- YEAR: 2018
- DIRECTOR: Mimi Leder
- KEY ACTORS: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer
- CERTIFICATE: 12
- IMDB SCORE: 7.1
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 73%
SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Of course this passes the Bechdel Test! It’s all about women’s equality and the women talk a lot about social change.
✔️ The rewatchable question is difficult. I think it is rewatchable as I’d like to see it again and would stop if I saw it on TV, but I’m not rushing out to see it again…
✔️ I do want to fuck the cast. Hammer is beautiful and Jones is impressive, and it’s a powerful combination!
❌ But it didn’t inspire fantasies. I was envious of her 1950s lingerie but that doesn’t really count…!
✔️ Is it sex positive? This is a tough one as the act of sex isn’t really discussed but it is so positive about gender and women’s rights that I want to give it the mark!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (free with subscription), YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
November has turned into an unofficial American-politics-movies month here on Sex, Love and Videotape and so I am following The American President with On The Basis of Sex, a 2018 biopic about the first case that future US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presented in court and the case that began her long and successful career fighting sex and gender discrimination in America. Obviously, Ginsburg ended up as a cultural and political icon – the notorious RBG – and her recent death is a devastating loss to the balance of the US Supreme Court.
But On the Basis of Sex goes right back to the beginning of her career when Ginsburg (Jones) was one of only nine women enrolled at Harvard Law School. Dean Erwin Grinswold, played by Sam Waterston in a role that was devastatingly different from his kindly lawyer in Grace and Frankie, makes it very clear to these women that they are still not really welcome by asking them to justify why they deserved to be there more than a man. Cool, cool, cool. Sadly, her husband Marty (Hammer) is then diagnosed with testicular cancer and Ginsburg takes on all of his classes as well so that he won’t fall behind. Despite this, Ginsburg graduates with an astonishingly good degree – from Columbia, not Harvard, as she wasn’t allowed to transfer when Marty got a job elsewhere – but she is still unable to find work. No one wants to hire ‘a woman, a mother and a Jew to boot’ and she ends up teaching law instead, specifically teaching women’s rights and gender discrimination. Flash forward and Marty finds a tax case – Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue – where a man has been discriminated against because of his gender. Using this to show how gender discrimination harms everyone, Ginsburg argues the case in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal and wins, setting a new precedent that assists in many, many future cases of gender discrimination – many of which Ginsburg fought herself.
But despite her victory and the feminist revolution that it set in motion, I left the movie with a vague sense of unease. I couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that this wasn’t as feminist a movie as I’d hoped and it didn’t portray Ginsburg in as positive a way as I expected. It even prompted a feminist existential crisis of sorts – am I becoming too sensitive to these issues and seeing injustice where there is none? Am I expecting too much? Or is this what happens when you finally and fully reject the Patriarchy and you see injustice literally everywhere?
We watched On the Basis of Sex earlier this week and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It actually stopped me sleeping! I found myself having to face up to some uncomfortable traces of internalised misogyny and made me reevaluate how I interpret my own feminism.
Because a lot of what I didn’t like about On the Basis of Sex and how it presented Ginsburg makes me sound like the men in the movie, getting annoyed at all the times she didn’t act like a woman and wife should. I didn’t like that she was so stern and I didn’t like that she would make jokes about her bad cooking. I found myself getting irrationally annoyed that the director, Mimi Leder, chose to show the struggles that Ginsburg had connecting with her daughter. In short, I didn’t like that Ginsburg wasn’t able to be an extraordinary woman and feminist and fulfil the misogynistic ideals of what a wife and mother should be. It wasn’t so much that I personally felt that she should have been different – her abilities as a mother or wife have no bearing on her abilities as a lawyer – but it made me sad that they’d chosen to portray further confirmation that women can’t have it all, even though it’s the truth of Ginsburg’s experience. I didn’t like to be reminded that often successful and groundbreaking women do fulfil the humourless and intense stereotype that is so often used against us.
Obviously, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this since we watched the movie. Am I actually a secret misogynist who believes that women should smile to be taken seriously at work?! I needed to analyse why I was so disappointed in both Ginsburg’s presentation and my reaction to it. And I’ve come to two main conclusions.
The first is that I think I had simply expected too much of Ginsburg. Her legend is now bigger than her reality and, watching in 2020, it is even bigger now than it was in 2018 when On the Basis of Sex was released. I certainly didn’t know much about her before 2016 and only discovered her power and status once the Trump administration started trying to roll back abortion rights and reproductive justice. And I had perhaps forgotten how far feminism has come since the 1950s and how limited the options were for women, no matter how ambitious they may be. The first two reviews that I read referred to On the Basis of Sex as Ginsburg’s superhero origin movie but I think that does her a disservice. She may be a legend but she doesn’t have superpowers; she wasn’t born with all the weapons she needed for this fight. She had to build and grow her status and value over her whole career, and when a movie chooses to focus on literally her first court experience, I shouldn’t have been surprised that she wasn’t yet RBG, the icon; she was still just Mrs Ginsburg, the lawyer.
While he was positioned as a barrier, her ACLU friend Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) was right when he didn’t want her to try this case – Ginsburg was unproven in court and, if she had lost, she could have set back the entire movement by years and years. Back then, she was just a very smart and very astute professor. Obviously, if she had been a man, she wouldn’t have had to jump through so many hoops and would already be a phenomenal lawyer, but she wasn’t there yet. She just hadn’t had the opportunity, and On the Basis of Sex does a very good job of demonstrating the barriers she faced. Of course she needed the men in her life to help her and to give her the breaks she needed to succeed.
