The fandomization of political figures

Sabrina McMillin

Grey Horse Communications, New York City, New York, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This article examines the application of traditional fandom characteristics to political and historical figures using two case studies: the Notorious R. B. G. fandom surrounding Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and an urbanist meme community on Facebook that pays homage to mid-twentieth-century journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. These case studies illustrate how these two figures are turned into icons. Such fandomization can inspire enhanced civic education, strong political coalitions, and activism if the icons are viewed with nuance and paired with concrete action and study.

[0.2] Keywords—Civic engagement; Ruth Bader Ginsberg; Jane Jacobs; Online communities; Politics; Social media

McMillin, Sabrina. 2020. "The Fandomization of Political Figures." In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Online communities have existed since the earliest days of the internet. They continue to evolve in style, format, and popularity as digital technology becomes more accessible around the world. Across many online communities with shared political values, there is a growing trend of political and historical figures being transformed into icons, closely mirroring the world of traditional fandom, which typically focuses on fictional characters.

[1.2] These icons are not unlike heroines such as Hermione Granger from Harry Potter or Rey from Star Wars. Both fictional and real-life heroines can be found in feminist artistic depictions and merchandise in stores across the US. In this article, I seek to examine this trend of fandomization through case studies of two culturally significant, contemporary female icons: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, known online as the Notorious R. B. G., and Jane Jacobs, a mascot for the popular Facebook group New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens (NUMTOTs).

2. The proliferation of online communities

[2.1] A variety of market and social factors has led to a trend in the past few years of strangers using tools like Facebook groups to connect over shared interests, hobbies, and values. Topics as broad as parenting and as specific as a shared genetic trait have inspired the creation of these communities. Over the past two years in particular, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly emphasized the importance of Facebook groups as part of the platform's content curation strategy. In 2019, Facebook announced that more than 400 million of the platform's 2.37 billion active global users are members of at least one Facebook group (Fottrell 2019).

[2.2] Ahead of the upcoming United States presidential election, Facebook users are congregating around presidential candidates to mobilize voters through groups affiliated with campaigns or created by independent supporters. Unless Zuckerberg decides to shift Facebook's news feed algorithm away from groups, conditions will likely be set for these types of political groups to flourish well into the current campaign cycle and beyond. This essay examines two key examples of fandomization that have largely been driven by social media tools like Facebook groups.

3. Jane Jacobs and the transit-oriented teens

[3.1] In its Facebook URL (, the NUMTOT group poses a question: "What would Jane Jacobs do?" This Facebook group has amassed over 170,000 members and is dedicated to discourses surrounding "new urbanism," an urban design movement that promotes walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented community development. Although not generally a household name, Jane Jacobs has become a mascot for many members of the NUMTOT community. NUMTOTs have created anti-Robert Moses memes, visited Jacobs's former home, dressed as Jane Jacobs for Halloween, participated in the Jane Jacobs City Walk program, and noted the appearance of Jacobs as a character in season 1 of the popular Amazon TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017–).

[3.2] Amidst Jane memes and posts advertising "What Would Jane Jacobs Do?" T-shirts, one can find the occasional examination of Jacobs's magnum opus, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). In a community poll taken by 466 members of the group, 95% of participants voted that one should read this book. There is no doubt that The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a valuable read for anyone who wants to learn about urban planning. The fruits of Jacobs's activism, such as the preservation of Washington Square Park, are enjoyed today by millions of New Yorkers. However, the content of The Death and Life of Great American Cities belies the image many NUMTOTs hold of Jacobs, as it perpetuates concepts that have negatively affected Black and Latinx communities. Jacobs's emphasis on "the aesthetics of incivility"—from graffiti to loitering—formed the basis for "broken windows" policing, a popular theory of criminology developed in the US that suggests minor forms of crime, such as vandalism and fare evasion, encourage major forms of crime. Because minor crimes like fare evasion are often related to poverty, the broken windows theory has led to disproportionate policing of marginalized communities of color in the US (Schrader 2016).

4. Notorious R. B. G.

[4.1] In 2015, Slate editor and Supreme Court expert Dahlia Lithwick detailed the rise of the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg ("Justice Ginsburg" or "R. B. G.") from Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court to an internet meme and cultural icon. A critical moment in the creation of the Notorious R. B. G. fandom came after a particular dissent of Justice Ginsburg's. After the landmark decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (573 US 682 (2014)), which struck down a contraceptive mandate regulating for-profit corporations under the Affordable Care Act, a law student named Shana Knizhnik and journalist Irin Carmon co-created a blog called Notorious R. B. G. This blog went viral almost immediately and began selling merchandise soon thereafter (Lithwick 2015).

[4.2] Over the past five years, the Notorious R. B. G. fandom has expanded far beyond Knizhnik and Carmon's blog, with Justice Ginsburg's face emblazoned on everything from fine art to kitchenware (note 1). Knizhnik, Carmon, and Justice Ginsburg herself were featured in the Academy Award–nominated documentary RBG in 2018 (Leder 2018). That same year, the biopic On the Basis of Sex (Cohen and West 2019) showcased Justice Ginsberg's early life and career. It is not uncommon to walk into a feminist store in the US and find an array of Justice Ginsberg–themed gifts.

