The Misinterpreted RBG

The Misinterpreted RBG

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is widely considered an icon of female empowerment.

I have become increasingly disillusioned with the brand of female power projected through TV adverts, movies, and interviews. There is no escape from the discourse surrounding successful women, which constantly frames them as ‘strong’, ‘independent’ and ‘fierce’, as if these are the definitive attributes of female empowerment. As a result of this incessant characterisation, I found myself asking: could a woman not alternatively be demure, dependent on friends, partners and family, and still be successful and ‘powerful’? Enter Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In the last few months, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg’s public recognition has soared, largely due to the advent of two biopic films and recent health scares. After one fall a few weeks ago in D.C., liberals throughout the country sent letters to her offering their own ribs to help her get back to the Court. Interest in her health amongst liberals in the U.S. is only natural, given the likely shift to the right that the Supreme Court would take if she were to vacate it.

Nicknamed the ‘Notorious R.B.G.’ by enthusiasts, Ginsburg has made historic progress in the realm of gender equality in U.S.law. After attaining her bachelor’s degree at Cornell, she was one of only nine women in a class of over 500 men at Harvard Law School, where she was famously asked by the Dean,“Why are you here, taking the place of a man?” Whilst at Harvard, Ginsburg was the mother of a 14-month old daughter. Her husband, Martin ‘Marty’ Ginsburg, who also studied at Harvard Law School, was suffering from cancer. Whilst she did her work, looked after their child, nursed Marty and even did much of his work for him, she managed to also become one of the first ever women to edit the Harvard Law Review. When Marty eventually recovered and work called him to New York, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School to complete her degree.

Her career is very well covered in biographies and interviews. She soon made her mark on a national scale, winning landmark sex discrimination cases where she spoke before the Supreme Court. Appointed by President Clinton to the Supreme Court in 1993, Ginsburg became the second woman to sit on the highest federal court, and her liberal position has been instrumental in key decisions that have affected the very fabric of the US –from upholding Obamacare, to promoting equal pay and the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

No one can look at Ginsburg’s record and say she has not been a successful woman. She is labelled a ‘badass’, a ‘warrior’, a ‘superhero’. Her nickname is a reference to her apparently ‘gangster style’ of female empowerment. A Google search brings up memes revealing a sassy and cheeky loud-mouth. But the buzz that surrounds her name misses much of the point. Ginsburg is a superhero, yes, but not for the ways that are popularly portrayed. The reality of her empowerment is so far from what is projected by movies and memes. Much of her strength came from her best friend and equal partner. While she worked all night on her cases with the ACLU, Marty appealed to her to come home for dinner. In a time when a woman’s place was at home, Marty was chief cook and homemaker alongside his own career in taxation law. One of the greatest things Ginsburg reveals in the recent Oscar-nominated documentary on her life, RBG, is this realisation upon finding a partner who saw in her an equal: “One of the sadnesses about the brilliant girls who attended Cornell is that they kind of suppressed how smart they were. But Marty was so confident of his own ability, so comfortable with himself, that he never regarded me as any kind of a threat.”

Ginsburg’s mother, always the greatest encouragement to her education, was one of the leading influences in her life. The advice imparted on her at an early age seems to have stuck. To be empowered, her mother said, was to be independent in one’s career. This was something Ginsburg certainly endeavoured to apply to her work, but there is equally much to be said for the quiet interdependence of her relationship with Marty. Without being totally sure of his ability to take care of their children and home, Ginsburg would certainly not have been as successful as she has. This is an underrated and underappreciated aspect of gender dynamics in contemporary projections of female power. There is nothing weak and typically ‘dependent’ about this woman, but that is because dependency is not inherently a weak trait.

Furthermore, projections of Ginsburg in popular culture illustrate a verbose put-down of anyone standing in her way. Again, this could not be further from the truth. Ginsburg’s character can be best described as intelligently reticent. Her opinions, whether in the majority or not, are eloquent and to the point, but her style is generally typified by a lack of anger or antagonism, reflecting her late mother’s advice to always carry oneself this way.

When seeing Kate McKinnon playing her in a recurring comedy sketch on Saturday NightLive, Ginsburg laughed and whispered, “that’s nothing like me”. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a comic exaggeration of a character, but it seems the exaggeration has taken on a life of its own, with many people seeing it as a true representation of their beloved Justice.

The biopic of her life, On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones, suggests a stylised-version of Ginsburg. From the trailer alone, there are many scenes of a wide-eyed Ruth entering rooms crowded with men and raising her chin in defiance. The audience is encouraged to feel righteous outrage at the bigotry, but this was not the path Ginsburg herself took in response. Her reaction was to study harder and for longer, finishing joint top of her class by her final year.

Sure, you can label her a ‘quiet warrior’. Or you could stop equating words used to describe successful men to indicate equal success in a woman, rather than just calling it as it is. Ginsburg is an incredibly smart woman. She is also an exceptionally quiet woman for the career she decided to pursue. If these are the characteristics that make up her wonderful personality, why can they not be celebrated rather than adding another (somewhat imposed) edge to create a more idealised, masses-friendly package of female empowerment?

An ‘inconsistency’ many of her fans point out is her friendship with the late Associate Justice Scalia, one of the Court’s most conservative Justices in recent times, which was based on a mutual love for the opera. But this suggestion is as outrageous as it is absurd. Rather than to suggest this is a flaw of her otherwise flawless character, we should see this as something that will be one of her greatest legacies: the ability to cultivate relationships based on mutual respect and passions rather than contradictory convictions. Learning from this and attempting to apply it to our own outlook on relationships will be one of the most empowering things we could possibly learn from Ginsburg going forward.

Make no mistake that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is as ferocious and determined as they come, just not in the way contemporary filmmakers would have you believe. It is far more visually stimulating to portray a girl raising her chin at the men who threaten to undermine her, rather than her turning her chin the other way, downwards, towards a book, the way in which many successful people get their way. Does a strong woman have to ‘act like a man’ when she is not treated as an equal? R.B.G. says no. A strong woman knuckles down; she does not let the hard moments sway her trajectory. She falls down. But she is so inspirational that people will literally offer to send her their ribs to help her get back up. This is the brand of empowerment we should aspire to, rather than the commodified female power laid out by Hollywood and popular culture.

This article was originally published in Issue 723 of Pi Magazine.

Illustration by Natalie Wooding