“On the Basis of Sex” Puts the “Notorious” in “The Notorious R.B.G.”

In a sea of black and white suits and the pale, male and stale who wear them, a petite figure in blue stands out. This is the Harvard law class of 1956, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of eight women in her class of over 500 (“Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” biography.com).

“On the Basis of Sex” navigates Ginsburg’s fight against the 178 laws that differentiate on the basis of sex, and her personal struggle with gender discrimination. Directed by Mimi Leder and written by Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsburg’s nephew), “On the Basis of Sex” is a film stamped with the approval of Ginsburg herself. Stiepleman has unique access to the iconic Supreme Court justice, so Ginsburg gave frequent input on the script. Stiepleman told The New Yorker, “I’d call her up, and she’d be, like, ‘Oh, Daniel, I’m in the middle of reading the Affordable Care Act. Can you call me back in twenty minutes?’ And then she’d be, like, ‘O.K., page 1,’ and she’d go through it like a contract.” She also approved all casting choices, particularly for Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and herself (Felicity Jones).

Despite attending multiple Ivy League schools and graduating at the top of her class, Ginsburg is unable to find employment as a lawyer. The film contrasts her knowledge of her own self-worth and intelligence versus the way she is perceived by society. At a dinner party for her husband’s law firm, his colleague slaps him on the back, saying, “Martin Ginsburg will be signing all of our checks one day. You’re a smart girl Ruthie, you married a star.” Though she is supportive of her husband, this comment stings because Ginsburg dreams of attaining social justice stardom herself. Her husband’s colleague’s remark epitomizes the way Ginsburg is underestimated and undervalued by the rest of society. Jones, who plays Ginsburg, conveys this internal struggle authentically. The only flaw to her performance being her very questionable attempt at a New York accent.

“On the Basis of Sex” focuses on the case that kickstarted Ginsburg’s career— a tax law case that provided the perfect front-runner for subsequent gender discrimination cases. The twist? In this case, a man is being discriminated against.

The film does not work to heroize Ginsburg, but rather to offer insight on a significant chapter in her history, and ends with the understanding that her story has yet to be completed. The film examines both her professional and personal life, which are often intertwined. A highlight in the film’s coverage of Ginsburg’s personal life is the way her relationship with her husband is portrayed. Martin Ginsburg is presented as he was in real life— an equal partner, an aspect of Martin’s character that Stiepleman was unwilling to budge on. According to a New York Times article,  “…to financiers and development executives, the character of Ginsburg as a supportive husband was far-fetched. Backers offered to fund the film if he was rewritten as angrier, or less understanding; maybe he should threaten to divorce his wife, if she didn’t drop the case.” No time is spent deliberating whether Ginsburg’s ego was bruised by having to cook dinners and take care of the kids while his wife worked long hours. Ginsburg is shown cooking and being an involved father, and it is left at that.

For those who think they know all there is to know about the Supreme Court Justice and cultural icon RBG— think again. “On the Basis of Sex” eloquently tackles an unsung slice of Ginsburg’s history, making it a must watch (and rewatch) film.

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