Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an associate justice of the Supreme Court since 1993, has died after a battle with pancreatic cancer. With her death comes an almost certain firestorm of fights about the future of the Supreme Court, the presidency, and the United States — not to mention the causes she advocated for throughout her career, including gender equality and reproductive rights.
Yet Ginsburg’s legacy, whatever it may turn out to be, is also tied up with her late-in-life turn as a pop culture icon. From the way she presented herself through fashion to her role as a the pop culture figure known as the “Notorious RBG,” the iconography of Ginsburg introduced her to a whole new set of younger admirers.
And that ushered in versions of Ginsburg on screen, too — including two 2018 films, one drama and one documentary, that explored her life, work, and passions for a new generation. Both are available to stream now.
On the Basis of Sex is an old-fashioned Hollywood drama about Ginsburg’s early years as a young law student and wife, then law professor, then co-litigator with her husband, Martin Ginsburg, on the 1972 gender rights case Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Felicity Jones plays Ginsburg as a brilliant and determined, but very green, young lawyer who’s trying to find her own voice.
The movie also doubles as a story about the broader struggle for equal rights for women and men in America, as well as a primer into the way Ginsburg thought, presenting her as a shrewd legal tactician and advocate for progressive causes throughout her career.
And though it focuses on Ginsburg’s work, it’s also a romance between Ruth and Marty (Armie Hammer), which — in a striking reversal of how romantic relationships usually work in movies about someone’s career taking off — is affectionate, trusting, mutually supportive, and beneficial to both of them. (The film takes some liberties with the details of the Ginsburgs’ story, but by all accounts, its depiction of their relationship is absolutely true.)
There’s nothing flashy or innovative about On the Basis of Sex. It’s the very definition of a workmanlike film. But it’s a satisfying watch nonetheless, and a smart one too.
How to watch it: On the Basis of Sex is available to stream on Showtime for subscribers and on Amazon Prime with the Showtime add-on. It’s also available to digitally purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play.
In recent years — in part thanks to the internet — Ginsburg became something of an icon, particularly to young, progressive women who see her as a hero. You can buy a bevy of shirts with RBG’s face on it or an action figure, and there’s an entire category on Etsy just for “Notorious RBG mugs.”
Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the Oscar-nominated RBG is a romping biographical documentary about Ginsburg, outlining her life starting in her youth and chronicling her long and fruitful marriage, her career, and her reputation as a dissenter with a bit of an attitude. Ginsburg herself appears in the film to talk about her life — and to do a mean plank at the gym. She shows herself to be a sharp assessor of her own career, even if she seems a little baffled by her iconographic status in pop culture. (In one delightful scene, she watches Kate McKinnon’s Saturday Night Live impression of her for the first time and can’t stop laughing.)
RBG is more hagiographic in the end than probing; what it means that Ginsburg has become an action figurine to be sold by the dozens alongside an actual figure of admiration isn’t part of the story here. But RBG’s aim is to celebrate its subject more than to explain her, and it does that with cheerful, bold aplomb.