By Victoria Quint ’22
Our nation loves Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so much that people have proposed wrapping her in bubble wrap to keep her safe. We also manifest our love with action figures, jewelry, clothing and more to pay homage to her renowned place in our justice system. For many, especially from my generation, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always been a beloved justice, always impressive, always respected. But we don’t necessarily know how she came to be this way, which is why I was so excited to hear that On the Basis of Sex was coming to the Hop.
Sitting in the packed theater with my friends, fellow students and community members, I had few expectations for the film, knowing as little as I did about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life. The opening scenes transported us back to 1956, watching Ruth, played by Felicity Jones, enter Harvard Law School amid a homogeneous sea of men, head raised high despite her famously small stature. For a moment, I thought it would be smooth sailing, but of course the dean of the Law School invited all nine female students to dinner and condescendingly made them explain why they deserved to fill a man’s spot, which was just the beginning of Ruth’s trials in a male-dominated world.
Although appearing confident to all observers, Ruth dealt with struggles and emotions that became clear through the scenes at home with her husband and children. Martin Ginsburg, played by Armie Hammer, kept me pleasantly surprised throughout the film, constantly supporting Ruth and respecting her decisions as an equal. Nonetheless, Ruth’s frustrations were painfully clear, watching her husband advance his law career while she taught at Rutgers, even though she had graduated Harvard and Columbia at the top of her class, and had done much of Martin’s classwork while he battled cancer.
The audience loved Jane, Ruth and Martin’s daughter, a spunky, liberated teen who clashed with – but ultimately respected – her mother. Not to mention that she gained her mother’s respect, providing unabashedly fearless advice that was somewhat foreign to women of Ruth’s generation. Their son, James, was also featured, but played a far smaller role in the overall plot due to his young age.
After Harvard, her husband’s cancer, job searches and children, Ruth finally finds her chance to be the lawyer and activist she has always wanted to be. While every case on discrimination on the basis of sex had been lost over the last century, Martin gives Ruth a case that might change it all – one in which a single, never-married man was discriminated against when he tried to take out a tax return for paying for a caretaker for his mother. Ruth hopes that proving discrimination against a man rather than a woman will allow her to catalyze widespread change in laws that differentiate because of sex.
The film illustrates the Ginsburgs’ work on the case effectively, following Ruth to Colorado, DC, and perhaps most importantly, the ACLU. Met there by Mel, played by Justin Theroux, Ruth is again brushed off because of her lack of experience, which she has been denied for being a woman. Determined, she continues to work on the case, enlisting her daughter and some of her Rutgers students to help, as well as finding her idol Dorothy Kenyon (played by Kathy Bates), a successful female lawyer. Kenyon manages to get the ACLU on board, which is a gratifying scene, but I would have enjoyed seeing her play a larger role in the movie.
The tension in the film comes to a slightly early climax during a moot court practice of the case where Mel tears Ruth apart, but with support from her family and client, she takes control again. With confidence, the audience is brought to Colorado for the trial, where we watch Ruth and Martin flounder before Ruth finds her voice in a heartwarming but anticlimactic rebuttal to the government’s case.
Sweet, emotional, and informative, On the Basis of Sex gave a woman I have come to admire a much-needed backstory. However, it left me wanting a bit more, remembering the moot court and the family fights more than the landmark brief Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, or the trial she won. Perhaps this was the goal of the filmmakers: to humanize a woman who has become an icon. To me, it seemed that the case should have been the focus of the film, but instead much of Bader Ginsburg’s early career was reviewed before getting to the main plot. And once the trial was over, so was the film, leaving the audience with a considerable gap between Bader Ginsburg’s first case and her appointment to the Supreme Court. We were, mercifully, left with a touching scene of Felicity Jones climbing the steps to the Supreme Court which panned around a column to Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself, just as determined as ever.
If you have the chance, watch it. If not, you won’t have missed the movie of the decade, but you will have missed the loving story of a living legend, well played and well enough written to inspire informed admiration for our very own Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Victoria is a member of the Hop’s Arts Ambassadors, a group for first-year students who like to get together and see film and live arts. Victoria has also written about the Hop Workshops.