Review: On the Basis of Sex
Men’s leather loafers stride across the screen as the triumphant freshman class of 1956 climb the steps of Harvard Law School. An avalanche of white men in black jackets with slicked-back hair appear on screen as the lyrics of Harvard’s most frequently played fight song overwhelm the audience’s ears with antiquated tropes: Ten thousand men of Harvard want victory today! I cannot imagine a scene that illustrates more accurately the quintessential 1950s Ivy League Man. And then, as the audience begins to wonder why they paid 10 dollars to see pompous, stuffy, well-to-do men galavant into their predetermined destinies, the camera catches a fabulous blue coat-dress ensemble. The color of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s outfit was undoubtedly meant to foreshadow the changes she would bring to Harvard Law and to the American legal system. Yet what was far more striking was the smile on her face.
I have adored RBG since my grandmother and mother recounted stories of the Jewish girl from Brooklyn who persevered in the face of men who thought her place should have been in the home. Not unsurprisingly, I have seen On the Basis of Sex, a biographical drama depicting RBG’s first trial, quite a few times. Besides its wittiness and masterfully written script, On the Basis of Sex captures everything I—and many other young girls—have believed Ruth to be: resilient, persistent, passionate, with a touch of Brooklyn sass. Above all, this film captures Ruth’s most admirable characteristic: her dedication to a better future, and the kind feminism that would ensue.
While at the center of the plot, the relationship between Ruth and her daughter Jane is the epicenter of a larger question: how does feminism fit into “the climate of the era.” Ruth disapproves of Jane’s imprudence and compulsivity in her convictions, and wishes to impart onto her daughter the intellectual tools to fight sexism. As Ruth loses hope, sensing that perhaps the country is not ready to accept women’s rights as civil rights, the women are catcalled by three men on the street. Ruth instructs Jane to ignore them. In a moment of utter feminist bliss, Jane turns around and tells the men off, asking if they kiss their mothers with that mouth. Shock stuns Ruth’s face, then pride, and then joy. As we Jews would say, Ruth is kvelling, or bursting with a pride that touches every part of your soul. Ruth sees that the “climate of the era” has changed, and it was because of her daughter and her generation.
Throughout the rest of the film, Ruth sees the success of her case as the key that opens the cage that has imprisoned her, her mother, and every generation before her; her case could shatter the shackles of sex-based discrimination for future generations. And Jane crystalizes her motivation. In a moment when Ruth can only see her case failing, Jane just asks, “Who is it for, if not for me?” No other comment, realization, or emotion galvanized Ruth like that one question. She perfects her argument and rehearses her oral presentation dozens of times, because it would determine her daughter’s future.
After my second viewing, I left the cinema with a particularly confident and inspired pep in my step. Spoiler alert: Ruth wins the case, which becomes the precedent that topples hundreds of discriminatory laws, and Jane becomes a world-renowned lawyer. If someone were to have walked by me in that moment, the palpable feminist pride would have slapped them in face. “What’s better than two badass Jewish women kicking the patriarchy in the butt?” I was struck by a déjà vu, in which I saw my mom and grandmother at my grandmother’s dining room table, telling me all about the infamous RBG. Ruth became family in that moment; she and my grandmother knew to fight sexism with intellect, logic and wit; Jane and my mom could have been at the same protests in New York in the ’70s. So, who am I?
Ruth’s catalyst was realizing that her daughter’s generation had changed the political climate so that her case could win. The 1970s were a pivotal decade in the feminist movement, marked by a change in tactic, resolve and ultimate goal. The resistance to this “radical social change,” as referenced in the movie, undoubtedly posed numerous challenges, and I am sure there were many moments when it seemed like the uphill battle was never going to plateau. But I can’t help but wonder if we are fighting a similar phenomenon, if hate has slithered back, sharpening its sword with a more precise kind of fearmongering. And if so, what’s our next move?
In the era of Trump and the resurgence of infections of racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and sexism, which we thought we had already been vaccinated for, a new kind of feminist has been born. They use intellect and social media to ignite protests and conversations. They unabashedly pronounce their equality, wearing her cause on her sleeve. They look at women of different races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations and identities and says “me too.” They recognize that any infringement on civil rights as a threat to every right, and knows that intersectionalism means “all.” And yet, hate seems to fester and spread. When they preach acceptance and love, it can’t help but prove how enticing it is. So what do you do when the enemy is as persistent as you? How do we revolutionize the battle like Ruth did?
“Who is it for, if not for me?” That is, without a doubt, the question every feminist must ask ourselves now – knowing that “me” refers to future generations, of course. Indeed, the now of the feminist movement is paramount. But so is the recognition that we cannot get it done now. Feminists today find ourselves as the Jane of our time, taking what worked before and integrating it with how we have grown up interacting with our world. We are simultaneously the “me” and the Jane; old enough to mold our own solutions to the problems we face, and yet young enough to know that our future is miles down the road yet. And in an even more meta way, we are also the Ruth. I like to think that this realization gives us a new perspective on the task at hand. That there is more to this movement than the now is given, but perhaps it is worth looking backwards as well.
The way I see it, “generationalism,” as I will call it, does not just mean we prioritize what comes next. We must also study what has succeeded – and failed – before. Ruth looked in both directions. She sought counsel from Dorothy Kenyon, legendary civil and women’s rights lawyer of the early 20th century, while also watching her daughter transform into and embody the younger feminism. Perhaps this is how Ruth pulled it off, winning what every lawyer called an “unwinnable” case. And maybe that’s what we ought to do now: ask our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, “what would you have done?”
The stunning jewel of On the Basis of Sex is its profound exploration of generational feminism. Like any movement, feminism was conceived out of social wedlock. It rose from the flames of resentment towards the status quo, impatience with the slow-moving nature of a homogenous governing body, the thirst to change things for yourself. But it united people across every social demographic in the hopes of change one day. No feminist thought they could do it in their lifetime. No one has invented a cure that works within a single generation. Hope in the progress of the movement fueled it and sustained it.
And somehow, we are the future. Our old foe has come back, just as antiquated as it was decades ago. Yet despite feminism’s growth, humans are still susceptible to hatred. On the Basis of Sex shows that success is neither unheard of nor easy, but it can happen. Though it may take longer than a generation, it will happen. It may even require us looking beyond the future, and into the past. Our generation embraces that burden, knowing full well how much it will push us. It may not be our generation that swings the final blow, but we will go down with a fight, wearing blue coats and dresses.