Notorious RBG: A Review of 'On the Basis of Sex'

The film focuses on 20 years in the life of Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg.

Posted Jul 01, 2019

Participant Media Press Kit
Back in the day, the elevator to professional success offered little room for aspiring female lawyers like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Source: Participant Media Press Kit

Focused on a relatively brief period in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career, On the Basis of Sex is a standard-issue biopic that conveys what she achieved in the fight for gender equality, and why it matters. It’s 1956, and RBG (Felicity Jones) is one of nine women enrolled at Harvard Law School; she encounters old-school sexism that’s so over the top that modern-day audiences will likely experience it as outrageous, even absurd. Husband and second-year student Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) falls ill with testicular cancer. Ruth attends his and her own classes, typing up lectures nightly while caring for Martin and their infant daughter, Jane.

Degree in hand and with cancer in remission, Martin is promptly hired by an NYC law firm, but upon Ruth’s graduation, no firm will hire her because she is a woman. She gets a job teaching "Sex Discrimination and the Law" at Rutgers, but her dreams are bigger. She wants to argue a case challenging gender discrimination on constitutional grounds. Fast forward and Ruth and Martin collaborate on just such a case. The screenplay focuses on the ins and outs of legal maneuvering and argumentation, and this component of the film is intricate and interesting, but it skimps on the development of the characters and what makes them tick. We are presented instead with the first sex-discrimination case RBG argued in federal court, facing injustices so entrenched that they were deemed part of the natural order (and who would dare to go against that?). The moment I liked best was in the climactic scene in the courtroom; the time for closing arguments came, and RBG struggles to find her voice and her feet. Martin moves to get up and take over, and Ruth grabs him firmly, indicating, “I’ve got this.” Her empowerment as she moves to the podium and makes her case to three mansplaining, white, male justices is wonderful to witness.

Focus Features Press Kit
"Oh please, Mom! Gloria Steinem says..."
Source: Focus Features Press Kit

Over the course of the film, Jane Ginsburg (Cailee Spaeny) opens her parents’ eyes to what it means to be liberated from society’s gender inculcation, and to the possibility of finding one’s own voice. Jane seems to find hers early for two reasons: (1) her appreciation of the writings of a young Gloria Steinem, and (2) the near-absence of sexism in the Ginsburg home. Martin is a thoughtful, supportive spouse who cooks meals and adroitly handles fence-mending when their vociferous teen launches into a tirade. 

Throughout the film, his candidacy for sainthood is assured, because Martin’s ambition or sense of his own self-importance never occupy center stage in his marriage to Ruth. As I watched Hammer’s portrayal of an enlightened, soft-spoken, grounded (and attractive) man in the 1970s, I pondered how my experiences doing the dishes and laundry and persistently helping the kids with their schoolwork might be indicators of being an involved husband and father, but wondered whether I could be doing more (e.g., honing and utilizing my culinary skills). In other words, the film subtly asks audience members to consider the origins of their own gendered divisions of labor, and whether it could be different.

Notable supporting performances include Justin Theroux’s A.C.L.U. lawyer Mel Wulf, Kathy Bates’ feminist attorney Dorothy Kenyon, and Sam Waterson’s antagonistic Dean of the Harvard Law School. At the film’s beginning, middle, and end, RBG mounts the steps of destiny (the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a cameo on the steps of the Supreme Court), symbolizing the struggle to move up and through the barriers of sexist prejudice. The movie was a bit too formulaic at times for my taste, and I wanted to see more of the character arc of how Jane became a liberated young woman, but it captured a pivotal time in RBG’s life that led to her joining the highest court in the land.

This movie could have provided more complex emotions, a greater sense of what was going on in the 1960s and 1970s, a more complete presentation of the primary philosophical and ideological contestations of the time. There were moments when I felt that the movie was a bit like painting by the numbers and moving rather deliberately from one cliché and trope to another, with competence but no particular artistic flair. Nevertheless, I respect the filmmakers’ choice to break off a manageable 20 years of the amazing story of the Notorious RBG. Cumbersome and predictable Hollywood trappings aside, it’s “RBG light”: It tastes great, but is less filling and substantial than 2018’s documentary RBG.