"Thank you to all the meme creators," reads a message in the closing credits of the new documentary RBG. That's a pretty good mission statement for the film.
If you are a meme creator yourself, or if you're merely one of the millions who enjoy wandering through the hinterlands of Twitter and Tumblr searching for small bursts of wit to carry you through a dark world, you may have already guessed that RBG is a biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That's because, in the last few years, Ginsburg's initials have become shorthand for an Internet joke called "The Notorious R.B.G.," imagining the 85-year-old legal authority as the beat-spitting, muscle-sculpting, jabot-rocking equivalent to rapper The Notorious B.I.G. Well, as "Kiki" herself notes, at least they were both born in Brooklyn.
There would likely be no RBG without "The Notorious R.B.G." Another way to say that is: The American public would have little interest in the life story of a figure like Ginsburg if the youths hadn't first found a way to ironically salute her blistering dissents from the bench with a cottage industry of T-shirts, action figures and Photoshopped superhero movie posters. Is the meme-ification of the century's most reverent Constitutional scholar a good thing? Well, it probably helped co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West secure funding and a CNN distribution deal for their project, as well as line up some primo talking heads, including NPR's own Nina Totenberg. That, in turn, let them do something that most of the Internet rarely bothers with: Add context, nuance and heart to the joke.
So, blessed are they who spawn the memes. But let's not make this about them. By devoting a decent chunk of screentime to interviewing some of Ginsburg's hardcore millenial fans, RBG unintentionally demonstrates that no piece of "I Dissent!" merch, and no story behind that merch, will ever be as compelling as the woman herself.