On the Basis of Sex: When Ruth Bader Ginsberg helped overturn centuries of gender discrimination

The Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic premiered on the 25th anniversary of RBG's ascendance to the Supreme Court.

On the Basis of Sex

3 1/2 of 5 stars

PG13 for some language and suggestive content.  Directed by Mimi Leder.

Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterson, Jack Reynor and Cailee Spaeny.

Limited release in select markets on December 25. Florida opening January 11, 2019.

click to enlarge Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Mimi Leder's On the Basis of Sex, a Focus Features release. - JONATHAN WENK / FOCUS FEATURES
Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features
Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Mimi Leder's On the Basis of Sex, a Focus Features release.

Would this film have the same clickbait appeal if it had been called On the Basis of Gender?

Sex per se in this movie is nonexistent, though a recently married Marty (Armie Hammer) and Ruth Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) do move in that direction when he lifts her up and carries her toward the bedroom, not like a groom carrying the bride over the threshold, but more like her straddling his strapping frame while he walks the both of them to bed, eager lovers itching to consummate the deal. I can only imagine Ruth Bader Ginsburg watching this scene in the movie of her life. 

Still, it’s not sex but gender that permeates the core of this earnest and well-intentioned film.

Perhaps too earnest and well-intentioned to be a fully satisfying look at this remarkable woman who transformed the American legal system by achieving long-denied rights for 50% of the population. Mimi Leder directed this hagiographic biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg from a rather wooden screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsburg’s nephew!).

Lots of legalese makes for a rather ponderous, bloodless script when what we want is more energy and passion with sudden breakthroughs and reversals. Longfellow wrote that the wheels of justice turn slowly and grind exceedingly fine, but in a movie we want less slow-and-fine and more splash-and-dash than this limp script can muster. And it also ignores the anti-Semitic vibes throughout 1950s America that surely both Marty and Ruth had to contend with in their own quest of the American dream.

Hardly 50 years ago, women could lose their jobs for becoming pregnant; could not report cases of sexual harassment in the workplace; could not get a credit card if they were single (and, if married, not without their husband’s approval); could not run in the Boston Marathon; could not access birth control; could not get a legal abortion; could be restricted from serving on a jury, especially for a trial that would likely involve graphic sexual or gruesome murder details; could not become an astronaut; could not attend a military academy or fight in combat; could not practice law; could not take legally mandated maternity leave; could not refuse sex with their husbands. There are plenty more could-nots, all paternalistically designed to protect women.

The film opens with Ginsburg’s first day at the Harvard School of Law, a female in a plaid summer dress and pearls in a sea of male, and white, faces. There are a total of nine women in the incoming class of Harvard 1956 and they stick out like paisley on a runway of dark Brooks Brothers suits. As she takes her place in the temple of manly, lawyerly training, we hear the Harvard Glee Club singing the fight song, “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.”

This delicious opening establishes the entrenched male-dominated, phallocentric world of the law. Women shouldn't be worrying their pretty little heads with such matters, made even more evident later that day at the dinner sponsored by the law school Dean Erwin Griswold (granite-faced Sam Waterston), who asks each of the nine female students to explain “why you’re occupying a place that could have gone to a man.” Ginsburg proves her early mettle by sweetly, and sarcastically, replying so she could “be a more supportive wife.” The Dean is not amused. 

click to enlarge Armie Hammer as Marty Ginsburg, Justin Theroux as Melvin Wulf, and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg star in Mimi Leder's On the Basis of Sex, a Focus Features release. - JONATHAN WENK / FOCUS FEATURES
Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features
Armie Hammer as Marty Ginsburg, Justin Theroux as Melvin Wulf, and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg star in Mimi Leder's On the Basis of Sex, a Focus Features release.

Ginsburg’s husband Marty (Armie Hammer), a tax litigator himself, is a significant part of her success as he is the nontraditional spouse who cooks and cares for the children while Ruth is off fighting the good fight. It seems a genuine co-equal relationship that informs all of Ginsburg’s efforts to liberate both genders from their ancient division of labor. She works with ACLU head Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), bringing various sex-discrimination cases before the courts as she shreds the Biblically ordained and constitutionally mandated places of men and women in American society.

At 85, Justice Ginsburg is the oldest and most vulnerable on the Supreme Court, thus likely the next justice that Trump will replace, a huge loss when she is no longer on the bench.

The film ends with the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg striding like a colossus up the steps of the Supreme Court, a 95-pound weakling confronting the bastion of male privilege. It’s a stirring moment to see the real woman, but it only highlights this weakly scripted, formulaic biopic that never achieves the defiance and courage of the flesh-and-blood RBG.


Ben Wiley taught literature and film at St. Petersburg College. At USF/Tampa, he was statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. Contact him here. Stay up to date on all the Tampa Bay arts and culture news by subscribing to Creative Loafing's weekly Do This newsletter.



About The Author

Ben Wiley

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="59a99bae38ab46e8230492c5" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-size="640w" contenteditable="false" ]}%Ben Wiley is a retired professor of FILM and LITERATURE at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide...
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