RBG on the Big Screen

Michelle Lappen

Taken together, the documentary RBG that came out last summer and the biopic On the Basis of Sex which was released this winter further cemented Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s status as a pop culture icon. In an interview on the podcast Amicus with Dahlia Lithwick, Daniel Stiepleman, the screenwriter of the latter and Ginsburg’s nephew, commented on the odd phenomenon of strangers wanting to take pictures with his 85-year-old “bubby.” Engagement and discourse surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings was taken up by late-night TV, but films released throughout the country reach an even broader, more multigenerational demographic. In my view, this has opened the door for Supreme Court justices to become more accessible and known to members of society outside the legal academy. The medium of film has enabled people throughout the country to learn more about Justice Ginsburg’s journey to the Supreme Court. We learn about both her legal philosophy and her personal life, how each informs the other. No longer a justice in an elite class unknown to everyday Americans, we get a glimpse into her path and struggles to that black robe with fierce collars on the Supreme Court—a position that allows her to make lasting, sustainable change in all of our lives. On screens throughout the country, the real RBG can be seen as a more three-dimensional human being than the Notorious RBG memes often allow (although the documentary does depict one of her legendary workouts).

On the Basis of Sex, written with a transparency that offered us an insider’s view of the screenwriter’s aunt, shows the audience one way the Constitution could be used to bring about social change. The film emphasizes precedent, the practice of law, and Justice Ginsburg’s incrementalist approach rather than portraying her as an unapologetic and iconic voice of the feminist resistance that many see her as today. Ginsburg sought to bring about cultural change by changing the law as opposed to protesting and taking to the streets. In the film, we watch her navigate how to make her legal arguments persuasive in the face of sexism and adversity; although she graduated at the top of her class at Harvard, she had trouble getting a job. And as a Columbia Law student and a woman, I had to stop myself from cheering in the movie theater when Ginsburg told a judge that the word “freedom” doesn’t appear in the Constitution and when she responded to a snide remark from her former dean at Harvard with her signature pith: “What I’m doing I learned at Columbia.”

The second half of the film follows the Moritz case Ginsburg worked on with her husband Marty. This was more than putting gender discrimination in terms judges at the time could sympathize with—the Plaintiff was discriminated against as a man—it also was a story about her marriage. In the film, Marty and Ruth’s marriage was presented as a true partnership. This portrait of equality at home juxtaposed with fighting for that same equality in society should resonate with all of us (see numerous studies regarding the persistent housework gender gap). Perhaps, the Justice’s husband is still ahead of his time. Indeed, Stiepleman has shared that Hollywood executives thought Marty should threaten to divorce Ruth to be more believable—the idea of such a supportive husband seemed too far-fetched. As a precise institutionalist instead of a radical as her current superhero status sometimes calls to mind, On the Basis of Sex illustrates Justice Ginsburg using calm persuasiveness to move the law forward, but not too far ahead of the culture. She presents her legal arguments in a way that was approachable to men in power and the mainstream at the time and, in turn, the film makes her process accessible to the mainstream, nationwide audience. The documentary and the biopic are both ultimately optimistic about a divisive (and, for some, cult) figure, driven by a sense that the trajectory of America is one where things will get better for more people. Yet, she represents ideas that are still revolutionary—true equality regardless of gender.

If nothing else, seeing RBG on the big screen has demonstrated that we have not reached the end of history on gender discrimination: as seen throughout our current political discourse, foundational questions are still being debated. The medium of film distributed to audiences across America has allowed this to become more than an academic debate, one that can take place both within and outside the walls of the legal academy.