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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, known for being the second female Supreme Court Justice, was recently por­trayed by Felicity Jones in bio­graphical drama “On the Basis of Sex.” | Wiki­media Commons

Ginsburg is best known for being the second female justice to be con­firmed to the Supreme Court. Her fight for equality and her role in American pol­itics has greatly impacted the course of history. However, “On the Basis of Sex” offers a closer look into Ginsburg’s begin­nings as a suc­cessful lawyer, and a deeper look into her per­sonal life.

The movie, starring Felicity Jones as a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, empha­sizes the impor­tance of Ginsburg’s rela­tion­ships with her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) and daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), focusing on Ginsburg’s role as a mother and a wife, outside of her pro­fes­sional career.

The movie begins in 1956, with Ginsburg stepping alongside a mul­titude of Harvard law stu­dents marching to “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” Ginsburg appears wearing a bright blue dress and a smile, standing out among the marching crowd of somber-clad men in black suit jackets. This dis­tinct con­trast between Ginsburg and her male class­mates sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Many of the scenes in the first half of the movie follow a pattern of ele­vating male figures while casting doubt on the intel­li­gence level of women, and after cor­recting a male classmate on her first day of classes, Ginsburg’s pro­fessor accuses her of being a fil­i­bus­terer.

The movie depicts mul­tiple ways in which various pro­fessors, and the dean of Harvard Law School Erwin Griswold, dis­couraged women from studying law or even pur­suing a career. It even includes Griswold’s infamous question to the nine new female Harvard Law School stu­dents at the Dean’s dinner: “How do you justify taking a spot from a qual­ified man?”

Echoing Ginsburg’s ral­lying cry for women’s rights, the movie acknowl­edges the climate of the era but does not get caught up in the weather of today. Its under­lying political message is taste­fully bal­anced with a focus on Ginsburg’s deter­mined attitude and love for her family.

Jane, Ginsburg’s 15-year-old daughter who picks fights with her mother about wanting to attend rallies and the grades she received on essays, becomes the everygirl. Before Ginsburg inspired young girls across America, she inspires her own daughter to stand up for herself and for the rights of other women. In turn, Jane moti­vates her mother to con­tinue the fight for justice.

Martin’s love for his “ruthless Ruthie” humanizes Ginsburg, and also empha­sizes her fem­i­ninity in the movie. Hammer and Jones’ chem­istry feels most real when they overcome the chal­lenges arising from Martin’s cancer diag­nosis.

Yet, there is also a pro­fes­sional tension between Martin and Ginsburg, and several scenes show Martin casting a large shadow over Ginsburg in a pro­fes­sional envi­ronment. The movie sug­gests that Ginsburg was not seen as an equal to her own husband. Despite grad­u­ating first in her class, many people viewed Martin as the more intel­ligent of the two. This odd dynamic becomes inspiring, as Ginsburg con­stantly pushes herself to be as good as a lawyer as Martin, or better.

Ginsburg’s most notable cases, fighting for women to be admitted to the Vir­ginia Mil­itary Institute in United States v. Vir­ginia in 1996, and for women to receive equal pay in Led­better v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in 2007, while not men­tioned in the movie are examples of her great success as a Supreme Court Justice.

The movie falls short in its second half, however, by dra­ma­tizing the events leading up to Ginsburg’s first appearance in a real courtroom.

The movie’s inter­pre­tation of Moritz v. Com­mis­sioner of Internal Revenue doesn’t do justice to Ginsburg’s intel­lectual abil­ities. Even though Jones main­tains her energy and poise during the court scene, the oral xar­gument pre­sented is sloppy and log­i­cally weak.

In a Q&A session with NPR’s Nina Tonenberg, writer Daniel Stiepleman admitted to dra­ma­tizing the court scene.

Stiepleman knew he had not accu­rately por­trayed Ginsburg’s oral argument.  

“Ruth Ginsburg never flubbed an argument in her life,” Stiepleman told Tonenberg.

At the end of the movie, a voiceover by Ginsburg herself, reading her oral argument in Reed v. Reed, redeems the movie a little. Unlike the botched court scene, Ginsburg’s actual voice is steady and pow­erful, reas­suring the audience of her prowess in court.

Regardless of Stiepleman’s decision to dra­matize the court scene, Jones’ excellent por­trayal of Ginsburg cap­tures her relentless spirit and com­mitment to defending justice.

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    on the basis of sex I chose not to watch this movie.… not enough!