The documentary RBG follows the life story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as told by herself, fellow Supreme Court Justices, former presidents, family members, and Gloria Steinem. Whether you are in the mood for a history or civics lesson, a review of constitutional law, a survey of the nascent women’s liberation movement, a discussion of gender equality, a superhero quest, a workout testimonial, an inspirational manifesto, an examination of media marketing, or a romantic comedy, this essential and highly entertaining film has it all.
Ninety minutes cover multiple angles on this lawyer, professor, mother, grandmother, friend, opera enthusiast, and icon.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born on March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn. She went from James Madison High School to Cornell University, graduating at the top of her class in 1954. She married and had a daughter before she enrolled at Harvard Law School as one of nine women in a class of 500. When her husband, Martin, moved to New York, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia University for her final year. From there she graduated first in her class and went on to teach at Rutgers and Columbia. Later, Ginsburg’s directorship of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union changed the course of her history and ours. After arguing several successful cases in front of the Supreme Court, she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980 and then elevated in 1993 to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Three of the six cases that Ginsburg argued are mentioned in this film, which beautifully illustrates Ginsburg’s groundbreaking work for gender equality. As she moved from one argument to another, she managed to convince the Supreme Court that not only did discrimination exist, but it needed Constitutional remediation, based most frequently on the Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), Ginsburg argued a case that exemplified discrimination against men to demonstrate to the court that “gender discrimination hurts everyone.” The film moves through issues of equal pay, equal benefits, and equal access to education, and examines the cases used to dismantle the many sexist laws woven into the fabric of our country. This approach reflected her legal strategy—namely, building the idea of equality step by step, like “knitting a sweater,” to quote New York University Law Professor and Ginsburg’s close friend, Arthur Miller. Ginsburg’s legal approach was slow, steady, deliberate, and calculated. She addressed specific areas of discrimination and violations of women’s (and men’s) rights rather than trying to take on wider societal ills. She knew she could win arguments not by “yelling” but by creating the impression that it would be illogical to reject her meticulously prepared and eloquent arguments.
Buy a ticket to RBG if you are curious about how contemporary phenomena are made. Following a particularly blistering dissent in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), when the justice pointed out that “throwing out preclearance [for voting] is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” her name and image careened around the internet, turning this tiny woman with enormous glasses into nail art, Halloween costumes, bobble-head dolls, tattoos, t-shirts, books, and coffee mugs. When a 5’1” Jewish octogenarian female (whose nickname is based on the ’90s rapper Notorious BIG) becomes a recurring character on Saturday Night Live, you have to think she is on to something. Her relationship with her husband, who was neither intimidated by her intelligence nor unwilling to support her ascendant career, is a brilliant example of true, respectful love. Her friendship with her judicial and temperamental opposite, Antonin Scalia, is a tribute to her willingness to transcend politics for personal connection.
Outside of friendship, too, Ginsburg is unyielding in her values. The liberal justices on the Supreme Court are imperiled, and thus are also freedoms now considered constitutional guarantees: the right to marry the person of your choice and the right to control your own body. In a recent case on birth control and health care provisions, Ginsburg’s dissent reminded the court that “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their reproductive lives.”
One can only hope that the justice who loves the opera, survived pancreatic and colorectal cancer, and lifts weights and does cardio every morning will stay strong and healthy. Long live Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The movie’s central message is that women’s rights are men’s rights, which are human rights and are worth defending. Given the events of the last month, this documentary, which came out in April, feels more timely (and necessary) than ever.