‘On the Basis of Sex’: Remembering Justice Ginsburg and celebrating her legacy
October 15, 2020
In the wake of the recent passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also known as the “Notorious RBG”, many flocked to movies, books, and documentaries about her life to learn more about this American icon and the legacy she left behind. “On the Basis of Sex” is one of these movies, directed by Mimi Leder and starring Felicity Jones. Ginsburg is portrayed as a quiet and observant, yet witty, woman who is constantly battling sexism in America. The film starts with Ginsburg beginning her first day at Harvard University, one of only nine girls in her class. She later moves to New York and struggles to find a job as a female lawyer in the city. Eventually, she finds herself dealing with a tax case that could alter the way gender is written in the law.
Despite a slightly slow-moving plot and Jones’ faulty attempt at a Brooklyn accent, the movie was awe-inspiring. It served as a powerful reminder of how purely dedicated RBG was to her work as a student, teacher, mother, lawyer and wife. Towards the beginning of the movie, her husband Martin, played by Armie Hammer, is diagnosed with testicular cancer. To make sure he keeps up with his studies, she attends all of his classes, in addition to her own, carefully copying his professors’ lectures word for word, all while taking care of her baby daughter at home.
The movie is also filled with many colorful characters, presumably to balance out Ginsburg’s relatively reserved personality. Her husband, Martin Ginsburg, is a supportive and loving husband who is her partner in crime. Together, they tackle cancer, parenting, and the daunting tax case that serves as the plot for the majority of the film. The best character, however, is her fiery and rebellious fifteen-year-old daughter, Jane, portrayed by Cailee Spaeny. Although Jane and her mom argue often, Ginsburg usually ends up learning a lot from her daughter, particularly when Jane tells her “it’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting.”
There are multiple conflicts during the movie, including the famous case Moritz vs. Commissioner of International Revenue. But the most significant conflict ongoing throughout the film is between Ginsburg and society’s opinion of women. When she and the eight other women admitted to Harvard are invited to the dean’s home for a special dinner, the dean asks each woman to stand up and tell him why they deserved their spot at Harvard over a man. The subtle sexist comments, like this, are what make Ginsburg, and the viewer, even more thirsty for her success. Of course, she instantly comes up with a witty response, telling him it was because she wanted to see what her husband was doing at school all day. Her ability to instantly come up with a smart answer to any question is what makes her so likable. She isn’t too chatty or eager– she simply observes from the sidelines and only speaks when she needs to.
That being said, the movie is not very different or special. Yes, it was beautiful to see a young woman fight for her voice at a time when she barely got one. But it was a standard hero’s journey-type situation. And even though her nephew, who wrote the script, filled it with adoration and respect, he had never written a movie before. He followed the same basic style as any movie about someone who worked hard and overcame obstacles in order to be at the high place they are now. While it isn’t exactly predictable, the familiarity of the moments sometimes ruined the excitement in tense scenes. Overall, the writer’s tendency to drag in cliches took away from the uniqueness in the film.
“On the Basis of Sex”, despite a couple of weaknesses, is a wholesome, engaging film that tells us how the notorious RBG became so notorious in the first place. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, you are bound to be inspired by this story of equality and gender.