RBG - merch machine

All sorts of merchandise has been produced bearing Ruth Bader Ginsburg's likeness. It may have felt good to show it off for a bit, but it distracted us from a much larger problem.

I’m Often Lazy

These days, I eat a lot of meals where I work. Thus, a daily allotment of silverware, plates, and glasses get used at my desk. Often, a coffee mug will linger on the desk long past its cupboard buddies. I’ll get up from my desk, pick up the used plates and silverware, look at the mug, acknowledge it needs to go to the sink then decline to do so, despite having a free hand. This can go on for days: I look at the task that needs to get done and put it off to chase the sliver of pleasure that comes from not doing a chore. Eventually, my twin desires for tidiness and the ability to go about my day knowing everything’s in order outweigh the fleeting feel-good of chore abstinence.

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What’s Mug Got to do with it? (Tina Turner voice)

A few reports last week revealed that in 2013, fearing the senate would flip Republican in the 2014 election (it did) and block the appointment of a liberal judge, then President Barack Obama had a private lunch with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to gingerly convince her to step down. Ideally, she’d do so in time for the senate to confirm a liberal replacement.

At the point of this conversation, Ginsburg was near 81.1 years of age, the average life expectancy of an American woman. She was also well past 66, the average age Americans expect to retire. When asked about how Obama might regard her potential retirement, she said:

“I think he would agree with me that it’s a question for my own good judgment.”

In a certain way, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat resembles my mug. The issue of her passing away in the midst of a conservative-majority senate was obvious, and her stepping down midway through Obama’s second term was a simple solution to that problem that went ignored for too long. Ignored because it felt good to avoid doing anything about it. It felt good because she was an iconoclast, and the longer she sat in her seat, the more we could congratulate ourselves for having someone like her around in such a powerful position. 

Unlike the mug, Ginsburg had agency, and chose to remain in her seat. As her career showed, she refused to be placed anywhere simply because someone wanted it that way. 

Put an RBG on it

There’s a ton of merch out there with RBG’s face on it: mugs, coasters, t-shirts, earrings, figurines, Christmas ornaments, and throw pillows, to name a few.

In addition to her face, many of these same items have her wearing a tilted crown, with the slogan ‘Notorious RBG’, an appropriation of the infamous picture of rapper Notorious B.I.G. Given her age, and her love of taking in opera (often with Antonin Scalia, close friend and person responsible for writing that constitutionally granted same-sex marriage was a “threat to American democracy,") I find it unlikely Ginsburg was familiar with B.I.G.’s music. Moreover, of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem kneeling protest, Ginsburg had to say:

“I think it’s dumb and disrespectful. I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag burning. I think it’s a terrible thing to do, but I wouldn’t lock a person up for doing it. I would point out how ridiculous it seems to me to do such an act.”

With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine her co-signing the appropriation of the image of an artist whose music often referenced actual legal transgressions, not just kneeling or cloth burning.

Our Notorious Stupid.It.Y.

This isn’t to say Ginsburg was bad, she wasn’t. She was just a person: she made mistakes, had rotten friends that were difficult to part with, and occasionally said some stupid stuff. 

The brand built around Ginsburg gave us those same slivers of serotonin that caused us to overlook more important issues. If we'd completed a simple task to put things in order, we’d not find ourselves facing down our current predicament: the nomination and likely lifetime confirmation of a 48-year-old judge who is anti-abortion, thinks Obamacare is unconstitutional, and is anti-gay marriage.

Owning merch with Ginsburg on it was a way to momentarily forget the fact that the odds of her drawing breath versus her heart stopping were far worse than they should have been for anyone in her position. Unintentionally, it was also a visual reminder of our outdated Supreme Court system, and gave us unwarranted optimism about that same system of which she was a part.

Whether you bought the items or not, they reinforced a halo around her that discouraged people from asking that during her lifetime of opening doors, she leave us with good odds they would stay that way. 

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Song of the Week: If news of Ginsburg’s death and watching the Trump/Biden debate got you down, I don’t blame you. This song will help lift your spirits. “Finally” by CeCe Peniston.