This year has been a landmark year for female icons. Names like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kyrsten Sinema, and Rashida Tlaib are becoming familiar as more women were voted into Congress than ever before, especially women of color. One of the first women in government to be idolized, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had two films made about her this year: RBG, a documentary with unprecedented access, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, and On the Basis of Sex, a biopic written by Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder, about Ginsburg’s law school experience as well as her most famous case, that of Charles Moritz.
Both films fall into the trend of overly humanizing Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They want the audience to love her and her personality, instead of making them be in awe of her achievements. Of course, audiences can do both, but rarely are women allowed to be successful without first needing to be liked.
Most films, particularly documentaries, take one of two stances. Many work to humanize their subjects and impress the audience by their achievements. Others work to examine deeper conflicts with their subject, whether positive or negative. To be fair, most biopics look at their subjects with rose-colored glasses, reflecting a story that is often loosely based on truth. Bohemian Rhapsody, for instance, changed the timeline of when Freddy Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS for a more compelling narrative plot point, among other issues.
Neither RBG or On the Basis of Sex construct interesting or powerful narratives about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, someone who’s wildly impressive life and career has changed the way we look at a female political leader in today’s technology driven world. RBG mentions social media as a driving force for her popularity, but refuses to question if it’s a good thing. Do people who buy t-shirts that say “The Notorious RBG” actually know what she’s done to change history? Do the people with her face on a coffee cup understand where that money is actually going?; Is it going to help gender equality or a corporation that simply churns out trendy content? What do the children’s books about her do to actually educate children about inequality, her cases, and her current role on the Supreme Court? How many of these people actually read her dissenting opinions and how many of them just share them on Facebook? RBG doesn’t question anything about how she’s been idolized–they just want us to love her.
On the Basis of Sex has a similar issue. It makes RBG over-effeminate, as if we have to constantly be reminded that she’s a woman, not just an impressive, incredibly smart, boundary-breaking lawyer. In the first 20 minutes of the film, there’s a sex scene between Ruth (Felicity Jones) and Marty (Armie Hammer), her husband. This scene was completely unnecessary and epitomizes how we look at and talk about female icons. We need to see women in power be “normal” and “likeable,” otherwise their accomplishments mean nothing. This isn’t surprising and definitely not new–female politicians are constantly described differently, as are women in screenplays. Sarah Connor from The Terminator (1984) is described as “pretty in a flawed, accessible way.”
On the Basis of Sex exposes some of this type of sexism, but it also pushes that onto the audience. We have to understand that she was fun and beautiful and sexual; we have to want to be her friend. That’s not to say that women can’t be these things and be a strong, successful leader, but why do we always need to like women? Why can’t women be terrible and strong? Why can’t women be problematic? Even with how much the film tries to make you find Ruth to be likeable, they have to break her down a bit–she can’t be perfect. She needs to be bad at something and of course, this thing is motherhood. The film falls into the obviously trope that working women can’t be good mothers. Somehow though, Marty is a perfect father and at the top of his field as a tax attorney. The film wants us to recognize that what Ruth Bader Ginsburg did was important, but we are constantly reminded that she couldn’t do it without her husband and many others, mostly men, who are still consistently sexist towards her.
Both of these films reinforce negative stereotypes about how we see female leaders and how we decide to idolize them, especially today. We have social media and Google; young viewers want to look up to people who represent us and the struggles we go through. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a wonderful role model–she changed the way women are viewed under the law–but neither movie capitalizes on this, despite their efforts. Younger audiences want to see people who went through tremendous hardship to achieve their goals because that’s what we see in ourselves. Ruth Bader Ginsburg went through immense hardship in her life and both films condense it into small moments, instead of focusing on the many things she had to overcome. RBG shows social media as being wonderful and cute, which is far from the truth, and it diminishes what makes RBG powerful-her iconic dissenting opinions and successful cases. On the Basis of Sex does something similar, constantly pushing its protagonist down and showing Ginsburg’s past at surface level. We want to hear her speak! We want to hear all the terrible things because we experience them too. We need to see that these leaders and icons are flawed, normal people, so that we can aspire to be them.
© Kathy Cutler (1/15/18) FF2 Media
Photos: RBG (CNN Films) and On the Basis of Sex (Amblin Partners)