Gender equality in the eyes of the law with 'On the Basis of Sex'

24 Jun 2019 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

4 mins
On the Basis of Sex
On the Basis of Sex

Ruth Bader Ginsburg - just the second woman to be appointed to the US Supreme Court upon her confirmation in 1993 - is a celebrated judge, lawyer and professor, as well as being a cultural icon. Following recent documentary RBG, this F-rated biopic explores her studies at Harvard, the difficulties she faced along the way, and a landmark gender equality case in her career.

What does it mean to be a Harvard man?

As Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrives to study law at Harvard in 1956, this question is asked of her and the rest of her almost-exclusively male class. The Law School Dean refers to "he" and "him" throughout as he speaks of this hypothetical person, not considering for one moment that he should alter his language, but instead choosing to double-down on his ignorance and prejudice by later questioning, almost interrogating, the women who have chosen to pursue a career and ‘take the place of a man'.

Even the supposedly progressive men hide behind the excuses of the day, resulting in Ginsburg - excelling throughout these studies at the top of her class - rejected for every law firm she applies for upon graduating, leading her to take up a teaching position instead. But when presented with a potentially landmark case of apparent gender discrimination, she sets out to win it and, in doing so, change the course of history.

The law is never finished...

Marty, Ruth's husband, makes this claim. As much as the law can feel rigid and fixed by precedent - barriers which Ruth comes up against in her pursuit to change it - the law is forever evolving with the times, albeit sometimes slowly, and one case can have major ramifications on others. Ruth explains to her class of aspiring lawyers that, at the time (1970), there are 178 laws which [legally] discriminate on the basis of sex, mostly in their subjugation of women. But as Ruth so eloquently puts it: "a court ought not to be directed by the weather of the day but by the climate of the era".

The irony is that in order to prove this inequality, a major case she takes on is one in which a man, rather than a woman, is being treated unfairly by the law. It is an unfortunate historical truth that even in overcoming prejudice it would take a man's mistreatment to show judges what inequality is, and to help liberate women in the eyes of the law. But despite acknowledging this irony, make no mistake; the film is squarely about Ruth and her actions.

Despite the support of her husband and the help afforded by certain male figures throughout, the film never attempts to represent Ruth as being ‘given' anything; rather, she must make it happen herself. Director Mimi Leder ensures our eyes are always on Ginsburg, keeping the camera at her height - even if that means the head of her husband (played by Armie Hammer, who is noticably taller) sometimes disappears out of the top of the frame entirely - in order to say, in no uncertain terms, that both characters and camera must meet Ruth on her level, and not the other way around.

It's not a movement if everyone's just sitting.

One of the unexpected joys of the film is the voice given to Ruth and Marty's teenage daughter, Jane; both through the relationship she is shown to share with her mother (much like the moving mother-daughter relationship in The Post), and also in the respect and esteem the movie clearly holds for the next generation, and in their ability to affect change. Dorothy Kenyon, a New York attorney, judge, feminist and political activist, is held up as one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's icons - just as RBG too would pave the way and rouse the next generation, including her own daughter. But the relationship is reciprocal, with one drawing inspiration from the other, as Kenyon tells Ginsburg to look to the youth and how they have taken to the streets to demand action. Jane Ginsburg tells her mother that actions speak louder than words, with the above quote reflecting the idea that theory and discussion are, on their own, not enough.

Morality does not win the day.

Morality may not always win the day, and it certainly doesn't ever win without someone making it so. Ruth may now be seen as an icon, representing an entire movement, but one of the critical things On the Basis of Sex does is to humanise her, grounding her mythical status in everyday actions and challenges. Often our idols prove to be a double-edged sword, because as much as we may admire and want to be like them, their status makes them feel like a million miles away from us. It's important, therefore, for films like this to remind us that they too started somewhere; were told over and over again that they couldn't do it; doubted themselves; had setbacks; persevered; committed to self-improvement; and ultimately came through.

From films like Suffragette and Made in Dagenham which help document and bring historical tales to contemporary audiences, through to real-life modern movements such as Time's Up, #MeToo or the Women's March which first took place in cities all around the world in January 2018, the struggle for gender equality has been a long, well-worn road with plenty more ground to cover. But films such as RBG and On the Basis of Sex - with its superb final scene, removing the divider between fiction and fact, and which will have you in tears - are timely, uplifting reminders of just how far we've collectively come, and give us reason to celebrate and remain optimistic for the future.

On the Basis of Sex is released on DVD on Mon 24 Jun and is available for Into Film clubs to order now.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator (Learning)

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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