Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a late-in-life star. Here’s how

Justice Ginsburg in the middle of her workout routine in the 2018 documentary film "RBG," directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.
Justice Ginsburg in the middle of her workout routine in the 2018 documentary film "RBG," directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Though short in stature, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was looked up to by many.

But it was not until later in life that the justice, whose passing was met with waves of tributes and collective grief across social media channels, became a cultural icon for the ages — her legacy highlighted in a documentary, and her workouts satirized on late-night shows.

Ginsburg, remembered as a “warrior for gender equality” by former president Barack Obama, died of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer at her home in Washington on Friday. She was 87.

Her meteoric rise to pop-culture fame can likely be traced back to 2013, when former New York University Law student, Shana Knizhnik, began a blog titled “Notorious R.B.G” after the soft-spoken justice delivered an impassioned dissent about the court’s ruling to eliminate voting rights protections.


The posts contained a variety of motivational quotes and pictures — with the title and corresponding meme of Ginsburg, comparing her to the rapper Biggie Smalls, causing the page to catch fire among the younger crowd.

A music video and merchandise soon followed.

Her role as the court’s second female justice transcended the normal bounds of respect typically paid to figures in politics or law, with admirers — particularly the generations of women who followed her — bestowing Ginsburg with the catchy nickname and dressing up as her for Halloween.

Now Ginsburg’s face — donning her signature large eyeglasses and all — can be found plastered on a variety of products, from coffee mugs to face masks suited for the coronavirus era.

Ginsburg herself said she possessed “quite a large supply” of t-shirts bearing her face and the reference to Smalls, also known as “The Notorious B.I.G.”


The Tumblr page is still running today, and upon the announcement of Ginsburg’s death, a new post was written in her honor, referencing back to the dissent that started it all.

In collaboration with journalist Irin Carmon in 2015, Knizhnik penned a biography on the justice, titled “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

Carmon, in an interview with NPR about the book, said she did not believe Ginsburg would have been able to achieve icon status “without social media.”

“I think the Internet has given young women the opportunity to choose our own heroes," she said, adding that “there’s this desire on the Internet to find something that feels authentic, and real and raw.”

It wasn’t long before Saturday Night Live seized on Ginsburg’s growing popularity, with star Kate McKinnon playing the liberal-leaning jurist throughout the years. In one sketch, McKinnon — dressed in black robes, her hair slicked back like Ginsburg’s in a ponytail — humorously jokes that she can’t retire because President Trump was elected, rather than Hillary Clinton.

In the skit, McKinnon downs a large amount of the immune supplement “Emergen-C” and says that the “bench is now my porch.”

“I’m going to sit on it all day and scream, ‘No, get out of my yard!’” she says during the show’s Weekend Update. At one point, McKinnon as Ginsburg gets up and starts dancing, coining the phrase: “You just got Gins-burned.”


Later on, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West teamed up to explore the life and legacy of Ginsburg — including her atypical ascent to becoming a public persona — in the Oscar-nominated “RBG,” released in 2018.

In the opening scene of the film’s trailer, Ginsburg is featured sitting behind her desk and makes a pointed remark about gender equality.

“I ask no favor for my sex,” Ginsburg says. “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Felicity Jones starred as Ginsburg in the film “On The Basis Of Sex” that same year, which followed Ginsburg in her fight for equality from her first year as a law student to her argument before the Denver Circuit Court of Appeals — the case being Moritz v. Commissioner — to overturn a century of gender discrimination.

In recent years, Ginsburg continued to be a cultural mainstay — whether it was completing a workout with Stephen Colbert or delivering a fireside chat to Amherst College students “who treated the jurist like a rock star.”