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The Origins of the Notorious RBG: On The Basis of Sex Redefines Modern Empowerment

While some viewers might be expecting a movie of fierce feminine empowerment to the tune of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s beginnings, On The Basis Of Sex takes a more honest approach to the judge’s legacy. While her daughter radicalizes with the rising second wave of feminism, Ruth is forced to reconcile with the quickly changing culture around her. Through powerful women-led narratives surrounding progress and justice, On The Basis Of Sex is a vintage source of inspiration for the modern woman on the power of reclaiming her voice.

The woman America affectionately refers to today as the Notorious RBG, played in the film by Felicity Jones, was once a young law student with the passion and commitment to take on the very unjust world around her. Unfortunately for Ruth, the unjust world was not looking for her input. After securing a space as a freshman at the prestigious Harvard Law School, she is invited to a dinner with Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) and the handful of other female freshmen. At the dinner, the female students are made to stand up and explain why they are “occupying a place that could have gone to a man,” setting the tone for the film. Though the women are allowed to be students, they are to be constantly aware they are not entirely welcome. When Ruth returned home from the dinner she ranted to her husband in frustration about how disrespectful the Dean was and asked rhetorically why she had to justify her being in the program. That night would stand a reminder for the microaggressions Bader Ginsburg would face throughout the story, as well as her life.

Nevertheless, Ruth rises to success against impossible odds. After her husband, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth takes on his course load, attending and transcribing his classes so that he might not fall behind, all the while raising her infant daughter and attending her own classes. After her husband graduates and takes a position at a legal firm in New York City, Ruth continues to fight to finish her law degree. She adamantly insists that despite having to relocate away from Harvard, she can and will finish her degree at Columbia, a decision the Dean did not respect. Even after failing to secure support from Dean Griswold, Bader Ginsburg transfers anyway, ultimately finishing her coursework at Columbia University School of Law, but earning a Harvard Law Degree.

Once she has achieved her degree, reality comes in swiftly to crush the legend-to-be’s dreams. Door after door is slammed in her face, for reasons everywhere from sexism to antisemitism. In the end, the only job she is able to find is as a professor at Rutger’s Law School, ironically teaching “The Law and Sex Discrimination.” As the years pass and the new a forefront in the world around her, Bader Ginsburg begins to question how to fight sex discrimination and if it is possible to even prove such a thing exists. While Ruth despairs over her inability to do anything but teach, her husband Martin entices her with a tax law case that includes an opportunity to claim sex discrimination against a man. This immediately grabs Ruth’s attention and begins her journey into building a case in favor of the defendant, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey).

While Ruth struggles for success and validation, Ruth’s daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) is embracing the new feminist dogma, often butting heads with her mother’s perceptions of how women’s successes should be achieved. This at first causes a schism between mother and daughter, but later brings them together. Ruth decides to take her daughter with her to consult an experienced discrimination activist, Dorothy Kenyon, to show her daughter how a woman might achieve success and to get Kenyon’s thoughts on the Moritz case. While watching Jane tell off catcalling construction worker and confidently call a taxi, Ruth realizes that the culture of a nation changes before its laws. She would have to argue change in a court of law that had already begun on the streets of America.

Finally given her chance, Ruth realizes the onerous task of legal representation is more difficult than it appears. She is initially turned away by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the ACLU, who tells her that sex discrimination isn’t a civil rights issue, and is ,issue, and is denied advice from Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), an activist frequently cited in Bader Ginsburg’s lessons. She secures their support in the end, but not without her own trials and tribulations. Wulf heads a moot court to prepare Ruth for trial, which she fails miserably to the tune of sexist mockery of her abilities from her so-called friend and ally. Wulf demands Martin open the case to build confidence in the defense, which he reluctantly takes after realizing that though Ruth is passionate, she is unskilled due to being denied many a position as a practicing lawyer.

Though she struggles to gain traction in her first round, Ruth manages a swinging comeback the second time she defends Mr. Moritz in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Her rebuttal is so strong, the judges allow her to go past her last allotted four minutes, and her argument ultimately wins her the case. The film closes with a transition from footage of Felicity Jones walking up the US Supreme Court steps into footage of the actual Ruth Bader Ginsburg finishing the ascent.

Overall, the movie has received positive critical acclaim. There was, however, some kickback from the Jewish community surrounding Felicity Jones, a non-Jewish actress playing Bader Ginsburg. In an article discussing Jones’s offering of a more culturally consumable beauty standard in the portrayal, Hey Alma writer Anna Miriam writes, “the irony of altering the appearance of a historic figure in order to make her more conventionally attractive in a movie about her combating sexual discrimination is almost too rich to put into words.”

In the end, On The Basis Of Sex is a movie that takes an inspiring woman’s story and reminds its viewers that every legend was once a mighty challenger to the status quo. Throughout the film she is portrayed as intelligent and capable, but challenged by the frustrating society into which she was born. She is shown as a human being who struggles to make her mark on a difficult world, but succeeds through the support of her loved ones Her journey truly embodies what Meredith showcases as Going Strong.

By Micah Clark, Cartoonist and Staff Writer


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