Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex knocks Sexism out of the Legal Ballpark

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ON THE BASIS OF SEX

Times have changed since 1959 when Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to endure a particularly cringy professional interview. After admitting she’d been rejected by 12 law firms, she lists some of the rejection reasons to her interviewer. “Last week I was told women are too emotional to be lawyers. One interviewer told me I have a sterling resume, but they hired a woman last year, and what in the world would they want with two of us?”

Stunned at first, the whole audience burst out laughing at the preview of On the Basis of Sex in Soho, London last week. Yes, people really discriminated a female lawyer because she’d be ‘too busy at bake sales to be effective’ and that’s only one of the obstacles that The Notorious R.B.G. had to surmount to eventually become Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

WARNING: Spoilers.

Sexism in the Legal Profession

Not a major spoiler here: things did not change quickly for women in law in the 20th century. They did not change at all for an excruciatingly long time, and On the Basis of Sex is a perfect illustration of that slow progress on screen. It’s almost painful to watch such a bright mind as RBG be put down, rejected, humiliated, and undervalued time and time again – when she’s clearly a legal rock star.

Fortunately for all of us, she isn’t known as The Notorious R.B.G. for nothing. This biopic recounts her early days at Harvard up to an early case in her career. This case changed not only her whole life but the lives of all women in the United States. Throughout the movie, we see Bader Ginsburg subjected to blatant – and at the time, legal – sexism in the legal profession.

Though we would like to think that we’re past such discrimination, Things Women in Law are Sick of Hearing makes for a fascinating read and a quick modern reality check. Discrimination on the basis of gender, whether conscious or not, is still alive and kicking in the legal profession but some heroes like RBG are tackling it every day.

There’s more good news.

Mad Men gone Legal

If Mad Men were about brilliant lawyers, the resulting movie might be On the Basis of Sex. Aside from the plot, the 1960s and 1970s fashion, the global civil rights movement in the United States, the turmoil of society all make perfect backdrops for a groundbreaking case that slowly finds the right circumstances to unfold.

Like Mad Men character Peggy Olson fighting the double standard in the treatment and expectations of men and women, Bader Ginsburg slowly but surely carves a place for women in society with the use of her professional expertise. Unfazed, she keeps forging her path and slowly, manages to gain not just respect but admiration from her peers.

She does not take no for an answer and where others see challenges, she looks at the bright side of life and builds upon her successes to find solutions.

Ethics and the Law to the Rescue

Bader Ginsburg also uses the ethics of the law to her advantage. A sentence picked up early in the movie during her Harvard days gives us a clue that something is up: “A court ought not be affected by the weather of the day. But will be by the climate of the era.”

Also in RBG’s husband, Martin’s words, “how a government taxes its citizens is a declaration of a country’s values.” In essence, the law reflects society, the law guides citizens to conform with societal values but nothing is set in stone. Throughout history, the mark of a civilised society has been society’s ability to refine its laws to reflect the will of the people.

According to economists Matthew O. Jackson of Stanford and Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are two possible ways to successfully change norms: dramatic and highly visible efforts to change behaviours spearheaded by leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., or gradual changes in laws over long periods of time, such as smoking regulations in America.

In the case of On the Basis of Sex, tax laws are the catalyst of change. Though tax statutes don’t make for electrifying bedtime reading, they make for a perfect climax in this movie. You don’t even have to be a tax specialist or a lawyer to understand the arguments of the case, as a 13-year-old in the audience later attested.

Felicity Jones as RBG perfectly articulates her defence of gender equality in plain English and using everyday examples we can all relate to. It’s not the virtuoso high-flying law you see in the TV series Suits – it’s John Adams legal perfection because it’s factual, irrefutable and just. As it should be.

Our Verdict

At Obelisk Support, we are huge advocates of change in the legal profession and supporters of gender equality. We are known as the leaders of diversity in legal services and our CEO is a woman. It’s no surprise that we all loved On the Basis of Sex, though we had initial reservations (as lawyers should). This could have been a boring Hollywood feel-good courtroom drama full of cliches and yes there a few, but instead On the Basis of Sex manages to pull an Erin Brockovich and is an inspirational movie with a kickass female protagonist. What else could we ask for?

We can ask nothing more of the Notorious RBG, obviously. She’s already done so much and despite her health, she is still hard at work as we write. What we can do, however, is make her proud and amplify her actions by channeling our own Notorious R.B.G.s and fighting for gender equality and against all types of discrimination in society.

That would be the perfect ending to a seriously great movie.

Thanks to The Entrepreneurs Network and the Female Founders Forum for organising this preview and celebrating role models and mentors in society.