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Movie Review

"What does it mean to be a Harvard man?"

So Erwin Griswold, dean of the Harvard Law School, asked the incoming class in the fall of 1956.

On one level, of course, being a Harvard man—that is, earning a degree from the country’s most prestigious law school—meant quite a lot. By then, nine Supreme Court justices, nine U.S. Attorneys General, dozens of U.S. congressmen and one United States President had graduated from the country’s most prestigious law school.

But as Ruth Bader Ginsburg sat in that storied Harvard hall in 1956—one of just nine women in a class of 500—she might’ve been turning that phrase, "Harvard man," around in her mind.

Until recently, the phrase had been literally true: Harvard only allowed women to enroll beginning in 1950. But was it still better to be a Harvard man than a Harvard woman?

Ruth goes to the same classes, but professors skip over her raised hand (at least at first). At Harvard soirees, a sense of separation lingers: When Griswold hosts a special dinner for his female law students, he tells the ladies each to stand and say why they deserve a spot at Harvard instead of a man. And if the answer’s not to Griswold’s liking, he cuts her off. “That’s not a very good reason, dear,” he’d say, telling her to sit down.

Ruth stands and smiles. “So I can be a more patient and understanding wife,” she says, sarcasm dripping from the words as Griswold glowers underneath his formidable eyebrows.

Ruth has other intentions. She means to be a Harvard woman: not coddled, not belittled, not favored, simply respected. She intends to be treated as an equal for her mind, her skill, her preparation. She may only be 5 foot 1, but she means to make a big impression on Harvard—and wherever she finds herself in the future, be it in a classroom, boardroom or arguing in front of the Supreme Court.

Perhaps even sitting on it.

Because for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there’s nothing fair in the term “fairer sex.”

Positive Elements

In the real world, Ruth Bader Ginsburg isn't viewed as a hero among some. They would likely argue she's done harm to marriage and family through some of her decisions as a Supreme Court justice. With that acknowledgment in mind, it might come as a bit of a surprise that at the heart of On the Basis of Sex, we find a sweet, inspiring and rather traditional love story.

Ruth was already married when she entered Harvard, to Martin Ginsburg, also a Harvard law student. (Their real-life marriage lasted 56 years, until Martin’s death.) We only see a relatively small snippet of their lives together in the film, but in that time, they hold to their marriage vows to the very letter—supporting each other in good times and bad, in sickness and health.

When Martin is stricken with testicular cancer early on, Ruth does triple duty—serving as pretty much the sole caregiver for their first baby (Jane) and going to Martin’s classes in addition to her own. When Martin graduates and gets a plum job at a New York law firm, Ruth follows him, even though she must leave Harvard before earning her own degree. (She eventually gets one from the esteemed legal program at Columbia Law School.) She’s with her husband, supporting him every step of the way.

Martin supports Ruth and her ambitions just as much. He’s grieved when the male-dominated legal establishment dismisses or diminishes Ruth’s abilities because of her gender. He’s Ruth’s most tireless advocate and sincerest supporter. And despite his own legal skillfulness in front of a jury, he’s not just willing, but eager to cede the spotlight to his wife and her own prodigious skills. They make a formidable team, but their relationship goes far beyond that: They love each other, and we see that love every time they’re together.

Martin also serves as the family peacemaker when Ruth and daughter Jane (who spends most of the movie in her mid-teens) cross swords. When Jane tells her dad that Ruth’s a “bully,” Martin corrects her: He tells Jane that Ruth and her own father used to argue about laws and ideas for hours, and that she just wants to help her daughter to grow up to be strong and smart and confident. “It’s how she shows her heart,” he says. And in time, Jane sees her mother as a real hero.

A significant portion of the film focuses on Ruth’s crusade to overturn laws based in gender inequity, laws that have impacted our society in a myriad of diverse and sometimes complex ways. People of differing political persuasions could certainly argue over the cultural impact of her rulings. But Ruth's basic impulse as it's depicted in this film—that people should be treated as equals before the law, regardless of sex—is an admirable one. Ginsburg’s first client in this arena is, actually, a male. The man, who takes care of his old and ailing mother most of the time but who needs care for her when he's working, is being denied a tax break to hire a part-time nurse for her. The reason? The law assumes that no man would (should?) be a primary caregiver.

Spiritual Content

It’s mentioned in passing that both Ruth and Martin were raised Jewish, apparently another strike against them in some social circles.

