In this tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we suggest checking out our review of On The Basis of Sex and watching the award-winning documentary RBG, now streaming on Netflix.
On Friday 18 September, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87 after a long battle with cancer. The Notorious RBG to her fans, Justice Bader’s instantly-recognisable attire of a black lace collar and scrunchie, her pop-cultural status as a badass octogenarian who does 20 pushups a day, and purveyor of her very own SNL sketches, all solidified the image of this mighty colossus who stood at a mere 5 feet tall.
Thousands have been gathering at the US Senate to remember her legacy this weekend, but though RBG is now a cultural icon for gender equality in the United States, she wasn’t always so well-known or well-loved. Before becoming the second woman ever to serve on the US Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg encountered more obstacles than the average aspiring lawyer would have in her lifetime.
Mimi Leder’s 2018 biopic, On The Basis of Sex, features Felicity Jones as the young Justice Ginsburg. The story explores her rise to prominence at Harvard Law School in the 1950s, where she was one of only nine women in the class of 500 men; her pioneering efforts to take on the work of herself and that of her husband, who was in the year above and couldn’t attend classes because of a cancer diagnosis; and her relentless struggle to get her foot in the door at a job despite finishing top of her class. Her sharp mind was cast into relief against her triple (dis)qualifications as a woman, a mother, and a Jew.
She eventually landed on a teaching role as a professor at Rutgers Law School and ran a new course on Women and Law at the request of her students. (To facilitate the fact, she read every federal decision ever written relating to women’s rights in a month before starting the course.) But during this time, her initial zeal for practising law never left her. It was only when she discovered how a Denver resident and caregiver, Charles Moritz, had been unsuccessful in challenging a court ruling that discriminated on the basis of his gender, that she was able to lay the groundwork for the case Moritz v Commissioner of Internal Revenue.Against a backdrop of a burgeoning feminst movement, the biopic fondly shows that this case was her catapult into the spotlight.
Naturally the film guides us through a whistle-stop tour of her early career and the case that projected her ideas into the public eye, concluding neatly with the victory. But for a more in-depth study of the icon she would become, you might look to the documentary released in the same year, RBG. While On The Basis lays the foundations of her story, there is so much more ground to cover — not least her appointment to the US Supreme Court by Bill Clinton in 1993 — which directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s box office sensation certainly does.
RBG has been dubbed by Vulture as a hagiography, but don’t let its overt love of the subject deter you. It’s full of interviews from friends, family members, and the woman herself, demonstrating the legacy of Justice Ginsburg’s much-needed interventions in a system rigged against gender parity.
Between Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue in 1972 and this year, 2020, Justice Ginsburg has served the US courts, inspired a cultural following, and become an inspiration for millions. In the film, author Shana Knizhnik and journalist Irin Carmon talk about their inspiration for the Tumblr blog Notorious RBG and its subsequent book; footage shows excited students gathering at events hoping to catch a glimpse of the legend, one passionately declaring “I’ve just bought a ton of merch!”
Justice Ginsburg’s children give their testimonies on her indomitable work ethic and terrible cooking. She’s pictured planking during her workout routine; attending the opera, one of her great passions in life, and there’s a fond retelling of her romance and marriage to Marty Ginsburg. It’s a portrait of the great Supreme Court Justice which humanises and celebrates her.
Of course you might make the argument that by putting her on a pedestal and idolising her, the image of Justice Ginsburg is marred by popular notions of celebrity. For a truer sense of the woman, you’d have to take a more three-dimensional view. To this end, there is only a small portion of criticism in the film: a short foray into one of Justice Ginsburg’s only perceived public wrongs, her criticism of the Trump administration. As a judge, she had been expected to show impartiality, and a few interviews and news clips play out, giving a sense that her comments were unwise. Nevertheless, it’s quickly brushed over: “Is it wrong for Supreme Court Justices to occasionally make mistakes? No! They’re human beings!”
Together, On the Basis and RBG both work in tandem to paint a portrait of Justice Ginsburg as lawyer, activist, thinker, wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and celebrity. There seems to be little she hasn’t achieved. You might begin to compare her to other activists, thinkers and writers in the 20th century — women’s rights heavyweights Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde and bell hooks included. In RBG, Gloria Steinhem offers her opinion on Justice Ginsburg’s work, but there is a certain distinction to be made between Steinhem’s activism, which took place in the streets, and Justice Ginsburg’s, which took place in the courtrooms and in the countless late nights poring over legal texts. Both equal in weight, they owe their success to each other rather than ever being in competition.
Justice Ginsburg’s legacy really can’t be overstated: she will be remembered for her pioneering work which changed a whole precedent in the law. Questions remain about who will replace her in the Supreme Court but, no matter what the future holds, RBG will always be in the consciousness. Thanks to films like On the Basis and RBG, even more casual viewers can educate themselves on one of the most influential women in US politics in the last 70 years. Rest in power, RBG.