On the Basis of Sex: The Story Behind the Notorious RBG

March 4, 2019 | By Malathi Reddy

The movie opens with a sea of men—gray suits, slicked hair, cigarette smoke—followed by a small figure with a brown bob, a flash of a blue dress, and black heels. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a first-year law student, climbs up the steps, beginning her years at Harvard Law School. 


“On the Basis of Sex,” directed by Mimi Leder and adapted from a screenplay by Justice Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, explores the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones) as an attorney struggling to fight against the sexism and discrimination that she faced every day. Denied from every law firm, she turns to Rutgers, where she works as a professor. When she and her husband Martin Ginsburg (played by Armie Hammer) uncover a groundbreaking case, Ginsburg begins a path that would change how the justice system views gender discrimination.  


Photo Courtesy of Focus Features

Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer have a dynamite cast of supporting actors alongside them. Justin Theroux plays Mel Wulf, the director of the ACLU who backs the Ginsburgs’ case but whose condescending behavior toward RBG is reminiscent of her interactions with the sexist faculty at Harvard and the lawyers at every firm at which she interviewed. In short, Wulf is a difficult ally and yet another man Ginsburg needs to prove wrong. Ginsburg also meets Dorothy Kenyon, played by Kathy Bates, a jaded civil rights lawyer who previously attempted and failed to fight sex discrimination in court. Kenyon offers insight into the complexity of the issue and is astonished to find Ginsburg to be unyielding. 


What this movie does beautifully is open a discussion about sex, society, and discrimination in multiple forums in and throughout the story. As a professor at Rutgers, Ginsburg discusses legalized sexism with her students. When a male student makes a sexist comment in the class, the explosive response by the women in the room effectively shut him down. Harvard dean Erwin Griswold, played by Sam Waterston, perfectly exemplifies the overt sexism women face when he asked the 9 women of Ginsburg’s class at Harvard why they were taking a man’s spot in the class. Ginsburg’s daughter Jane, played by Cailee Spaeny, also provides an interesting dynamic that shows the generational differences within the feminist movement. While Ginsburg fights against sexism by trying to change the law, her daughter believes, like many people in her generation, that the only way to create change is to demand it. As women in the audience enjoy the movie, they can use their own stories and struggles to relate to Ginsburg, while reflecting upon everything she has done for us. 


By simply observing the audience around me, I could see the impact Ruth Bader Ginsburg had on my generation. I saw On the Basis of Sex almost a month after the movie premiered on Dec. 25, 2018 and the theater was still entirely filled with men and women of all different ages. Every time a man made a misogynistic comment, I could feel people bristling around me, a cacophony of disgusted gasps filling the air. Each time Ginsburg stood up against sexism, I could hear sounds of approval and cheers–a man next to me even started clapping. As the credits rolled, an eruption of cheers and applause arose from the crowd, something I hadn’t seen occur after a movie since “Black Panther”. In a time of deplorable actions by our government officials and celebrities and inspiring movements in which women find solidarity among each other, we are reminded of the woman who helped us achieve the freedom we have today.


Ginsburg is truly a monumental figure who has changed the lives of women and men of this country and her story is an inspiration to all of us. 


To learn more about the life and achievements of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “RBG”, a documentary detailing the early legal battles she fought and her legacy today, is available to stream on Hulu or to rent on Amazon.