Which brings me to my second conclusion, and the one that has annoyed me the most. Because for a movie by a female director about a feminist icon and her first groundbreaking victory in the battle for gender equality, On the Basis of Sex did an pretty good job of making Marty Ginsburg look incredible.
Marty Ginsburg has his own legendary status – the man who stood aside and let his wife succeed; the man who makes other men who claim to be feminist look bad. Among the articles celebrating Ginsburg after her death, there were a number also celebrating Marty. ‘May Every Woman Find her Marty Ginsburg’ wrote Vogue, calling him ‘Ruth’s not-so-secret weapon’ and claiming that ‘she may never have been able to reach her full, glorious and iconic potential had she not had a husband who ranked her career as equal to his own.’ Marty Ginsburg is praised for making sacrifices for her career, for ‘famously’ doing all the cooking for the family. He supported her, he advocated for her. He did exactly what I’d hope any partner would do!
But as much as I love their romance, I worry that the celebration of Marty as a unicorn forgives other men for not reaching his level and not doing what really should be the minimum. Undoubtedly, Ginsburg wouldn’t have succeeded without her husband’s professional and domestic support, but how many men could have done the same without similar support from their spouses? The support Marty gave her wasn’t extraordinary or worth celebrating; it was simply because it was given by her husband.
And in so many ways, On The Basis of Sex shows us that we can have it all – but only if we’re a man. Marty didn’t exactly suffer for letting his wife shine – the end credits describe him as ‘one of America’s preeminent tax attorneys’ and ‘a beloved professor at Georgetown University Law Center.’ And I acknowledge that, as a wife and mother who occasionally struggles to balance domestic responsibilities with career and social life, this may be an area where I am overly sensitive but Marty’s feminism feels like a zero-sum game when it comes to his wife. He gains kudos and respect for doing half of the domestic work, for letting his wife’s career flourish, whereas Ginsburg is likely to have lost a similar amount of respect for ‘abandoning’ her family.
I think this is where my discomfort and feelings of ‘inner misogyny’ originate. Every time that Marty had to step in to help out because Ginsburg wasn’t enough – comforting their daughter, presenting the case to the judges in a way that did not antagonise them, dazzling them with his smile and charisma – it both made him look better and her look worse. It wasn’t that I wanted Ginsburg to be better in herself; I just didn’t want her comparison to be so badly reflected in her husband.
And I felt that, through what On the Basis of Sex chose to include, Leder emphasises this difference. For a start, Armie Hammer is absolutely gorgeous. He’s Hollywood beautiful and so fucking radiant that he sometimes seems to be filmed in a different light from everyone else – he’s still Oliver from Call Me By Your Name in an Italian summer. He’s also ageless, looking roughly the same at the beginning as he does at the end. Felicity Jones, on the other hand, is noticeably older as the movie progresses, developing lines around her mouth and eyes. Of course, time has passed so she should look older, but why doesn’t Marty?
Benjamin Lee from the Guardian felt that Felicity Jones was miscast as Ginsburg, feeling that ‘her incongruity is made even more glaring by the effortlessness of those around her,’ but I would challenge that by saying that Hammer’s casting is more incongruous. Yes, Jones occasionally looks like she was flailing next to Hammer’s charisma, but who wouldn’t?
I also really struggled with how On the Basis of Sex shows Marty giving her the idea for this landmark case. He passes her the case-notes with a knowing smile, telling her to read it, and doesn’t seem at all surprised when she realises how important it is. Ginsburg in reality has said that this is how the scene played out, as described in the Smithsonian Magazine: ‘“Ruth replied with a warm and friendly snarl, ‘I don’t read tax cases,’” Marty wrote. But she read this one.’ Of course, Marty is a tax attorney and Ginsburg is a professor so it makes sense for him to find the case, but there was something about how it was shown on screen that made it look like Marty was giving her a gift. Like he was giving her something to cheer her up and was happy to let her take credit for it because she wouldn’t get many other options. I was left with a lingering sense that he was patronising her. ‘Let the girl have this one, she needs it.’
I don’t really know what else to say about On the Basis of Sex. It’s an enthralling and interesting movie that tells an age-old story about the battle for gender equality – everyone knows that woman had (have?) to be better prepared to be thought of as half as good as their male counterparts; everyone knows that the idea of an ambitious woman who wanted more than a happy family was considered an extraordinary aberration and something to be prevented to save the idea of a Family. This isn’t a new story and I don’t know that On the Basis of Sex adds that much to this narrative – it is ‘a film that looks and feels like we’ve seen it before, many, many times.’
Instead, I wonder if it proves that, sometimes, a slavish commitment to the truth doesn’t help to tell a story. Was Leder’s intention to tell the truth or inspire the next generation of feminists? Did she want to teach us about RBG or create an entertaining and inspiring movie? On the Basis of Sex was written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, and, according to IMDB, he had been pressurised to add drama to the script by making Marty less supportive and ‘more antagonistic towards his wife’s success’ but had refused – obviously. The Guardian review also comments that he ‘avoided turning the character into a walking sass machine. (Applause-ready quips are kept to a minimum.)’
But perhaps I wanted to see a sass-machine. Perhaps I wanted to see more drama, more fight and see her fight back. Perhaps I wanted to see bigger glimpses of the power and attitude that made RBG the legend that she becomes; I wanted a real superhero origin story!
At one point in the movie, Kathy Bates’s character, Dorothy Kenyon, tells Ginsburg that you have to ‘change minds first, then change the law.’ On the Basis of Sex is a movie about changing the law and assumes that we’ve already made up our minds about what is right. It’s just a shame that, to me at least, it doesn’t quite convince me that it really believes it too…
NEXT TIME… The Apartment