‘On the Basis of Sex’ movie does justice to Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Grace Altenhofen, Editor-in-Chief

Warning: Contains movie spoilers.


Released nationwide Jan. 11, On the Basis of Sex tells the compelling story of now-Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she perseveres in the face of adversity to become one of the figureheads of the 1970’s women’s rights movement.

The opening scenes set the tone for a movie about sex-based discrimination; Ginsburg, played by actress Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), is seen walking across the campus of Harvard University surrounded by thousands of male classmates. At Harvard Law School, she is one of only nine women in a class of about 500 and is frequently ignored, if not belittled, by her all-male professors. Things seem to look up for Ginsburg when she, along with the eight other female law students, is invited to dinner at the home of the Dean of Harvard Law as a welcoming gesture; however, things come crashing back to reality when the dean asks how the women justified taking a spot at the school that could have otherwise been given to a man.

Her struggles become greater when her husband, Marty Ginsburg, portrayed by actor Armie Hammer (Call Me By My Name), is diagnosed with testicular cancer during his second year at Harvard Law. Though the movie made a subtle nod toward her ability to keep up with school while caring for her child and ill husband, it breezed over the struggle of that time period, merely showing Marty’s diagnosis and then, suddenly and remarkably, his recovery. There was minimal tribute paid to the fact that Ruth attended both her classes and Marty’s, helping keep up with his assignments while juggling her responsibilities as a mother to an infant daughter and caretaker to Marty. The movie, undoubtedly, intended to put the focus more on Ruth’s legal career; however, it would have been touching to see more attention paid to her tireless dedication to her family as well.

Once out of school, Ruth struggles to find a job, having been turned down by countless law firms because she’s a woman. Finally, she takes a job as a law professor at Rutgers, filling a ‘minority’ spot on the staff formerly occupied by an African-American lawyer. Though she remains there for over ten years, one thing is made clear: it is not what she hoped to do with her life. One of the most impactful scenes of the movie was when Marty asked Ruth why she wasn’t happy that she was teaching the next generation of lawyers who could change the world; her tearful response, ‘Because that’s what I wanted to do’, has the ability to touch almost any viewer.

Ruth finally catches her big break when Marty, a successful tax lawyer, asks her to look over a case in which a man wasn’t able to claim a deduction on his taxes for the salary of a caretaker he hired to care for his aging mother. The reason? Because that tax deduction law was created for the purpose of helping women who had to hire a caretaker for their parent or child; it was assumed that a man shouldn’t have to hire anyone because he should have a wife to take care of everything. Ruth knew that if she could prove this man had been unfairly discriminated against because of his sex, that principle could be applied to laws that unfairly discriminated against women as well. The majority of the movie centered around her work on this case, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which she ultimately wins.

Though the movie stayed largely true-to-life, the accuracy faltered during the scene where Ruth gives her opening statement before the court of appeals. In real life, it went smoothly despite being Ruth’s first time arguing a case in an actual courtroom. In the movie, however, it depicts her as stumbling over her words and becoming easily flustered before turning the rest of the time over to her husband. While it’s understandable that screenwriters might embellish details to emphasize the point of a particular scene, making Ruth come across as flustered and unprepared only serves to degrade the brave, history-making woman.

Though the film is flawed in places and covers a shorter time period than expected of the now-Supreme Court Justice, Jones gives a convincing portrayal and does justice to the life and work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, earning this biopic 4/5 stars.