On the Basis of Sex

Women’s Rights -
Feminism -
The notorious RBG smashes the patriarchy On the Basis of Sex
Mimi Leder
Daniel Stiepleman
Felicity Jones,
Armie Hammer,
Justin Theroux,
Kathy Bates
Run time
120 minutes
Amblin Partners,
Participant Media,
Robert Cort Productions,
Focus Features,
Universal Pictures,
Entertainment One
Distribution Date
Jan 10, 2019

We all know Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or at least we think we do. Dubbed the Notorious RBG of modern pop culture, she’s the stern lady with the large glasses and lace collar who has become a feminist icon. But On the Basis of Sex takes us back to the 1950’s when an eager young Ginsburg, played by Felicity Jones (Rogue One, The Theory of Everything) joins forces with her husband Martin, played by Armie Hammer (Call Me by Your Name, The Man from U.N.C.L.E).

Both join Harvard Law and in an early scene, we’re told that despite being one of only nine women in her year, along with 491 men, Ginsburg’s asked to justify why she’s taking up a place that could have gone to a man. This sets the tone for the bio pic.

Fast forward to the 1970’s. Ginsburg is working as a professor teaching sex discrimination in law, a subject that her men counterparts continue to think is invalid. Her dream of being a lawyer remains on hold as she is rejected by twelve law firms despite graduating first in her class, again for the crime of being a woman. One law firm had in fact hired a woman but put to Ginsburg, what in the world would they want with two of them?! The USA begins changing around her, the 70’s being a decade of protests for freedom. Frustrated with being left out of the revolution, Ginsburg and her husband, Martin, see a chance to prove to the court that the very foundations of American law are sexist.

On the Basis of Sex gave me so much appreciation for our feminist foremothers. It’s easy to take for granted the equalities that exist today but which were denied to women in recent history. This movie doesn’t shy away from the harsh criticism that Ginsburg faced which left me feeling inspired by her courage. I was, in fact, unfamiliar with RBG’s backstory so in a way, the movie was like an entertaining and important history lesson.

Admittedly, while interesting and full of drama, it does drag at times with some scenes towards the middle feeling unnecessary and some law acronyms going over my head. Various supporting characters did not resonate or stay with me but that may be due to Jones’ exceptional performance of Ginsburg’s fiery yet endearing personality. Jones’ tone and subtle expressions felt spot on and had me believing I was witnessing the real RBG. I would have been quite content with every scene featuring only her and her relationships with her family, friends, and students.

I particularly enjoyed that On the Basis of Sex portrayed a well-rounded depiction of Ginsburg with her flaws on display. She is stubborn, hard-shelled, and mothers her children through rules rather than coddling. In fact, it is Martin who comforts their daughter when she’s upset and Martin who often cooks dinner, the traditional motherly roles of the time. This however endeared Ginsburg to me more as it is easier to relate to a flawed hero.

It’s absolutely worth noting that director Mimi Leder (Pay it Forward, Deep Impact) is also a pioneer in her field, being the first woman to graduate from the American Film Institute Conservatory in 1973. On the Basis of Sex marks a departure from her usual directing style of action movies and television shows. The film’s use of metaphoric imagery was great, particularly in the movie’s opening and closing scenes with Ginsburg approaching Harvard Law in her blue coat punctuated by a sea of black-suited men.

Look out for the cameo from the real RBG herself, as glorious as ever, and a subtle nod to her blessing of this film about her remarkable life.

We may still live in a man’s world but I left On the Basis of Sex feeling enlightened and ready to pick up the mantle for RBG’s fight for women’s rights.

About the Contributor

Chelsea is a librarian living in Auckland. She has always loved reading and as a child convinced everyone to call her ‘Ellie’, after her favorite character from Tomorrow, When the War Began. She reads widely but always comes back to the young adult genre, gritty fiction, and depressing nonfiction. Her dream life would be endless travel, owning her own bookstore, and bad dancing to 90s pop music.