Film Review: On the Basis of Sex

Maia Miller-Lewis and Grace Wright review On the Basis of Sex, a feminist film concerning the life and work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Well, ouR Bloody G.

The most important piece of advice I can give for someone watching On the Basis of Sex is to bear with it. The first twenty minutes is a slog. Infiltrated by a gratuitous sex scene, it is easy to sink back into your chair and prepare yourself for two hours of feminist power, pride and passion being muted to appease an assumed apathetic audience. But please remain steadfast — you will not be disappointed.

There are so many brilliant moments in this film. For me, one of the stand out moments is a sidewalk exchange between Ruth Bader Ginsberg (referred to throughout this review as RBG) and her daughter Jane, played by Cailee Spaeny. Responding to a moronic catcall, the vociferous, all guns blazing response of Jane, when compared to the head down, carry on tact of her mother, perfectly highlights the juxtaposition of generational views on gender equality and the best way to galvanise change. Indeed, it triggered a conversation within the group of friends who saw the film with me as to whether the change was instigated from the inside or from the out, either by RBG’s legislation change or Janes liberation chant. Is there a hierarchy of dissent that has to be followed, policy before protest? I think my conclusion was that both are necessary in order to catalyse long-lasting change.

Retrospectively, reflecting on the beginning of the film, it would not be a stretch to question whether the slow, disheartening start was in fact intentional. Ironically, perhaps it was designed to give the viewer a taste of the same suppressed existence RBG and her contemporaries experienced throughout their early adult lives. At some points, it certainly made for uncomfortable watching. I want to avert my eyes and put my figures in my ears. Then again, I cannot handle the cringe.

It is also worth commenting on the film’s characterisation of the male characters. Staying true to the period, the film makes use of classic, patriarchal figures embodying normalised intellectual misogyny. One of the most telling moments was a scene in which the ‘villains’ of the story were discussing the legislation change proposed by RBG. Stressing that the place of women was in the house, it was the side eye of the one woman sat in the room, the wife Erwin Grinswold (then Solicitor General of the United States) directed at her husband that conveyed the emotive power that would carry the plot forward. For me, the unspoken feeling reflected in that one look personified not only the appetite for change but also crystallised the belief that RBG, one way or another would prevail.

On the Basis of Sex

Even more heartening was that not all the men were cast as monolithic villains. Martin Ginsberg, played by Armie Hammer was shown to be supportive, encouraging and most importantly kind towards RBG. Never pressuring or pushy, it is clear that he was RBG’s partner, not her ‘husband’ in the context of the time. He took a step back and he listened. It took some of the other male characters, namely Mel Wulf ( played by Justin Theroux) a bit longer to get his act together and appreciate the intellect and competence of RBG and the other women around him. However, this allowed the film to achieve a level of nuance and reality that would have been lost if the binary between ally and oppressor had been too concisely defined. In the end, Wulf too came around.

You could write a thesis on this film, critically deconstructing its themes and narrative. I would read it. And I am sure there are historical inconsistencies, plot holes that those, loyal to historical fact would be disgruntled by.  

We first see RBG, dressed all in blue, walking into Harvard Law School immersed in a crown of black-suited men. At the end of the film, in a parallel scene, we are shown the real RBG, dressed in blue, walking up the steps of the US Supreme Court building (where she has sat since 1993 as a Judge). Surrounded by no one, she is there alone, followed only by the irreverent respect that she does and should command by any woman or man who values freedom, equality and hope. This film made me cry. Not out of sadness, but out of just that, hope.

Our society is contently blindsided by problems that seem irresolvable. But if RBG, against the mite of such an archaic, closed-minded US administration could mobilise the creation of a new precedent on gender law, I see no reason why we should become apathetic. It’s our world too.

Illustration by Mae Farrow. 

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