Film & Television

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: An American Superhero — On the Bench and On the Screen

A few years ago, Gloria Steinem pronounced octogenarian Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be “the closest thing to a superhero I know.” Whether you remember her for her groundbreaking work on behalf of equal rights, her passionate dissents, her signature collars, or her ability to hold a plank position longer than women (or men, for that matter) half her age, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be one tough act to follow. She was a remarkable woman and this country owes her a huge debt of gratitude.

If you want to celebrate her life as well as mourn her passing, there are two excellent films available on demand to watch — and if possible, share with younger generations. Both are inspiring.


On the Basis of Sex (2018)

Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Cailee Spany, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston
Directed by Mimi Leder; Written by Daniel Stiepleman

On the Basis of Sex begins in 1956, when Ginsburg was starting out as one of only nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law. In an archaic, but chilling, scene, each of the women is asked by Harvard’s dean to defend why they feel they have a right to a seat that could have gone to a man. The first woman explains that her father is a lawyer and she hopes to go into practice with him. The dean nods his approval. The second woman doesn’t fare as well. When it’s Ginsburg’s turn, she announces — with the straightest of faces — that her husband is a second-year student and she plans to attend law school so she can better understand his work and be a more supportive wife. The dean is not amused.

As supportive wives go, Ginsburg quickly redefines the term. Her beloved husband Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer, and she adds his curriculum to her own, attending both sets of courses, typing his papers as well as hers, and ensuring he doesn’t fall behind. Oh, and did I mention they had a toddler daughter at the time? (The word “superhero” seems barely sufficient.) Against sobering odds, Marty recovers, graduates and accepts a job with a New York firm. Harvard’s dean, still bristling and none too pleased that Ginsburg has made law review and is first in her class, refuses her request to finish her Harvard degree at Columbia. So, she formally transfers and graduates first in her class there.

Reality sets in. She is interviewed and rejected by more than a dozen law firms, that use excuses ranging from women being too emotional to “First in your class? You must be a real ball-buster.” One partner, after pointedly staring at her breasts, explains that the firm is a family and she would make the wives jealous. A deflated Ginsburg takes a job as a law school teacher. 

Years pass, and she builds a course around sex discrimination and the law, which her diverse and liberated students devour. Meanwhile, her daughter, now a sullen teen, skips school to attend demonstrations and upbraids her mother for simply talking when there is action to be taken. That action arrives in the form of a tax case in which a man has been denied the same caregiver credit that a woman would be entitled to. Ginsburg enlists the aid of the ACLU, as well as her husband, and after a few awkward missteps, successfully argues the case, thereby setting precedent that the law can no longer provide imbalanced protection “on the basis of sex.”

As Ginsburg hits her stride, she assures the three judges “We’re not asking you to change the country. We’re asking you to protect the right of the country to change.” As the film ends, we hear more Ginsburg-isms (how wondrous that so many of her wisest words are public record) and titles bring us up to date with her remarkable career. The notorious one herself even makes a brief appearance, reminding us of the veracity of all we’ve just watched, and giving the movie her assumed seal of approval.

Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex, as magnificent a character as she is, falls short of the real-life Ginsburg of an earlier documentary from the same year.


RBG (2018)

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West

RBG is a fond portrait of its subject, covering Ginsburg’s fascinating real life and unlikely ascent in just over an hour and a half. The film includes interviews with long-time friends, family, colleagues, and at least one former foe, as well as with the justice herself. Archival court audio powerfully underscores how ahead of her time Ginsburg really was — and why she deserved her rap-inspired nickname, the “Notorious RBG.”

Although RBG covers Ginsburg’s childhood, education, and early career, the movie really gains traction as we head into her work with the American Civil Liberties Union. With the ACLU, Ginsburg argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. She represented both men and women, making a point that rewriting sexist laws would benefit both. At one point, Justice William Rehnquist jokingly asked her “So you won’t settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar?” No wonder Ginsburg equated those hearings — and her continued attempts to persuade the all-male Supreme Court that women should be equal under the law — with teaching kindergarten. 

In 1980, President Carter nominated Ginsburg for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where she served until 1993 when President Clinton nominated her for the Supreme Court. She was confirmed in a 96 to 3 vote, making her only the second female justice after Sandra Day O’Connor. At that time, she was considered a cautious and moderate judge. However, in recent more conservative political and judicial environments, she became something of a liberal folk hero, as well as a role model for many young women.

One of these is her granddaughter, Clara Spera (“You know her as RBG, but she’s Bubbie to me”). Following in her grandmother’s footsteps, Spera recently graduated from Harvard Law School. Her class was the first to be exactly 50/50 women and men. Scenes between Ginsburg and Spera are among RBG’s most engaging. Cohen and West also bring us into Ginsburg’s rigorous daily workouts with her personal trainer. We also get a glimpse into her closet and impressive collection of judicial collars. And we get to see her onstage as well as on the bench. A life-long opera fan, she guest-starred in a spoken-word cameo with the Washington National Opera. Appearing in Daughter of the Regiment mere days after Trump’s election, she jokingly asked for copies of the lovers’ birth certificates before bestowing her blessing.

Her “Notorious” moniker emerged after she wrote the stinging dissent to 2013’s Shelby County vs. Holder, a case which challenged the coverage formula for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She acknowledged that voting discrimination had decreased, but that was because of the Voting Rights Act and was therefore the very opposite of an argument for its dismissal. She memorably wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Her words inspired a collection of popular memes, styling her after rapper “The Notorious B.I.G.” (“We’re both from Brooklyn,” Ginsburg slyly acknowledged.) 

Both On the Basis of Sex and RBG are entertaining and educational — it’s clear that all of the filmmakers involved had great love and respect for their subject. The two films end on the same optimistic note. Ginsburg, although in her 80s, still had work to do. Like many other superheroes, the woman appeared to be immortal. Alas, that particular happy ending was impossible.

On Friday night, upon hearing the news of Justice Ginsburg’s death, Steinem made another statement:

We each can honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg by asking ourselves, “What would Ruth do?” Using this as a guide in our own lives will keep her with us … The more we learn about her words and deeds, the more she will remain a force in our lives and the world around us. She left us a clear and precious legacy. It’s up to us to keep her spirit alive.

Rest in peace, Madam Justice. You earned it.


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