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Film / On the Basis of Sex

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Judge: The word "woman" does not appear even once in the U.S. Constitution.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Nor does the word "freedom," Your Honor.

On the Basis of Sex is a 2018 biopic directed by Mimi Leder.

The film is based on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and her early years as a law student and lawyer. The main plot is the case of Moritz v. Commissioner, the first case that recognized a Fourteenth Amendment challenge to sex-based discrimination in the law. Ruth's husband, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), supports her both professionally and personally throughout their lives.

See also RBG, a documentary feature about Ruth Bader Ginsburg also released in 2018.

On the Basis of Sex contains examples of the following tropes:

  • The '50s: The first part of the film starts in 1956 and continues to the later part of the decade.
  • '50s Hair: Ruth starts out in a shoulder length pageboy set with waves, the men have crewcuts or slicked hair, many women have wash-and-set hairdos.
  • The '70s: Most of the film takes place in 1970 and onwards.
  • '70s Hair: Lampshaded when Ruth mentions her male students wouldn't have been able to wear their hair and sideburns long 20 years before. Ruth has long straight hair held by a scarf, Jane has shoulder length hair that moves, Martin has "the Dry Look", Ruth's students all have sideburns or afros or wear their hair long or in shags, Ruth's secretary has a bit of a holdover from the last decade, many men of Ruth's generation have sideburns and facial hair.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Ruth calls her husband "Marty," and he calls her "Kiki."
  • Based on a True Story: The screenplay was written by Daniel Stipelman, Ginsburg's nephew, who fought to keep the script accurate and true-to-life.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: A toned-down example. Jane Ginsburg, being a generation younger than her mom, is more interested in rallies and action than her mom's more legal approach.
  • Broken Pedestal: Ruth idolizes Dorothy Kenyon, also a lawyer and one of the first to argue for women's rights in court. She is shocked to find that Kenyon is now a cynic who thinks that trying to change the law without more social change is useless.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Ruth wears a matching pin and earring set in the beginning of the movie where she arrives to her classes at Harvard, she wears it again in the early 70s for her landmark court case, and finally she wears it as she scales the steps to the Supreme Court and the camera changes to reveal the real-life Ruth Bader Ginsberg wearing the same set, which is known to be jewelry she inherited from her late mother.
  • Chekhov's Lecture: Ruth sits in on a lecture for Marty's class on stare decisisnote . The lecture features a quote by Professor Paul Freund: "The Court should never be influenced by the weather of the day but inevitably they will be influenced by the climate of the era." Ruth quotes this during her oral argument to the 10th Circuit.
  • Determinator: Ruth. She is at the top of her class at Harvard and Columbia (despite, at one point, sitting classes for both herself and Marty as he was treated for cancer) and refuses to back down from the Moritz case.
  • The Fashionista: Ruth. No matter the decade she is seen wearing gorgeous articles of clothing, whether it's her professional wear or cocktail dresses or scarves to tie her hair back.
  • The Generation Gap: Touched on; Silent Generation members Marty and Ruth are progressive people but they are shown clashing with their Baby Boomer daughter Jane who attends rallies about social issues while her parents prefer to handle things professionally and Ruth finds herself shocked by the forward mannersisms and language of her students. Ruth invokes this in the climax during trial where she pointed out her law school students (male and female) would not have been dressed or wearing their hair the way they are now in the past which earns some chuckles from the mostly middle-aged and establishment courtroom.
  • Happily Married: The Ginsburgs, as they were in real life.
  • High-Class Gloves: Ruth wears them in the poster and in the 1950s scenes.
  • Hot-Blooded: Ruth. It's both a strength and a weakness: her drive to succeed despite adversity rockets her to the top of her class, but it's shown to hold her back in oral arguments.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Ruth is much shorter than Marty, her husband.
  • Informed Judaism: There are subtle signs that the Ginsburgs are Jewish, but outside of one scene where Ruth complains that she's been asked in job interviews if she keeps shabbat, this is never brought up explicitly.
  • In Touch with His Feminine Side: Marty Ginsburg is explicitly the better cook in the family, is open and emotional, and does an equal amount of childcare.
  • Ironic Echo: When Ruth has to finish her studies at Columbia, she requests that she still be given a Harvard degree (since she's completed two years already and there is precedent for it); she's refused. Later, in a meeting with the former Dean, he comments on her impressive achievements, and attributes them to her Harvard education. Ruth attributes them to her Columbia classes instead.
  • Little Miss Badass: Jane Ginsberg, who pretty much calls out a grown man who is making cat calls at her and her mother on a busy street. Ruth is proud and tells her that back when she was young, most women wouldn't have thought to confront their harassers or find something wrong with their behavior.
  • Manly Tears: When Marty is informed he has cancer and has only a 5% chance of survival, he waits until he and Ruth are alone before breaking down in tears.
  • "Mister Sandman" Sequence: The 1970 portion of the film opens up with a student protest where there are protesters wearing bell bottoms or miniskirts, in afros, the guys have longer hair, Ruth with her hair in a simple ponytail with a scarf holding her hair (as opposed to her set and wavy '50s Hair) and the 1968 Psychedelic rock song "Time Has Come Today" by the Chambers Brothers plays.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: The US government includes, as an appendix in their response brief, a list of all the federal laws that discriminate on the basis of sex, to drive home just how many laws could be affected by this one case. This explicitly requires using newfangled "computers" to find the laws automatically, instead of reading through all of the US Code manually. Ruth decides to use it as a hit list.
  • Plucky Office Girl: Ruth's trusted secretary, who types up everything for Ruth and then critiques the use of the word "sex" given how Ruth has to convince a bunch of men about gender discrimination, even though it means she will have to re-type up everything to replace it with "gender".
  • Practically Different Generations: Jane and James, as in Real Life, have a 10 year age difference between them with the 1970s scenes showing a rebellious teenage Jane and the more docile, grade-school aged James.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Jane Ginsburg has a potty mouth, in contrast to her more genteel parents (the harshest thing we ever hear Ruth say is "asshole").
  • Think of the Children!: The main argument used by the US government to oppose Moritz's case is that, by recognizing sex-based discrimination, the courts will topple the entire family social structure.
  • True Blue Femininity: The opening sequence shows students marching to their first day of class at Harvard Law. Amid the sea of tall men in black suits, petite Ruth stands out in her little blue dress.