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15 February 2019

What On the Basis of Sex gets right – and wrong – about internet hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg

You could play a round of cliché bingo to the biopic, but there is a dark side to lionising the US supreme court justice.

By Imogen West-Knights

There aren’t many 85-year-old women who can buy their face on a key ring. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second female justice of the US supreme court, has found herself in this unlikely position since becoming an unlikely internet phenomenon.

In 2013, a blog was launched called “Notorious RBG”, documenting her dissenting opinions and personal style. The blog sparked a cult of personality around Ginsburg, a tidal wave of merchandise and books, and a regular impersonation by Kate McKinnon on SNL. This week sees the release of another addition to the RBG cultural output: Mimi Leder’s glossy biopic of the justice starring Felicity Jones, and Armie Hammer as Ginsburg’s husband, Marty.

The film, written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, focuses on a landmark case, in which she and her husband established that a tax law about caregivers’ allowances discriminated against men on the basis of sex, and thereby paved the way for overturning laws that discriminated against women on the same basis.

But this also serves as an origin story for Ruth Bader Ginsburg the feminist superhero. The first third of the film traces Ginsburg’s trajectory from belittled student at an overwhelmingly male Harvard Law School to mother of two children; rejection by sexist partners at law firms to professor of law at Rutgers. We get the sense that her life has been a series of rounds in the ring to prepare her for the big fight that occupies the film’s remaining run time.

You could play a round of biopic-cliché bingo to On the Basis of Sex, but there is plenty to admire here alongside. It’s well acted, supporting roles included: Justin Theroux’s fizzy head of the ACLU, Kathy Bates as the jaded lawyer/activist Dorothy Kenyon. And although Tax law is not high on most people’s lists of compelling cinematic material, the ins and outs are dispatched clearly without dumbing down the technical language. The day in court itself is the tense and engrossing climax the film needs.

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But the film is most interesting in how it reflects on “RBG” the phenomenon. Articles about Ginsburg online are littered with words like “badass” and “goals”, claiming her as some kind of feminist rebel figure to rally around. This is not the woman we see in On the Basis of Sex, and rightly so. As Ginsburg herself admits in the RBG documentary, also released this year, she has not always been “the most… liberal justice on the court”. She spoke out against Roe v Wade in 1993 because the decision “invited no dialogue with legislators”.

The popular cult of RBG seems misguided: not because we shouldn’t admire Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but because we want to admire her for the wrong reasons. In Trump’s America, some people are understandably desperate for a liberal heroine inside the system that they can look to for inspiration.

In the film, we see Ginsburg and her daughter arguing about Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird; Ginsburg thinks he’s a bad role model because he doesn’t do what is strictly legal. And this is RBG in essence. She’s an extremely hard worker with a powerful mind and secular understanding of the law. Her aim has always been to secure equal treatment for both genders, within the confines of the law itself. Rather than burning down structurally patriarchal institutions, she wants to usher women inside through the same door.

This is something On the Basis of Sex gets right. Leder’s film understands that there are different ways to protest, represented by Ruth and by her teenage daughter Jane, who tells her mother: “it’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting”. Campaigning legal cases and marching in the streets are both means of agitating for change, which should be recognised independently, not neutered under the singular slogan “dissent.”

There’s also a darker side to lionising RBG as a hero of progress. As Peter Canellos wrote for Politico, doing so leaves the door wide open for conservatives to do the same for the Trump-selected judges, with potentially damaging consequences for justice. The party-politicisation of the Supreme Court isn’t something to be celebrated.

If the film gives us something to cheer for unreservedly, it’s the Ginsburg’s marriage. Marty and Ruth’s teamwork in work and in the home is sincerely heart-warming. In some ways, the case study here is not in how to be a rebel through Ruth, but in how to be an ally through Marty.

The question that Mimi Leder’s film doesn’t quite answer, however, is what exactly it is about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that makes her so singular. There’s affectionate surface detail about Ginsburg in her nephew’s script: we know she can’t cook and likes opera, for instance.

But these details don’t speak to what drives her to do the work that she does. Perhaps that is something we like in our heroes: the missing puzzle piece retains intrigue. Even under the scrutiny of filmmakers and internet stars, RBG remains not just notorious, but mysterious, too.

Imogen West-Knights writes aboud film and culture for the Financial Times, the TLS and Little White Lies. She tweets @ImogenWK