On Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon plays Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a silly, slightly nasty old lady with an uncomfortable white-lady-talks-black shtick. In the new documentary RBG, Ginsburg is shown watching the clip and lightly chuckling to herself. When it ends, she lifts her gaze and flutters her eyes in what could be an elderly twinkle or a light wink—but could also be an extremely subtle eye roll.
Like a cat, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is small and cunning, and it’s cute when she naps in places she shouldn’t. And so the internet, having apparently exhausted its cat resources, claimed Ginsburg for its own. Over the last few years, thanks to Tumblr and the increasingly blurry lines between politics and entertainment, this brilliant legal scholar has been turned into “the Notorious RBG,” often pictured with a big-ass crown on her slight noggin. Every blistering dissent Ginsburg dropped gave millennials “all teh feels,” as we say. (We’re awful.) Because she’s so smart about having opinions we like! And she’s small! Like a cat!
But believe it or not, Ginsburg is not a cat, and RBG provides essential backstory for people who don’t know much more than her highly meme-able qualities. Family members and all kinds of legal dweebs—as well as Ginsburg herself—contribute to the documentary.
When we first see her in RBG, Ginsburg is exercising with her personal trainer while wearing a sweatshirt that says “Super Diva,” and you may be inclined to squee a little. But as her brilliance and general seriousness come to light, it’s easy to assume she was only wearing that sweatshirt because a grandkid gave it to her and she was too busy interpreting and strengthening the Constitution to really give a shit about what she threw on.
A few years ago, the biography Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out, and while the title of Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s book suggests it’s nothing but printed internet hype, the book provided plenty of insight into this smart lady’s quiet, revolutionary life. We learn that Ruth Bader Ginsburg the Human, while immensely awesome, and yes, very petite, is not a cute or silly person. She’s fucking smart. Like, I’m-embarrassed-that-this-idiot-brain-is-the-one-I-have-to-use-to-write-about-her smart.
She was the second woman confirmed to serve on the United States Supreme Court. She was the first woman on both the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review. She can do more push-ups than you. She eats prunes. Her favorite things to do are work and—back when he was alive—go to the opera with freaking Antonin Scalia. She’s not a kooky old grandma. In fact, in terms of beloved old beings, she’s more Gandalf than Betty White. Y’all shall not pass shit.
At times throughout RBG, it’s almost uncomfortable to watch Ginsburg speak to beaming youths chomping at the bit for a selfie to Insta, because this woman is so much more iconic and special than her meme. Sure, the meme got her a fresh, captive audience, but in RBG, Ginsburg looks far more tickled when she cameos in an opera than when watching those SNL clips. But she politely tolerates the fuss about her, and keeps doing her own thing, which makes her impossibly more lovable. Sorry, Ruth. You kind of are like a cat.