‘On The Basis of Sex’ – Saturated Sexism and Playing Gender

by Fleur Feeney |

Featured image courtesy of Time Magazine

On The Basis of Sex follows the early career of now-legend Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her journey to overthrowing the sexism that saturates American law. 

Starting as one of the only women on the Harvard Law course, Bader Ginsburg is one of their highest achievers, balancing her own classes with those of her sick husband, on top of raising a family. 

Poignant and moving in tone and execution, this is certainly a movie for the girls among us who need a boost – with a bit of grit and determination, we canget stuff done!

Felicity Jones plays our lead with grace and poise, executing the portrayal of this feminist role model with both class and a vehement fire in her eyes. From gazing lovingly at her husband (Armie Hammer) to arguing with professors, shaking in court, to basking victorious in the sun, Jones gives us that quiet fire fueling change big and small. We are presented with a Bader Ginsburg that doesn’t often raise her voice, who changes the world through relentless hard work and a mild mannered and sometimes irritatingly calm sensibility. 

Image courtesy of The Wrap

When turned away from, what feels like, all the law firms in the city because of her gender, Bader Ginsburg teaches ‘sex discrimination and the law’, qnd when a case too good to pass up finally presents itself, she takes it. 

She does what she has to, for herself, for her daughter and for women like her who just want to get on with it.

The screenwriting has a certain sensitivity in terms of telling the story of a living legend. Although I would have enjoyed a little more high drama, I appreciated the decision to not over-dramatize for the sake of it. Bader Ginsburg is written as a quietly hard working saint, never seeking praise and she’s likeable in that she doesn’t appear overly antagonising, nor is she a doormat or a puppet of her husband.

I would call this biopic a simple affair, a straightforward legal drama, but it gets the job done. By this, I mean a tear in my eye and a warmth in my heart. 

One of the most striking images in the film is a shot of the lecture theatre where Bader Ginsburg sits, surrounded by men in suits, often the only woman in shot. She raises her hand to answer a question and, despite intense condescension, she continues to raise it again and again. 

Bader Ginsburg’s story is simple: There was no big revolution, just a slow and steady battle to make the world a better place.

The acting was subtle and effective. Jones played a respectable Bader Ginsburg, and Armie Hammer was delightful as Marty Ginsburg – the charming, painfully perfect husband. Clearly loveable and doting, Hammer did well to portray such a lovely and clever man, radiating with class and wisdom, without outshining Jones as the star of the show. I thought it was particularly important to be shown a respectful, loving relationship in which the husband was not the villain fueling quasi-feminist rage, nor was he the sole saviour and real hero of the story. 

Image courtesy of Variety

For me, the breakout star of this film was the young Jane Ginsburg, Cailee Spaeny, the unflinching second wave feminist daughter of the Bader-Ginsburg clan. A source of inspiration for her mother, and I would argue for the audience, encouraging, with her fierce spirit. She implores the women in the audience to take a stand and be assertive in their work. As she yelled at a cat-calling construction worker in the middle of the street, dripping from the torrential rain, I felt the frustration and the drive of this young go-getter — her spirit serves as well needed inspiration. 

For me, this was a reminder that though we are young, we shouldn’t take things lying down. We can encourage older generations to do better, one shared umbrella at a time.

I wouldn’t say this film blew my mind, but I do think it was a story that needed to be told. Mimi Leder directed a stellar cast, made tax law and legal technicalities interesting, and moved the audience with an inspirational tale. There was love from start to finish, for Ruth, for her family and for the audience. 

Yes it’s Bader Ginsburg’s origin story being told, but there are even more women sat in lecture theatres today, and I’m sure they will all be raising their hands.