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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The 'Notorious,' Insidious Transformation of an Anti-Feminist Judge into a Feminist Superhero

Image: Jim Cooke (Photo: Shutterstock)
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On Saturday, Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk uploaded a photo to Instagram of himself wearing a t-shirt bearing an illustrated portrait of Amy Coney Barrett, the appellate court judge Trump has nominated to fill the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court. Atop her head lies a crown with her initials—ACB—and she’s wearing a black robe with the word “Justice” along the collar.

“Let’s get ready to confirm a new Justice,” Kirk wrote in the caption, adding that he dropped a link to the shirt in his bio. (It is conveniently sold at the Turning Point USA official online store).

Kirk’s styling is just a single example of the memes that have materialized since Coney Barrett’s nomination. “Notorious ACB” and “Glorious ACB” images have spread across the conservative internet, a concerted effort to impose the brand onto Amy Coney Barrett and essentially market her onto the Supreme Court. This is how the right is manufacturing a relatively unknown, junior judge into a beloved conservative icon, in real-time. And by imposing the hackneyed “yas queen” energy that defined the Ginsburg memes onto Barrett, the right is able to prop up Barrett as a new kind of feminist hero.

Much of the Barrett imagery making the rounds is a direct lift of Ginsburg, right down to Ginsburg’s trademark lace-like collar. It’s the kind of mimicry that presents Barrett as Ginsburg’s heir apparent, regardless of her actual performance, record, or beliefs. The sole addition, a halo, acts as a nod to Barrett’s Catholic faith, while it suggests an inherent goodness about her–one that perhaps the Democrats should hesitate to challenge. The right is already boasting that Barrett is beyond reproach; for example, she cannot be accused by Democrats of being a racist because she and her husband adopted two black children from Haiti. This is hardly a get out of jail free card, but selflessly adopting children in need adds to the saintlike reputation the Barrett memes hope to push. Barrett is rendered into an innocuous and inspirational image: An ambitious, hardworking Catholic mother, successful by the nature of her appointment and gender alone.

The crown and initials are a direct co-opt of the characterization that emerged around Ginsburg in 2013, when then-New York University Law student Shana Knizhnik created a Tumblr account called “Notorious RBG” to highlight Ginsburg’s passionate dissent in Shelby County v. Holder. The landmark case ruled that a provision in the 1964 Voting Rights Act requiring state and local jurisdictions to obtain federal permission before altering voting laws was an outdated constitutional burden, a decision which has since made it harder for Black and brown Americans to vote. Ginsburg foresaw this outcome, arguing that passing such a stance “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Knizhnik spoke with Slate in 2015 about the Notorious RBG alter-ego; or, as Slate put it, “how a gentle Supreme Court justice became a badass gangsta Internet meme.” “I was mostly thinking of the catchy nickname and how she was such a powerful force,” Knizhnik said. “Here you had this diminutive person, this tiny human, and nobody saw her as a badass. But when you see what she has done, over years, with such dignity and grace, it represented that.”

And so the play on the moniker of the late hip-hop legend, Notorious B.I.G., was born. The famed Biggie crown placed atop RBG’s head came later, followed by mugs, tote bags, prints, and even a book (co-authored by Knizhnik). And it was the apparent humor in likening Ginsburg to Biggie Smalls—a large, reputedly dangerous Black man—that made “Notorious RBG” a viral sensation. It helped canonize Ginsburg as not just a liberal justice instrumental in securing rights for some of the nation’s most vulnerable groups, but a real-life superhero and a meme to be worshipped, so much so that Ginsburg herself was aware of the nickname and the merch attached to it (she was a fan).

The meme was mainstreamed at the height of calls for Ginsburg to retire while the Democrats still had a Senate majority. So it’s ironic that the right-wing has now taken the regal imagery, the pithy initialed moniker, the “girl power” spirit that turned RBG into coloring book fodder, to sell Barrett, a woman whose short judicial record of devaluing the safety of immigrants and supporting the restriction of abortion access stands in direct opposition to Ginsburg’s record.

But Barrett is now being lauded as “The Glorious ACB,” a characterization popularized by the conservative think tank American Principles Project. They even bought, where visitors will find an image of Barrett and her grimace of a grin paired with a halo instead of Ginsburg’s—or, rather, Biggie’s—crown, along with a petition to confirm her appointment.

And, yes, there are already t-shirts and mugs of Barrett in her haloed glory available on Teespring.

By flattening Ginsburg into a largely vacuous image, the original meme-makers and its enablers created this opening. For Slate, Dahlia Lithwick wrote a passionate critique of the right’s co-opting of Notorious RBG to prop up Barrett, calling it a cruel parody. “...They are stealing the trappings of that legacy and stripping it for parts,” Lithwick wrote. This is an accurate assessment, but it also speaks to the shallowness that the Notorious RBG branding wrought after seven years in the public’s consciousness. Ginsburg was highly respected, yes, and her liberal alliances helped prevent the Supreme Court from becoming a crypto-theocracy. But Notorious RBG became a caricature that Etsy built, whose likeness sold white female empowerment for a profit. The right hopes to do the same with Barrett, turning her into a caricature of strength and motherhood, their own kind of “girl power.”

Conservatives are already using the supposition that the “Glorious ACB” is a feminist by design to mount attacks. They’ll call Democrats hypocrites for not embracing Barrett, an intelligent and tenacious woman juggling her career in a male-dominated field. Their cynical and inaccurate definition of feminism—blindly supporting any and all women, no matter their politics or ideology—allows for it.

In its women-focused newsletter, ultra-conservative publication The Federalist pushed the #GloriousACB hashtag as ideal liberal rage bait and dismissed criticism against Barrett as petty. “If the Left wants to sway Americans and Republican Senators, they might want to take advice from RBG herself who said, ‘Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you,’” the newsletter reads.

If conservatives can use the same corny strategies that turned Ginsburg into an action figure sold at Urban Outfitters, they’ll try to exploit it until the very end. And luckily for them, the cynical branding of Barrett as a spiritual successor of sorts to Ginsburg merely supplies a distraction from what is really at hand: A 48-year-old judge with an extremist track record will have the power to take away the rights of Black and brown people, LGBTQ people, workers, and women for decades to come.