I thought I knew who Ruth Bader Ginsburg was. She was the “Notorious RBG” of internet memes and novelty feminist merch and Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live. I knew her by her tightly pinned-back hair, her white lace collar and enormous Iris Apfel glasses. I knew that liberals liked her and that Trump probably didn’t.
Having watched RBG, the new documentary about her life and career, I now know that Ginsburg is a lesson in what happens when a patriarchal society tries to stifle a brilliant woman.
Snubbed by law firms, underestimated by peers and firmly in the minority at university, RBG used everything she had learned to change this for other women – to light a touchpaper for some of the most important legal victories for gender equality in US history.
For directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, this tiny 85-year-old grandmother was more than worthy of being their subject, because RBG’s recent influx of fame did not arrive overnight.
West explains: “She went to Harvard Law School in the 1950s. She was one of nine women out of 500… She gets out of school and she can’t get a job in one of the top law firms. They say, ‘Sorry, you seem really smart, you’ve done well in school, but we just don’t hire women.’ And that was accepted in 1960 in the United States. It wasn’t illegal; it wasn’t a problem.”
Instead, Ginsburg became a law professor and, as the women’s movement was beginning to bubble, realised she had an opportunity to attack the discrimination she had faced using the law.
She spent the 1970s bringing case after case that challenged gender inequality before the Supreme Court. Gloria Steinem, interviewed in the documentary, explains that placards and protests weren’t RBG’s style. Instead, she used her decidedly less flashy legal tools to fight for women’s rights within US legislation. Steinem admits that she felt safer and more able to do her protest work in the knowledge that Ginsburg was ensuring she and other women would be protected by the law.
Cohen explains that for Ginsburg, it was all about strategy: “Her approach was different but complementary to the protest out on the streets. You have to come at a thing from a lot of different angles to make change and Justice Ginsburg’s philosophy has always been that lasting change is strategic change that comes one step at a time. That was always her goal. She was playing the long game from the time that she started her battles for women’s equality under the constitution. Her thought was to be very strategic and pick her battles carefully – meaning picking cases that she thought she could win, and that she thought would have an appeal to the then-nine male justices of the Supreme Court.”
Justice Ginsburg’s philosophy has always been that lasting change is strategic change that comes one step at a time
Now, after being nominated by Bill Clinton in 1993, RBG is on the Supreme Court herself, one of the nine current sitting justices. As the court has moved further to the right in recent years, Ginsburg has often been the lone dissenting voice on matters where the court has ruled conservatively. And her dissents, while not immediately reversing decisions she disagrees with, are not futile but another example of RBG playing the long game.
West explains: “There is a history in our Supreme Court of dissenting opinions reverberating through the years and often decisions will be overturned citing dissents from previous years. In some ways, Justice Ginsburg, in writing her very strong dissents, is writing for history.”
West and Cohen made their film between early 2015 and late 2017. It was being filmed during the presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and the result of that election. It was completed just as the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up campaign began.
When the film industry as a whole has been facing up to not only the entrenched, systemic abuse of women it employs, but also the distinct lack of opportunity for women and minorities, it feels important that RBG is a film about a woman fighting for women’s rights, and has been made by two female directors and an entirely female-led creative team, from the director of photography to the editor, composer, archival producer, associate producer and associate editor.
Several studios passed on the film, and although the directors speculate that could be because the Supreme Court is seen as a dry subject, West remarks that “maybe it’s not coincidental that our producing partners are all women, and they responded to the idea immediately”.
Once the film was completed, the scepticism continued. As of now, it has taken over $14m at the US box office and the industry has been flabbergasted. “We were interested to see how much the coverage of the early days of the film’s release was ‘This is so surprising. People are going to the movies to see a film about an intellectual 85-year-old woman? That’s so shocking’,” says Cohen. “I feel like it seemed a little less surprising to us than it was to the Hollywood establishment of people who judge the success of things.”
But then, how many films are there that tell a woman’s story and, as Cohen points out, “Let’s not forget, an older woman”?
“Maybe you could have a female lead if she’s a sexy 24-year-old,” she says. “This is a different situation. Justice Ginsburg is 85 – a beautiful woman, always has been, still is – but not your typical leading lady.”
She’s right. Older women aren’t considered sexy. Nor are the intricacies of constitutional law or playing the long game, when fruits might not be borne for years or even decades. And yet RBG and her story are endlessly captivating and utterly inspiring. Her signature look might have helped secure her place in pop culture, but it’s her complete dedication to fighting for gender equality – and her often tedious and unglamourous but enduring methods – that make her Notorious.