Film & Television

‘On the Basis of Sex’ — The Origin Story of the Supreme Court’s Wonder Woman

In last year’s marvelous documentary RBG, Gloria Steinem pronounced octogenarian Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be “the closest thing to a superhero I know.”

X-ray vision and shape shifting aside, one thing that superheroes have in common is an origin story. Whether it’s Superman arriving on Earth as a baby; Spiderman being bitten by a radioactive arachnid; or, more to the point, Wonder Woman leaving the utopian, all-female island of Themyscira to save man from himself. Every legend needs a beginning.

Ginsburg, affectionately dubbed “the Notorious RBG,” has become a living legend of late. Nothing, it seems, from multiple broken ribs to her third bout with cancer, keeps her from her job. As the overall makeup of the Supreme Court has moved further and further to the right, she’s evolved from a moderate to a liberal and very vocal voice of dissent. Progressive women are counting on her to uphold Roe v. Wade, among other hard-earned rights. A popular meme on social media reads, “I’m changing my organ donor status. Ruth Bader Ginsburg can have anything she needs. Even if I’m still alive.”

But how did this diminutive defender become who she is today? That’s the story told by director Mimi Leder’s current film, On the Basis of Sex.

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 she feels she has 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 and groundbreaking 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.

If the plot I’ve just outlined sounds inspiring, it certainly is. But the Ginsburg in the movie falls short of the real-life Ginsburg of the earlier documentary. The fault is not in Leder’s casting, although it isn’t perfect. Felicity Jones, the charming 35-year old Brit who earned an Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything in 2014, makes Ginsburg a determined presence, even though her Brooklyn accent tends to fade in and out. That’s a minor point, however. We grow to care for Ruth and to hope she succeeds (even as history assures us that she will). Clearly Ginsburg is meant to achieve greater things, and it’s easy to root for her as door after door is shut by the patriarchy.

Armie Hammer is dashing as her loving husband Marty. Young Cailee Spaeny is particularly strong as their daughter Jane. Kathy Bates appears too briefly as early feminist lawyer/activist Dorothy Kenyon. Justin Theroux is manic ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf. Sam Waterston is appropriately despicable as Harvard Law’s Dean Griswold. And long-time character actor Chris Mulkey stands out as Ginsburg’s first client in the historic gender discrimination case.

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