Impeccably Liberal

On the Basis of Sex (Mimi Leder, 2018)

This is the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) struggling at Harvard Law School because of discrimination against her even by those who admitted women to the university, struggling to get a job as a attorney or lawyer because she might get pregnant or make her colleagues’ wives jealous and then struggling to bring a sex discrimination case that could uncrack the whole canon of sex discriminatory laws. At one point Dorothy Kenyon (a cameo from Kathy Bates) tells her it will take a generation.

Alas, she was probably over optimistic.

This is Leder’s first feature film since 2000. Since then she has been working in television — which is where she has mostly been working since 1987.

Perhaps men are just better at dir—

No.

Whilst this film leaps at least twice, across the end of the 1950s, to the early 1970s, it is very concerned to take us with it. We’re given the detail that will help Ginsburg convince her sceptical client, we’re told the daughter will turn against them, we’re told why Ginsburg is so hard ass. Rather than trusting the viewer, a couple of times it jumps away from the central characters to other lawyers, rather than keeping the focus purely on her.

There’s a pull, of course, for the film to be about her husband, Marty (Annie Harmer), who is a better cook, a better parent, a better lawyer, reader to tip her off to what to do. Perhaps that is how History was (but biopics =/= History), but it risks cutting into her agency even as it unsubtly makes the point that there is reason why a woman should be a better caregiver. He even gets a moment of jeopardy, with a bout of testicular cancer that does not stop them having a second child. She is shown as brilliant, but not that brilliant.

We are told that Ginsburg (should I type Bader Ginsburg?) is a woman and a mother and a Jew, but aside from the ACLU’s focus on Black civil rights over gender discrimination, it repeatedly shies away from politics of ethnicity. It can’t seem to get to grips with intersectionality. Her Jewishness is barely mentioned or shown.

Jones has come a long way from The Archers and seems on the rise. Tucked away in the credits is a caption for Amblin, Spielberg’s production company, although this is not DreamWorks. It is impeccably liberal and whilst we see the elderly Ruth Bader Ginsburg as herself, it’s left to wonder whether the important precedents she helped set have been writ on water in the age of Trump.

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