By Sarah Plummer
This film review is an opinion piece submitted to the Samford Crimson.
“On the Basis of Sex” begins with ranks of law students marching in perfect symmetry towards the gates of Harvard Law, setting the tone for this retelling of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s revolution. Hundreds of identical shoes, suits and ties storm the gates of Harvard Law School, and, in the midst of it all, in strides Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) in her bright blue dress.
In this opening shot and many of the shots to follow, costume designer Isis Mussenden draws all eyes to Ginsburg in her colorful attire, which stands out as distinctively different in the sea of black suits. Jones’s blue dresses pay tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself while also serving as a unique wardrobe choice to emphasize her “otherness” among the Harvard men. Similarly, at this time, a woman at Harvard law would have drawn the unwelcome stares of her colleagues, sticking out in a male-dominated field.
Taking her seat in a room full of identical “all-American” white men, Ginsburg radiates a hunger for knowledge and a desperation to prove herself that is worthy of being a “Harvard man.” She attends a welcome dinner at the dean’s house, playing the part of the devoted housewife in her desperation to make a good impression. Throughout her law school career, she endures the patronizing comments of her professors and peers while working twice as hard to pursue her dreams and care for her family. When her husband (Armie Hammer) is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ginsburg attends his classes alongside her own. However, her outstanding academic record would never be enough while U.S. law encouraged discrimination on the basis of sex. She is turned down by countless job interviewers despite graduating top of her class. She claims that she did everything she was supposed to do, causing the viewer to feel Ginsburg’s confusion and frustration when everything is still not enough.
After a million setbacks and sexist remarks, Ginsburg decides to represent Charles Moritz in a case featuring sex-based discrimination against a man. This moment highlights Ginsburg’s acceptance of her unique position as a woman in a male-dominated society. During the Moritz case, Jones portrays Ginsburg’s transition from rule-follower to revolutionary. She has realized that, despite her following every step to become a lawyer, it is simply not enough because she is a woman. Jones excels in her portrayal of Ginsburg’s desperation to prove herself. She also brings the emotional vulnerability necessary for a story driven by family and motherhood. Her chemistry with Armie Hammer is palpable, especially in moments of banter between the married couple.
Director Mimi Leder, also known for “The Morning Show,” attempts to highlight the misogyny of a male-dominated field strewn with sexist remarks. She draws upon her own experience as a female director to portray the sexism Ginsburg fought against. “On the Basis of Sex” tells the story of a legal case, but it is built upon the emotional vulnerability Jones portrays with Ginsburg’s family. The film is driven by the narrative of a mother and father striving to change a nation for their children. Leder contrasts the obsession to “protect” the traditional American family with the Ginsburgs’ unconditional sacrifices for their children. “I hope girls and young women in particular will see the film and find inspiration to realize their own unlimited potential,” Leder said in a 2018 interview. This inspiration is apparent in Leder’s tribute to Ginsburg’s legacy as a revolutionary both for America and, most especially, for her children.