Sexual Content

"I’m thrilled you look nothing like a Harvard man,” Martin tells Ruth slyly. The movie indicates that the Ginburgs’ marriage is both loving and passionate, and we see the two kiss and embrace as they fall onto their bed, Ruth in her underwear.

As Ruth interviews for a position at a less-than-prestigious law firm (the others she applied for all turned her down for various gender-specific reasons), she notices that her interviewer is staring at her cleavage. He tells her that he can’t hire her: The firm, he says, is like a family, and Ruth’s presence would disturb its partners and be disconcerting to the male lawyers’ spouses.

Ruth and Jane are subjected to some ribald construction-worker catcalls. Ruth tells Jane just to ignore them, but Jane hollers back: “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” she says. For Ruth, it’s a revelatory moment, a sign that the next generation is unwilling to deal with the sexist slights and objectification of being a woman, treatment that Ruth's generation accepted as a matter of course.

Jane, in keeping with the fashion of the day, wears some pretty short skirts. We hear some crass slang referencing a bit of the male anatomy. We see ads and magazine covers meant to draw our attention to societal objectification of women. An associate of Ruth’s advises her to change most of the references to “sex” in her legal briefing to “gender.” As it is, she says, the brief “reeks of hormones and back seats.”

Violent Content

During a game of charades, Martin keels over in pain. Ruth takes him to a hospital where they learn that Martin has testicular cancer: He has only a 5% chance to survive, they’re told.

Crude or Profane Language

One f-word and about half a dozen s-words. We also hear “a--,” b--ch,” “b--tard,” “d--n,” “h---”, “pr--k” and “d--k.” God’s name is misused twice, and we hear someone utter “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” as an exclamation.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Mel Wulf, head of the American Civil Liberties Union (whom Ruth works with) smokes a lot. We also see wine and other beverages served with dinner and at after-dinner meetings. Ruth and Mel meet at a bar. Ruth and Martin drink champagne to “celebrate” a not-so-great job offer.

Other Negative Elements

In Ruth’s first challenge to gender-specific laws, her legal adversaries attack her by arguing that she and her associates want to do nothing less than to rip down the core of family and society—time-honored values that the United States had long held dear. Ginsburg's conservative opponents in court in these scenes are not depicted as particularly kind or caring people—in sharp contrast to the portrait the film paints of her.

Conclusion

The real Ruth Bader Ginsburg has long been a polarizing figure in American culture—a civil rights hero to some, a liberal villain to others. This year, her story has been inescapable on the big screen. With this film and the critically well-received documentary (RGB) focusing on her achievements, the diminutive Supreme Court Justice has cemented her status as a progressive cultural superstar.

I can’t speak to the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg here—not in any great detail or with any great authority, at least. I’m no Constitutional scholar, no legal expert, no biographer. I’m a movie reviewer.

So that said, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg we see here, and this movie telling her story, is worth some praise.

Admittedly, the issue Ruth champions is filled with more complexity than the movie would have us believe. I think, as Ruth does, that women and men should be treated as equal under the law, and I think most of us would be against the egregious forms of discrimination we see in play here. I also believe that God has created men and women differently, and that our differences are both mysterious and beautiful, reflecting together the image of God. (See Genesis 1:26-28.)

I can’t speak to what the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg would say about those God-given distinctions between the sexes. But the Ruth we meet in this movie is more than just a crackerjack lawyer dealing with systematic discrimination, both overt and subtle: She’s a caring wife and a conscientious mother who loves both her husband and children fiercely (if imperfectly).

Similarly, her husband, Martin, loves and supports Ruth as every husband should. He values the unique gifts she brings not just to their marriage, but to the wider world. The couple may not fit some traditional marital or gender stereotypes, but they still form a picture of a functioning and loving family—something we see all too rarely in movies today.

This sympathetic cinematic portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg prods viewers to ponder important questions about equality. And I think there'll always be tension regarding how that vision of equality manifests itself—the tension between an ever-changing culture and the eternal truth of God. But while we might not always agree with Ginsburg, either the real-life version or the one we see here, perhaps we can agree that on earth and in heaven, men and women should be equally loved and equally valued.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Armie Hammer as Martin D. Ginsburg; Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf; Kathy Bates as Dorothy Kenyon; Sam Waterston as Erwin Griswold; Cailee Spaeny as Jane Ginsburg; Stephen Root as Professor Brown

Director

Mimi Leder ( )

Distributor

Focus Pictures

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

December 25, 2018

On Video

April 9, 2019

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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