On the Basis of Sex and Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The manufacturing of a “living legend”


Felicity Jones in
On the Basis of Sex

Directed by Mimi Leder, written by Daniel Stiepleman

The second feature-length film about US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in less than a year came to theaters on Christmas day, titled On the Basis of Sex, a reference to gender-based discrimination. Mimi Leder’s two-hour biopic—a tedious cinematic effort—seeks to rally a core constituency of the Democratic Party: upper-middle-class women.

Last April, Ginsburg featured in the documentary RBG —her initials and a reference to her nickname in liberal circles, Notorious RBG—itself a reference to the prominent 1990s rapper Biggie Smalls (the Notorious B.I.G.).

The moniker “Notorious RBG” comes from a liberal blogger who commented on Ginsburg’s defense of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. Offered in the spirit of respect and enthusiasm for the aging spokesperson for the high court’s ostensibly liberal bloc, the name found its way to a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. In the latter, a glib and defiant Ginsburg (played by Kate McKinnon) insists that, in the face of impending right-wing appointments to the Supreme Court by Donald Trump, she will never retire.

On the Basis of Sex follows this adulating path. It is a thoroughly artificial undertaking, whose screenplay—edited by Ginsburg herself no less than three times—was written by her own nephew, Daniel Stiepleman. It depicts Ginsburg’s legal education, early career as a professor and civil rights attorney, and her family life.

As a legal drama, On the Basis of Sex has some limited merit. One can sympathize with then (1972) civil rights attorney Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) eagerly representing Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), who was not allowed to claim a tax deduction for nursing expenses for his elderly mother. Under the tax code at the time, the deduction was available for women or for men whose wives were deceased or incapacitated, but not for men who simply had never been married. Even though the tax exemption ostensibly favored women—making it easier for them to join the workforce by hiring in-home care for an aging parent—Ginsburg and her colleagues took the case to the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit and earned a noteworthy victory.

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