Social media is enough to make you hate even the heartiest heroes. And so it came to be when news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death at the age of 87 swept every social media platform on September 18. (Even TikTokers took a moment to create a Notorious RBG-inspired dance challenge, I imagine.)
For the last several years, there have been two Ruth Bader Ginsburgs: There’s the trail-blazing legal mind who made it possible for women to have a credit card and a mortgage in their own names. And then there’s the merch-inspiring, meme-able octogenarian icon, Instagram’s version of the once-ubiquitous Che Guevara poster. Photos of Ginsburg working out, portraits of her holding her chin in a lacy glove, and images of her plastered with inspirational quotes spread like wildfire in the wake of her death. There have been bobblehead figures, wall calendars, T-shirts, masks, slogans (“You can’t handle the Ruth” is particularly egregious), and whole sub sections of Etsy devoted to the Supreme Court Justice.
What this means when it happens (Betty White, I’m looking at you), is that the real-life people have their edges sanded off and flattened until they become two-dimensional icons. The Ginsburg being mourned on social media may or may not be the Ginsburg whose powerful dissenting opinions reminded liberals that they were not alone in the country as the Supreme Court turned increasingly conservative. It also may or may not be the same Ginsburg who refused to retire during President Obama’s time in office so that a Democratic president could appoint her replacement—a replacement process that will now have to begin, and which has already terrified people the country over.
Many of the posts focused on what will happen now that Ginsburg has died. Many of the posts were of the same photos, those that seemed to upend the typical stodgy image of a Supreme Court Justice by showing Ginsburg lifting weights or doing anything else that is the judicial equivalent of a baby wearing a suit. The juxtaposition is so striking! I have to share this with my followers!
We should always mourn the passing of legends—especially those who have been behind so much trailblazing legislation—but we have to be wary of confusing the real person with the image created by social media users. The two are rarely the same, and the real person is almost always more complicated, thornier, and more interesting than whatever pastel-hued, grid-worthy image replaces them.
More importantly, why do people obsess over one liberal judge on the Supreme Court at the expense of the rest? Where are the adoring, fawning posts about Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Latinx woman? Is it because she doesn’t play to the audience with “dissenting collars” and a look as carefully curated as any celebrity walking a red carpet?
So which Ruth Bader Ginsburg are you thinking of when you post? Because one deserves your grief, and one is just another elaborately crafted social media celebrity.
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