocate, and a judge of formidable sophistication, complexity, and, not least, contradiction and limitation. It is no kindness to flatten her into a paper doll and sell her as partisan merch.”
I asked Knizhnik and Carmon what they thought of that kind of commodification — mugs, pillows, pins, tote bags — going on at the Tumblr and in the Skirball gift shop. Slightly taken aback, both stressed that the phenomenon was spontaneous. “For us it was never about selling mugs. It was about telling the story of a life. And from the beginning Shana’s Tumblr was really substantive — it had jokes but also had archival and legal excerpts that introduced a broader audience to Justice Ginsburg’s work and life,” Carmon said.
“We took this really seriously as a project that was an opportunity to teach a broader audience about her work, about the women’s movement and about the court. So our opinion is that the court belongs to everybody, and we’re all affected by its work. And that if Notorious RBG is the way that people get drawn in, it doesn’t cheapen it, it makes it more inclusive,” Carmon said. But, Knizhnik added, “I think it’s better that people are [buying] cool feminist T-shirts and mugs and totes than not, or than something else. The fact that people are talking about the Supreme Court — that’s not something I remember growing up.”
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Backsliding on civil rights can come incrementally — or in the sudden catastrophic blows to which we’ve grown accustomed. I share the curators’ hope that people will walk away with a sense of the long game, and an appreciation for Ginsburg’s polite persistence through obstacles and triumphs large and small. Through two bouts with cancer, the death of her husband of 50 years, and calls to step down while President Obama was still in office so he could appoint a liberal replacement, Ginsburg hasn’t missed a day in court. What better way to remind us what’s at stake, than a glimpse of how hard it was to get here?
“The Notorious RBG” is on view at the Skirball through March 10.