Review: On the Basis of Sex

There are worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than by watching On the Basis of Sex. Director Mimi Leder creates superhero origin story of sorts for US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and while the film hits all the standard beats, with such an iconic hero at its core, it is hard not to feel underwhelmed.

The film opens on Ruth (Felicity Jones) at Harvard Law School in 1956—not an easy time to be an ambitious young woman. Despite this, she stands tall with determination and pride through each slight: during Dean Griswold’s (Sam Waterson) opening address outlining what it means to be a Harvard Man; amidst questions at the Dean’s dinner about why she deserves a place at Law School that could have gone to a man. Every time her raised hand is ignored in class, it feels like a wall thrown at her, but she never falters.

All the while, from her academic journey that spans across Harvard to New York City, to a landmark case challenging gender-based discrimination in the US Constitution in the 1970s, Ruth’s husband Marty (Armie Hammer) is faithfully by her side. At six-foot-ridiculous and with that booming voice of his, Marty—and Hammer—are larger than life. It’s refreshing to see Marty openly cry after receiving his cancer diagnosis, or being unabashedly in awe of his wife, completely accepting of how smart and capable she is. Two hours of Armie Hammer wearing an apron and being a supportive and loving husband? Sign me the heck up! (Anyone familiar with Natalie Walker’s fake audition videos for Twitter will recognise Hammer’s character as a rare male variant of the archetypal ‘woman married to a history-making man’ – as sexy as he is supportive.) But this film is not about Marty Ginsburg and my clucky desire to see men in domestic spaces – it’s about the powerhouse that is the Notorious RBG.

Jones performs commendably as Ruth, yet the reason why I talk so much about Armie Hammer is that her performance, for the most part, blends in instead of standing out with the vivaciousness the role demands, paling in comparison to her stereotype-defying co-star. She is no plucky, charismatic Elle Woods or hardened and ruthless Annalise Keating: she is admirable in her one-track mind and her passion. It is invigorating to see moments such as Ruth’s gender-based discrimination class during her professorship at Rutgers, or telling her second-wave feminist teenage daughter to take her younger brother to her consciousness-raising group, but they’re limited in their capacity to flesh Ruth out as a character, forming instead a biographical mouthpiece.

With On The Basis Of Sex and the recent Oscar-nominated documentary RBG (2018), Ginsburg is in vogue. Lovingly nicknamed after The Notorious B.I.G., her image and presence has been co-opted into a cutesy and profitable feminist hero. A search for her name on Etsy brings up hundreds of results with thousands of reviews per item, each (rightly) appraising her for being a boss-ass bitch. The documentary highlights this marketability, and even plays into this in its social media-appeasing title. But as a film, RBG is also a more detailed attempt than On The Basis Of Sex in highlighting everything Ginsburg has achieved to become the woman she is today. I will watch On the Basis of Sex again because Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an incredible woman, not because of the palatable brand of Etsy feminism Leder peddles to her audience—On The Basis Of Sex is not especially deep or complex, but it is empowering comfort food.  

Written by Ruth’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, On the Basis of Sex sees director Mimi Leder highlighting pull quotes of grand declarations. Admittedly, I too was riled up by extended speeches listing the ways Ruth had been knocked back by dozens of law firms in the city because of her gender, or the emphasis on the “natural way of things” given by the opposition in the climactic courtroom scene, but it’s formulaic. Simple and succinct, the film reveals the legislative battles Ruth fought and won in order to make her the feminist icon she’s praised as today.

As we see more and more stories about pioneering women of history on our screens (Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures [2016] primarily comes to mind), it’s not enough for Leder to simply tick boxes. With support roles from Kathy Bates (perfect as usual) as civil rights lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, Justin Theroux (mustachioed and into it) as ACLU confidant and right-hand man Mel Wulf, the film is simply an enjoyable telling of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s baby steps into fighting the patriarchy.

On the Basis of Sex is easy viewing; it is the perfect Sunday afternoon film. I’m not mad about having to watch another movie about a woman in a male-dominated space who works hard and changes the world. Give me more of that. But give me more of the woman, not the biopic tropes that we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

On the Basis of Sex is in Australian cinemas from 7 February.

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Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently undertaking an Honours thesis on Screen & Cultural Studies and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew.

Claire White