She’s an unlikely 21st-century icon. Or is she? Unlikely, that is. Shy, serious, intellectual Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, 85 years old. She was ranked as pretty centrist, politically, during her early years on America’s highest bench. But as the Court moved sharply to the right during the Bush years, and even more so since the rise of Trump, she has become a passionate voice for liberal and progressive perspectives, often penning her own individual dissenting opinions to right-leaning Court decisions. It’s hardly surprising, then, that she has become a beacon of hope to those who despair at the direction the nation has been moving in, particular to young people, some of whom may not even have been born when she joined the Supreme Court. That she has become the star of her own social-media memes, where she is known with roarsome affection as Notorious RBG.
But even her fans may be surprised at the breadth and the depth of her judicial activism, of her lifelong quest to expand cultural notions of human dignity and opportunity, as depicted in the marvelous, funny, and deeply moving documentary biography RBG. Veteran filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West chart how Bader Ginsburg changed the legal landscape for women in the US long before she ever reached the Supreme Court by taking on, in the 1970s, and arguing before that very bench numerous federal lawsuits in favor of gender blindness in the law. (In the first one, for instance, she was supporting a female Air Force officer who was denied the same housing allowance that male officers received.) It’s not too extreme to say — as the film explicitly underscores several times — that the position of women in American society would be very different if not for the slow, methodical work of Bader Ginsburg in this period, when she employed a strategy of chipping away at legally approved gender inequality one case at a time, including taking on cases in which it was men who were discriminated against because of their gender.
In the guise of a simple, straightforward documentary of vintage footage and talking heads — including hugely engaging new interviews with RBG and her family, friends, and colleagues — Cohen and West craft a portrait of Bader Ginsburg that sneaks up on you with its emotional power and its empathetic, persistent wisdom about how very much more complicated and harder won women’s success is than men’s. From the encouragement of her immigrant parents to an amazingly supporting and loving partnership with her husband, Marty — an enormously successful and respected lawyer in his own right — we see how family and marriage challenged her and bolstered her in ways that we almost never hear men talk about. In her university days in the 1950s, she was one of only a very few female students at Harvard Law, which came with limitations and bigotry of its own; in news clips from 1993, when President Bill Clinton is announcing that he’s nominated her to the Supreme Court, she is at that point only the second woman put forward for that honor. I burst into tears watching this here as I vividly recalled seeing it on TV at the time and thinking, “Now a woman on the Supreme Court isn’t a one-off oddity; now we can say “women on the Supreme Court.” (It seemed unthinkable that she wouldn’t be confirmed.)
Bader Ginsburg’s wry yet pointed descriptions of herself, her demeanor, and her approach to the law are telling, too, of how women must manage men’s perceptions of us and all the extra work women have to take on in order for our perspectives to be understood by men who haven’t got a clue what the world is like for women. She never argues from anger, she explains, because that’s “self-defeating”… and it can be left unsaid that that applies only to women. (It directly contradicts the positive stereotype of the male lawyer bursting with righteous rage at whatever injustice he’s facing.) When she talks about making arguments before the all-male Supreme Court of the 1970s and having to gently persuade the justices that the crux of a particular lawsuit was, in fact, a problem, she laughs as she says, “I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days,” having to lead them to appreciations of ideas that they had never encountered before. This sounds an awful lot like what today we call “emotional labor”… and she had to do it within the context of a legal argument. And without, of course, getting angry.
RBG opens with an audio montage of the insults and slanders that have been hurled at her in recent years by right-wing commentators: “vile”; “wicked”; “zombie”; “anti-American.” It’s horrible, disgusting name-calling, but almost instantly it starts to sound ridiculous, and then frightened. There is a certain slice of American society that is terrified of this “tiny little person” — as NPR journalist Nina Totenberg here characterizes her physical size — who couldn’t be more soft-spoken or reserved in person. They should be frightened, as this incredibly inspiring movie about an incredibly inspiring woman makes plain. Bader Ginsburg invokes an 1837 quote from abolitionist and suffragist Sarah Moore Grimké: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Nearly two centuries later, their feet have not yet been entirely removed from our necks. There is still work to do, and she’s not done yet.
RBG is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for May 4th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.