For young women growing up in a climate where we can no longer take our rights for granted, RBG is a reminder that we never should have. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the Sundance hit highlights Ginsburg's career at Harvard Law School, which she entered in 1956 as one of only nine women in a class of about 500 men. In an interview, she wryly recalls the dean asking the female students, "How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?"
Instead of shrinking, she persisted. While studying at Harvard Law, she took care of both her husband Marty, who was suffering from testicular cancer, and their toddler. Without any pride in her voice, she recalls working what would now be called a second — and a third — shift: She focused on her own law studies until about 4 p.m., went home to take care of their daughter Jane while Marty slept after his radiation treatments, prepared a late dinner for Marty, and then settled in to type up his law school notes (he graduated from Harvard Law in 1958). On top of that, she became the first woman ever to join the super-selective Harvard Law Review. The film presents all of this information matter-of-factly, but her resourceful backstory will clearly inspire a new generation.
When she graduated from law school in 1959, tying for first in her class, her parents were surprised that she even wanted to try her hand at becoming an attorney. They essentially decided to let her go for it because, why not, at least she had a husband to fall back on. Marty, on the other hand, always prioritized his wife's career, something you couldn't say for many men back in the day. "He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain," Ginsburg says in one of the film's more touching moments.
She didn't just go to work after getting her diploma. She changed the world. After facing now almost unimaginable barriers to entry into the legal profession, she cofounded the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU and strategically took on cases through which she made significant legal advances for women. This was at a time when many states had ridiculous laws on the books — such as that a husband decides where the family lives, a woman needs her husband's permission to sign up for a credit card, and that it's legal for a husband to rape his wife.
In the 1970s, Ginsburg worked on a series of cases that challenged gender discrimination. In Frontiero v. Richardson, she argued that a female service member should be entitled to the same housing allowance benefit as a male one. In Duren v. Missouri, she argued that jury duty for women shouldn't be optional, just as it wasn't for men. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, she argued on behalf of widower Stephen Wiesenfeld, whose wife had died in childbirth, leaving him with a son, that he should be able to collect the same survivor benefits under Social Security as a woman would. The all-male Supreme Court at the time was impressed with this take on sex discrimination. In many cases, we meet the subjects of these rulings, which helps humanize them and make Ginsburg's fight on their behalf feel that much more vital. (Side note: RBG officiated Wiesenfeld's wedding in 2014.)
The film is clearly geared toward a millennial and Gen-Z audience, and at times kind of hits you over the head with its references to that ubiquitous Notorious RBG meme — which Ginsburg says she loves; hey, they're both from the great borough of Brooklyn — and other pop culture homages to the 85-year-old justice. But honestly, we don't mind because the fluff is balanced with the meat and potatoes of Ginsburg's legal work. (Plus, we get a closer look at her intricate jabot collection than ever before, and that seriously deserves its own coffee-table book.) And we don't think it's premature to say that this documentary will help introduce Ginsburg to an even younger audience and further cement her legacy as part of the Feminist Icon Hall of Fame.
RBG is a supremely enjoyable, curiosity-piquing portrait of a woman who quietly moved the needle from behind the scenes for decades, and whom the spotlight only found late in life. Yet she hasn't seemed to change one bit despite all of the attention. It tells the story with an impressive array of interviews and primary source material. It will light a fire under the right people. The film could, however, have delved deeper into some of the interviews with her family, especially her granddaughter Clara Spera, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 2017 and is now a law clerk at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In what ways does she plan to carry on her grandmother's legacy? Interviewing some of the women whose lives Ginsburg has touched in more depth would have helped, too. Who is the next RBG? Which issues will she take on?
While it may gloss over some aspects of Ginsburg's life, we've never seen as intimate a portrait of the usually private justice. The film makes a point to contrast Ginsburg's seriousness (she stays up working into the night and is nothing like her own SNL parody) with her now-late husband's boisterous persona. Her children even used to keep a journal called "Mommy Laughed," since she, well, didn't that often. But you can't fool us: There's a sly wink to everything RBG does. Come on, she works out in a "Super Diva!" sweatshirt. Lady has a wicked sense of humor.
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