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The commodification of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The political fandom around the late justice vaulted her to superhero status. That flattens her legal legacy.

A bobblehead of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is left outside of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on September 19, 2020.
A bobblehead of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is left outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, as people mourn her recent death.
Jose Luis Magana/AFP

In the hours after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the liberal internet was ablaze with social media tributes to her legal legacy, endearing memes, and flattering portraits of the octogenarian. As a sense of dread about the future of the Court and the country settled in, branded merchandise of the late justice began to sell out, from Funko Pops to screen-printed tees, on small Etsy and Amazon shops and in larger, corporate retail stores.

This impulse toward political merchandise is likely driven, in part, by grief or a desire to retain memorabilia that would capture this historical moment. For some, buying something can be a comforting activity — a habit those with disposable income have indulged in quarantine. The onslaught of posthumous RBG consumerism is a sign of what the political merch industry relies on: the American desire to believe that these purchases can stand in place of political action.

This latest wave of Ginsburg-mania is distinct from the fawning over Fauci prayer candles and “It’s Mueller Time” tees. While Dr. Anthony Fauci and former special counsel Robert Mueller rose to fame amid crises, Ginsburg’s decades-long legacy leaves Americans with more to grapple with — including the pitfalls of political fandom and how valorizing a public figure, even in death, threatens to flatten their life’s impact.

There’s a significant amount of capital that goes into the political merch industry, which thrives in the lead-up to an election season or a highly anticipated political event, such as the Mueller hearings. And while some on Twitter took aim at the e-commerce platform Etsy and its sellers, which have become a comedic shorthand for profit-driven “girlboss feminism” in the wake of Ginsburg’s passing, the snarky social media quips directed at consumers haven’t stalled purchases. Some are using this opportunity to sell RBG-branded items, such as a commemorative RBG yard sign ($21.59) or a knit collar pattern ($2), where all proceeds would be donated to Democratic Senate candidates.

Marie Lucia, an Etsy seller from Knoxville, Tennessee, was compelled to find a way to raise money for Democrats, while honoring Ginsburg’s memory. “The night Ruth died, I was thinking, ‘What would she want us to do?’” Lucia told me. “Would she want us to grieve or be politically active? That’s why I thought it would be nice to make a memorial sign and donate everything we made from it to Senate candidates, which is where we need the most help.”

Lucia only has two Ginsburg-related items in her shop, which primarily sells Biden-Harris yard signs and other pro-Democrat merchandise. However, this isn’t her full-time gig; she described it as a side hustle that will likely end after the 2020 election. “There’s a lot at stake right now and it’s important to be involved,” she said. “I make a living designing wedding gowns, but with these political items, I feel like I’m making a difference.”

But while independent sellers like Lucia also have the ability to politicize their products and donate to a cause they support, that commitment is unlikely among larger retailers, like the Funko corporation. The perils of political consumerism occur when these purchases completely replace political action; when the meme replaces the nuanced reality of the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg, in the last decade of her life, did not seem to oppose the commodification of her image among zealous young liberals, even though she did not profit from it. (She told NPR’s Nina Totenberg in 2014 that she kept “quite a large supply” of Notorious RBG T-shirts on hand.) The feminist blogosphere in the mid-2010s vaulted Ginsburg into political celebrity-dom, alongside then-presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.

The online moniker, “The Notorious R.B.G.,” was popularized by a fan Tumblr made by a New York University law student in 2013, and from there, the memeification of the justice’s image took off. A cottage industry of Ginsburg-related bumper stickers, enamel pins, coffee mugs, and books popped up for liberal mainstream consumption. But in 2020, the era of branded resistance merch and girlboss as political identity feels like it has reached its expiration date, even as the larger-than-life image of Ginsburg continues to be a pop culture rallying point for ardent liberals. The meme feels somewhat outdated and relies on what some say is a problematic premise.

Jeffrey Melnick, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has researched Black-Jewish relations, recently published a Twitter thread on the branding of “Notorious RBG,” and how it is reminiscent of a type of minstrelsy popular in the 20th century.

“The whole meme is just seen as this cute and funny image, of ‘look at this old Jewish lady and put a crown on her,’” he told me. “But what is the meaning behind this joke? The premise is similar to what blackface minstrel performers have relied on — that it’s funny for a small white woman to be cast in the place of a Black rapper.”

Melnick, who said he received an “unsurprising” amount of pushback online, was concerned by the amount of “hero worship” around the late justice. Uncritical idolization of a figure, he said, prevents people from taking a hard look at the work Ginsburg has done and the work that lies ahead: “I think people should really reckon with her work and not rely on these easy, comforting memes and images that portray her as the scrappiest, most down-to-fight justice.”

During her life, the consumerist cult of RBG fueled a frenzied sort of political fandom, one that made it difficult for Americans to imagine a Court without her presence: “The more Ginsburg’s persona was revered, the more she appeared to be literally irreplaceable,” the New York Times’s Amanda Hess wrote in August.

In the week after her death, more people began to vocally challenge the supporters that blindly lionize Ginsburg and whether she even deserved her progressive superhero status — citing moments like her calling Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem “dumb and disrespectful”; her defense of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh; and her concerning lack of Black clerks.

Indigenous people have also pointed to her decision in Sherrill v. Oneida as a sign of her anti-Native sentiments, a case in which the Court decided that the Oneida tribe did not have native sovereignty over parcels of lands they purchased from New York state. The complex reality is that Ginsburg was deeply committed to incrementalism, Vox’s Ian Millhiser reported, so much so that “her preference for gradual change was sometimes confused with conservatism.” She was indeed a talented and necessary liberal force on an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, but the “Notorious RBG” persona misleadingly casts her as a radical and irreplaceable force for good.

In hindsight, it’s ironic that Ginsburg’s public profile was elevated by her Supreme Court defeats, namely her dissent in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As Melissa Gira Grant wrote in the New Republic, “the meme was never the big problem with the false idea of Ginsburg as liberal or feminist savior, but it pointed to one — the brand-driven, girl-bossed, leaned-in conception of women’s freedom in which it incubated.” The future of the women’s rights movement, Grant argued, should not have relied on the “life chances of one woman in considerable power.”

As President Donald Trump and Republicans prepare to find a replacement for Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, some might argue that there are larger issues to focus on than the consumerist tendencies within political fandom.

Yet these criticisms neglect how many well-intentioned Americans purchase items they might not necessarily need — simply to prove a point or display their party loyalty. As I previously reported for The Goods, Americans, regardless of their political party or socioeconomic standing, seem to “take pride in wearing hacky tag lines or garish emblems that seemingly portray their values.”

For some, these consumerist tendencies — even donations garnered through an Etsy purchase — stop short of actual organizing. But in times of crisis, people appear more willing to open their wallets for a cause they support. After Ginsburg’s death was announced on Friday, ActBlue reported that Democratic donors gave more than $100 million, breaking several hourly donation records the site has received since it first launched.

It seems that Ginsburg’s imperfect legal track record hasn’t trumped her social influence, at least among Democrats. But the many RBG knickknacks that seek to commemorate her death, as these products championed her in life, should serve as a warning — that Americans should be wary of placing their political faith into one influential figure.