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.