The Movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg Was Good, but Should It Exist?


Monday, January 28, 2019

This past Christmas, Focus Features gifted audiences with a sex-y film. “On the Basis of Sex,”— known more widely, perhaps, as “the movie about RBG”— made its debut on December 25, 2018 in theaters across the country.

Set during the 60s and 70s, “On the Basis of Sex” traces the early years of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career and family life, depicting her experience at Harvard Law School and Columbia, her balance of caring for her family and studying, her resolve in the face of adversity and her pursuit of justice.

Despite my immediate suspicion after seeing the trailer that the movie would be wrought with standard Hollywood leftism, I ventured to the theater to see for myself. The film surprised me.

Frankly, I thought it was excellent.

Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer brought young Ruth and Martin Ginsburg to life with strength and chemistry, granting the audience glimpses into the grit required for the task of mastering law school while simultaneously balancing a relationship and family. Further, from a strictly technical perspective, it worked cinematographically. Cohesive color patterns and interesting shots emphasized themes and harsh realities, artistically demonstrating mid-19th century sexual struggle and triumph.

Critics, of course, readily voiced their complaints, berating the script and the characterization. The consensus emerged: It’s “well-intentioned, but flawed.”

My favorite part about the movie was that it dramatized a singular, important event in history— a time when women genuinely were not treated equitably under the law and when condescension and objectification of women prevailed as the norm. The movie wasn’t simply about RBG’s life. It was about a moment of resolve and principle in the journey of a young woman an exemplary story about righting a wrong and overcoming injustice.

It was this fact that evoked the most criticism: the movie didn’t do justice to the icon, the “legend,” that is RBG.

“Is the film worthy of her?” writes Joe Morgenstern in a Wall Street Journal film review. “Not really. It’s informative, in a didactic way, but basically an exercise in hagiography, a skin-deep celebration of someone who has never settled for superficiality in her life’s work.”

“‘On the Basis of Sex’ fails to make the case for its subject’s exceptionalism,” he added.

Simply put, the film did not include enough hero worship.

Which leads me to my primary problem with the film: that it exists in the first place.

Like I said, the movie itself was exceptional, but the audience and critics awaiting its arrival with reverent anticipation were not looking for a good story. They were not waiting for historical exposition. They did not want to see a successful wife, mother, and lawyer play out those three roles simultaneously on the screen. Seeing a heroic moment in the women’s movement was not enough.

They were awaiting the apotheosis of the “Notorious RBG.”

This film appeared on the heels of another Ginsburg memento, “RBG,” a documentary released earlier in 2018 chronicling the Supreme Court Justice’s career. Although the movies differed in nature and apparently in intent, elevating a SCOTUS justice to a near divine status and romanticizing her life’s work by repeatedly immortalizing her on the silver screen— while she continues to serve on the Court, no less— contributes to the polarization of an already politically charged office that was never intended to be so.

The fact is that the office of Supreme Court Justice was established to narrowly interpret the law, not for activism, law creation, or politicization. By worshipping a public servant, we radically change the perception of the office into something it was never intended to be and into something from which we may never recover.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 years old. She has accomplished more in her lifetime than most people will and has made many notable marks on history. but she will not be around forever. Because of this movie and her documentary, when she is replaced, it won’t be an appointee for a retiree. It will be an appointee for a celebrity.

When that hostile day arises, as it inevitably will, that a new justice steps up to take her chair, I have no doubt we will look back at these films as fuel that set the emotional, political fire ablaze.

Kylee Zempel is a journalist, blogger, podcaster, and owner of The Kylee Zempel Blog. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she enjoys running, happy hour-ing, and consuming dangerous levels of coffee and news.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Kylee Zempel

George Mason University

Kylee Zempel is a journalist, blogger, podcaster, and owner of The Kylee Zempel Blog. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she enjoys running, happy hour-ing, and consuming dangerous levels of coffee and news.

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