A well-done treatment of a remarkable subject.
On the Basis of Sex is a biopic/legal drama about United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg as a young lawyer fighting to have gender discrimination recognized as a legal concept while herself being frequently discriminated against due to her gender. It’s well made and acted, and very engrossing if extraordinarily predictable, and not only because it depicts actual events.
This review will contain several spoilers for On the Basis of Sex, as well as real-world historical events that took place from the 1950s to 70s.
The film follows Ginsberg, portrayed by Felicity Jones, through her enrollment in Harvard Law School. She faces misogyny there as one of very few female students, and ends up having to care for her husband Martin when he develops testicular cancer, which he eventually survives. After graduating, Ginsberg faces more misogyny as she attempts to get hired at various law firms, before eventually being hired at Rutgers Law School as a professor. Then, finally, she takes on a seemingly hopeless tax case, Moritz v. Commissioner, of a man who is being penalized for having applied for a female-only caretaker tax credit. Ginsberg challenges the constitutionality of the law, argues that the law code of the United States discriminates against both women and men on the basis of gender, and eventually wins the case in order to advance the cause of women’s rights everywhere, and an epilogue tells us that she was later appointed to the Supreme Court. The real Ruth Bader Ginsberg appears briefly in the closing sequence, and of course watching the film after she’s died makes that moment rather emotional.
I cannot speak to the specific historicity of the film. The case Ginsberg is arguing really happened and all of the characters in the film are real people, but of course it’s hard to say whether the specifics of different events portrayed really happened as shown onscreen, especially private conversations in the Ginsberg household and so forth. One presumes that they had Justice Ginsberg and her family’s permission to make the film and I believe at least one of her relatives worked on it, but of course it’s a film and it’s fictionalizing events. “Based on a true story” is always a very contentious topic in the study of history, because it’s very easy to take the names and actions of real people and build an entire narrative around them that reflects what the storyteller wants it to reflect rather than necessarily the atmosphere of the historical events themselves.
For example, the montage of Ginsberg’s early years in law school highlights two themes: Ginsberg’s brilliance and the misogyny she faced as a female law student and then lawyer. No doubt these things are both completely true, but the fact of stringing them together in a montage is a narrative choice that highlights specific things. With one minor exception that I’ll talk about in the next paragraph, Ginsberg is never allowed to be incorrect or morally at fault in the movie, and it seems somewhat unlikely to me that she never made a mistake or held an opinion that we today might find difficult to swallow. Large portions of the film are just a series of moments of Ginsberg one-upping various men who’ve wronged her, which is of course satisfying from a narrative standpoint but the collection of which strays somewhat from the biographical intent of the film.
The only time we see Ginsberg expressing less than entirely correct opinions is in certain arguments she has with her daughter Jane, who is a younger breed of feminist than Ginsberg and believes in direct action over academic discussions of oppression. Belonging to the culture of feminism coming out of the late 60s and early 70s, Jane believes that women should march and take what they deserve rather than be given it, and that Ginsberg’s plan to slowly change laws isn’t doing enough. Ginsberg is ultimately inspired by this behaviour (which again, is presumably somewhat true to life) to argue in her case that society has already changed and that it’s time for the laws to change with it, which fits more into the schema of a legal drama in which the main character learns something from a family member that helps them win the case than anything else.
The “villains” of the film are various lawyers and government officials who gather together in small rooms filled with cigarette smoke to discuss why it’s so critical that they must not allow the cause of women’s rights to be advanced. Once again, no doubt there is considerable truth to these scenes, but the staging of them is all very dramatic and recalls for me several instances of my students discussing “the patriarchy” as though it were a defined entity of men who sit around and plot to oppress women. It’s not that there weren’t and aren’t active efforts to do this, but my issue is once again with the framing of it in a way that creates a narrative.
Certain critics found the film to be ‘hagiographical’ and I must agree with that in some ways. The representation of Ginsberg as infallible and downtrodden, always correct both legally and morally despite pressures to compromise, and of all her opponents as single-mindedly determined to destroy the rights of women everywhere, contributes to the construction of a modern-day saint. I am not, to be clear, doubting that Ginsberg’s contributions to American law were extraordinary and extraordinarily important to the cause of women’s rights, nor am I doubting that she faced considerable serious and concentrated forms of opposition from many people, and nor am I doubting her obvious brilliance. I only wonder if presenting these facts in the way this film chose to do so is actually helpful or if it just tells a sanitized history of the life of a person nobody wanted to say unpleasant things about. It bears mentioning that the film was made during the Trump administration and shortly before Ginsberg’s death, when it was perhaps more important than usual to several people that a film valorizing such a champion of women’s rights be made.
I want to be clear that I have no problem with this film and overall I thought it was very good and also very necessary. It’s just that as a historian myself I prefer for my history to be unsanitized and I’m inherently suspicious of attempts to present history in a particular way, so that coloured my enjoyment of the film a little bit.
All in all, however, I enjoyed On the Basis of Sex. It was timely, sharp and emotional, and though it was a by the numbers legal drama, it never got boring. I’d definitely recommend it.