‘SUPER DIVA’ isn’t exactly a sweatshirt slogan you’d expect to be worn by an 85-year-old US Supreme Court judge. Then again, neither might you have expected the highly distinguished Ruth Bader Ginsburg to embrace the nickname Notorious RBG – or to chuckle as she watched comedian Kate McKinnon do an outlandish impression of her on Saturday Night Live ("RBG in the house, baby!" whooped McKinnon). But then Ginsburg has been confounding expectations for longer than most of us have been alive.
Justice Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933. In 1956 she became one of only nine female students among almost 500 men enrolling at Harvard Law School. When her husband, also a student at Harvard, fell ill with cancer, Ginsburg attended his classes as well as her own so that she could help him study until he recovered – leaving her with so much work that she often slept only three hours a night.
She later transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated top of her class and yet went on to find that no law firm would offer a woman a job. She became a professor instead, but later co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, and from the 1970s fought and won a series of landmark gender-equality cases. In 1993, thanks to a nomination from President Bill Clinton, she became only the second woman in history to be confirmed as a justice of the Supreme Court – the highest court in the US and one where the nine members serve for life. It’s a role she has used to speak out about female rights, discrimination against African American voters, and unequal pay.
Now, after five decades of remarkable work, Ginsburg is having a cultural moment, too. She is the subject of two well-received films this year, both by female directors: the documentary RBG, screening at Dubai's Cinema Akil until 17 January, and the biopic On The Basis Of Sex, starring Felicity Jones, in cinemas from 24 January.
"The fact that both films have landed now is something of a coincidence," says Betsy West, who co-produced and directed RBG with Julie Cohen. "But the response to the films is not coincidental. Clearly, this is a moment in which people are really hungry for an inspirational story."
There’s plenty of evidence of that outside cinema too, where Ginsburg has gathered a surprising fanbase. In 2013, law student Shana Knizhnik created a Tumblr dedicated to her, dubbing her The Notorious RBG after the rapper The Notorious BIG. Today, it sells T-shirts, tote bags and mugs with slogans such as 'Queen Supreme' and 'The Ruth Will Set You Free'.
Her status as a pop-culture figure has grown from there. In addition to being celebrated on Saturday Night Live, she’s become a popular tattoo – the internet is packed with Americans who’ve had her face inked on their bodies (most recently comedian Pete Davidson). At Halloween, people dress their babies like her, in owl-like spectacles and lace collars.
"She’s this woman who changed the world and is still changing the world in the most powerful way – in a very difficult, ugly time in America," says Mimi Leder, director of On The Basis Of Sex. In the political climate of the last few years, many feel that progress on equal rights has been lost. This makes Ginsburg – one of the most liberal of the nine judges on the Supreme Court – something of a left-wing superhero. "For progressives in the era of Trump, the idea of a woman with a quiet voice who is speaking up has an extreme resonance," agrees Cohen.
There is, however, anxiety around her age – she is the oldest serving justice. When she fell and broke three ribs in November, certain corners of the internet went into meltdown. Should she retire, Donald Trump could nominate a judge more in line with his own politics; he has already added right-wingers Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. "If Justice Ginsburg were to leave, and President Trump had the opportunity to name another conservative justice, that would really be a huge tilt to the right," says West.
Yet Ginsburg has made it clear that she doesn’t plan to retire until she has to. "When she broke her ribs, she spent a day in hospital reading briefs, we were told," says Cohen. "She was back in the office that week." She is physically small (just over 5ft) and may look frail, but there’s an astonishing scene in RBG in which we see her working out with her personal trainer. In that ‘Super Diva’ sweatshirt – her own selection, and one that surprised the film-makers – she does press-ups, planks and weights.
"I think she understood that the visual of seeing her working out and strong was going to mean something to the audience," says Cohen. West agrees that allowing cameras into the gym was an act of defiance: "It’s like, 'Look at me. I’m determined.' And why not? She’s keeping herself fit to do the job that she loves."
Apparently, Ginsburg is enjoying her moment in the spotlight so far. When she attended a screening of On The Basis Of Sex, she brought 30 guests, says Leder. "And she loved it. She felt no one could have played her better than Felicity Jones."
"I think it’s very gratifying to her that her ideas about our constitution are being spread to an audience that is normally not thinking about constitutional law. She gets why it’s funny to compare her to Notorious BIG, and she makes a joke back: 'Well, we were both born and bred in Brooklyn!'" reveals West.
When I ask Cohen and West whether Ginsburg seems depressed at the swing away from liberal values in America, they look at each other and laugh. "You know, if you could say one thing about Justice Ginsburg, it’s that she is a very determined and optimistic person," says Cohen. "She took the long view when she was a brilliant law-school grad and couldn’t get a job because she was a woman, and eventually she changed that kind of discrimination and made it no longer possible. She’s not happy about the fact that the court has become more conservative, and yet she’s very steadfast. I mean, if you ever feel discouraged, just look at her example."
Photos: Supplied and Instagram