[4.3] The hype around the Notorious R. B. G. is not unfounded. Justice Ginsburg has advanced gender equality through a number of landmark cases from her early days as a lawyer working with the American Civil Liberties Union to the decisions she makes in the Supreme Court. However, the fandomization of Justice Ginsburg leaves room for inaccurate interpretations of her work. To a neophyte, Justice Ginsburg may very well be the perfect progressive icon of the movement against President Donald Trump, who has a vocal fandom of his own, but an in-depth analysis of Supreme Court history tells a more nuanced story. In the 1990s and 2000s, Justice Ginsburg was widely regarded as a liberal centrist rather than a progressive dissenter. Even today, she makes some decisions that baffle progressives, including a ruling that allows companies to avoid compensating warehouse workers for time spent awaiting security clearance (Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk, 574 US 27 [2014]). Critics opine that the iconography of the Notorious R. B. G. reduces her to little more than a mascot and obfuscates the true role of a Supreme Court justice as a neutral interpreter of the US Constitution (Kinder 2016).

5. Political fandom as a tool for civic education

[5.1] When contemporary political figures are interpreted superficially via the lens of fandom, fans will likely be surprised when those same figures make decisions that contradict the values they symbolize. As with Justice Ginsburg, the ethos and intents of the fandom do not necessarily align with the traditional expectations of a political icon's role. Rigorous fan cultures that place excessive emphasis on real-life individuals set themselves up for disappointment.

[5.2] However, fandomization in this sense has demonstrated positive social impacts when paired with real, actionable civic engagement and nuanced readings of the figures in question. The Advancement Project, a civil rights organization dedicated to preserving voters' rights in the US, has received proceeds from the sales of R. B. G. T-shirts advertised on the official Notorious R. B. G. blog (notoriousrbg 2013). The beauty brand Lipslut released a Notorious R. B. G. lipstick and donated 50% of the proceeds from this shade to She Should Run and the American Civil Liberties Union, where Justice Ginsburg achieved many of her earliest victories as a lawyer (Lipslut n.d.).

[5.3] In the NUMTOTs group on Facebook, there are many comments that address Jane Jacobs's relationship to marginalized communities and the unintended consequences of her work. Rather than worshipping at the altar of Jacobs, NUMTOTs use the group space to educate themselves further about the specifics of contemporary urban planning issues around the world, find jobs and internships in the field, and even engage in social and environmental justice efforts. Of course, they may still be wearing a "What Would Jane Jacobs Do?" T-shirt while doing it (Spacing 2020).

[5.4] Over the course of the past thirty years, the US experienced a significant decline in major civic institutions, such as charities and local political groups. The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University describes this troubling trend in a report on "civic deserts," in which they note the erosion of civic and history education since the 1990s (Atwell, Bridgeland, and Levine 2017). However, in the report, Professor Peter Levine argues that digital communities can counteract local "deserts," emphasizing in particular the powerful role of the internet, and specifically social media platforms, as a tool for connection, civic education, political mobilization (Atwell, Bridgeland, and Levine 2017).

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Nuanced representations of political and historical figures provide a foundation for civic education and engagement in a country where formal civic education has been eroded. The friendships and coalitions that form between would-be strangers through their participation in digital communities like the Notorious R. B. G. fandom and the NUMTOT group can serve as replacements for more traditional modes of activism if they encourage concrete actions, such as donation campaigns organized around a particular nonprofit or time spent volunteering in participants' respective local communities.

[6.2] This form of civic engagement has the potential for everlasting impact on individual participants' political and social identities, mirroring the way popular cultural fandoms like Harry Potter or Doctor Who have become an intrinsic part of the fans' personal ethos. Political scientists, acafans, and digital political strategists alike should pay closer attention to political fan communities as their influence over American political discourse and civic education grows.

7. Notes

1. See, for example,

8. References

Atwell, Matthew N., John Bridgeland, and Peter Levine. 2017. "Civic Deserts: America's Civic Health Challenge." Tufts University.

Cohen, Julie, and Betsy West, dir. 2018. RBG. New York: Magnolia Pictures. Blu-ray Disc, 1080p HD.

Fottrell, Quentin. 2019. "Mark Zuckerberg Wants People to Join Facebook Groups, but Critics Say It's Another Way to Collect Your Most Intimate Data." MarketWatch, May 5, 2019.

Kinder, David. 2016. "The Rise of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Cult." Current Affairs, March 10, 2016.

Leder, Mimi, dir. 2019. On the Basis of Sex. New York: Focus Features. Blu-ray Disc, 1080p HD.

Lipslut. n.d. "Notorious R. B. G." Lipslut.

Lithwick, Dahlia. 2015. "Justice LOLZ Grumpycat Notorious R. B. G.: How a Supreme Court Justice became a Badass Gangsta Internet Meme" Slate, March 16, 2015.

notoriousrbg. 2013. "All proceeds from these bad boys go to the Advancement Project, a civil rights org dedicated to preserving voters' rights." Tumblr, June 27, 2013.

Schrader, Stuart. 2016. "Reading Jane Jacobs in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter." Harvard Design Magazine, no. 42.

Spacing. 2020. "What Would Jane Jacobs Do T-Shirt." Spacing: Toronto's City Store.