In 1977, in the midst of the still-unwon fight for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, feminist activist and progressive politician Bella Abzug famously said: “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.”
Her point was that if women were ever to achieve parity with men, mediocrity in women must be as casually accepted as that of men. Where are the women who fail upward? Where are the women who succeed even though they’re not very smart or competent? We could say the same about movies: Where are the movies about extraordinary women that just sort of sit there and coast on the awesomeness of their subjects? Where are the just-pretty-okay movies that celebrate women’s accomplishments in the same vast quantities we get those about men and their deeds?
We might see On the Basis of Sex, then, as a move — a movie! — in the right direction, its hint-of-racy title fronting a just-pretty-okay cinematic experience that coasts on the awesomeness of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Of course there is nothing remotely schlemiel-like about Bader Ginsburg, nothing mediocre; nor is there about director Mimi Leder, who has been directing and producing — mostly television but also some films, including Pay It Forward and Deep Impact — for 20 years, in a field in which mediocre women are not tolerated. I might wish that Sex was, well, sexier — more adventurous, more challenging, more meaty, more demanding of the viewer and of its terrific cast — but I’ll take this. Coasting on Notorious RBG is some incredible coasting indeed; the ride here is of the solidly crowd-pleasing variety, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Bader Ginsberg, of course, is now a US Supreme Court justice, and at the time only the second woman appointed to that august court, but in the years of this movie — from the 1950s through the 1970s — she is a young law student, a university professor, and, once she finds her groove, an activist for gender equality. Her origin story, written for the screen by her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman (his debut), is a familiar David-and-Goliath tale of a dogged outsider battling her way into an entrenched, rigidly conservative system that doesn’t want her. The wonderful — and not-at-all-mediocre, decidedly unschlemiel-y — Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, A Monster Calls) is smartly turned out as the young Bader Ginsberg, who is already married to fellow Harvard law student Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer: Final Portrait, Call Me by Your Name) as the movie opens. Obscene sexism is the rule at 1950s Harvard Law, where the dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston: Miss Sloane, Anesthesia), stubbornly continues to talk about “Harvard men” even though there are, in fact, a few women in Bader Ginsburg’s incoming class.
Griswold’s — and America’s, and the world’s — casual misogyny is the villain here, and with Griswold’s face, will rear its ugly head again in Bader Ginburg’s career. The gender-discrimination case she will later shepherd toward the Supreme Court is, Griswold will fret, a threat to “the American family.” (Women with self-determination are a menace to society, doncha know.) Before that, she will find it impossible to get a job in any prestigious New York law firm, or even any less illustrious one, because women lawyers weren’t wanted. It’s easy to cheer against the outright, blatant, in-her-face bigotry that Bader Ginsburg faces, and to applaud Jones’s chin-in-the-air defiance in the face of it. A little too easy, maybe: I’m frankly a bit tired of movies about sexism that cast battles such as the ones Bader Ginsburg fought as remnants of the past, as if such matters have been resolved and we’re all equal today. Spoiler for men: sexism still exists, and women still deal with it every day, though in more insidious, more subtle ways that don’t always look like a Hollywood knave like Griswold twirling his metaphorical moustache.
Still, On the Basis of Sex has me clinging to the joy of seeing yet another instance of the gender-flipping of a familiar story resulting in a gratifying busting of clichés. (It’s not a coincidence that we do not have a David-and-Goliath metaphor that centers a mythic and triumphant lone woman.) There is intense feminist satisfaction to be found here in the depiction of the Ginsburgses’ marriage. Whatever dramatic license Stiepleman may have taken in telling his aunt’s story does not extend to the reality — portrayed here with romantic yet also practical sweetness — of Marty as incredibly supportive of Ruth’s career, and of her life on the whole. Gently amusing scenes of domesticity here include Marty cooking dinner so Ruth can practice her lawyerly oratory in preparation for appearing before the Supreme Court. I’ll venture to guess that few people who aren’t fretting about “the American family” would say that Armie Hammer bustling around the kitchen isn’t sexy as hell.
Ruth had, we see, previously supported Marty through a life-threatening illness in their law-school days, but there’s no sense that this is tit-for-tat arrangement, and not just because they both agree that he’s just a better cook than she is. The case that brings her to prominence — that one that here allows her a Mr Smith Goes to Washington–esque scene of speechifying conquest! — is one that he calls to her attention, one in which gender intersects with his wheelhouse of taxation. (It’s about a man being denied a tax benefit for caring for his elderly, infirm mother because tax law presumed that carers would be women. That Bader Ginsburg choose to take this on is an indication of her genius, and of our culture’s sexism: she was probably slightly more likely to have her point hit home in a court of law if she could prove that sexism was hurting a man. And she probably knew this.) Marty is simply behind Ruth 100 percent, and a portrait of a male/female couple that focuses on the woman while the man encourages and helps her is in itself remarkable. Toss in the fact that both partners share household duties without fuss or argument and give emotional and physical room for each other’s work, and it’s nigh on unprecedented.
We’re so used to seeing movies about men doing important work whose onscreen wives are quiet helpmeets, or sometimes women slightly perplexed by their husbands who eventually come around to being quiet helpmeets. It’s difficult to come up with even one example of a wholly supportive husband character to a wife doing important work. It’s so unusual that Stiepleman has said (in The New York Times) that the movie had trouble attracting financing because its Marty was allegedly too implausible! Even though, by all accounts, this onscreen Marty is very true to life. But that’s precisely why, however otherwise pedestrian On the Basis of Sex might be, we need to see more movies like this one.
On the Basis of Sex is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for January 4th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.