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‘On the Basis of Sex’ levels the playing field

‟On the Basis of Sexˮ (2018). Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey, Gary Werntz, Francis Xavier McCarthy, Ben Carlson, Angela Galuppo, Callum Shoniker, Holly Gauthier-Frankel, Moira Wylie, Lily Mitchell, Violet Mitchell. Director: Mimi Leder. Screenplay: Daniel Stiepelman. Web site. Trailer.

Patently unfair circumstances ultimately hurt everyone. Allowing the perpetuation of double standards harms those who are innately disadvantaged, but the damage seldom stops there; at some point, those who seemingly benefit from those arrangements can ironically be undone by them, their advantages wiped out by a fate that they likely view with incredulity as some kind of weird, unfathomable joke. Which is why everyone is better off with a level playing field, one in which we each get an equal shot at available opportunities with no arbitrarily imposed constraints holding us back. However, bringing such conditions into existence may prove challenging and time-consuming, especially for those on the outside looking in. And that’s where the role of the fervent advocate comes into play, one whose story is detailed in the inspiring new biopic, “On the Basis of Sex.”

Anyone seeking to build a career – of virtually any type – in 1950s America had to face a fundamental truth: For better or worse, it was indisputably a man’s world. That may have been a sweet deal for men, but it seriously frustrated women looking to earn college degrees and enter the professional work force. What’s more, these circumstances often had the force of law behind them; legally sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sex was a fact of life, one that reinforced a view that men were the breadwinners and women stayed home to raise children and run their households, an outlook widely considered “the natural order of things.” Needless to say, breaking out of this mold was a tall order for any woman who wanted more than a conventional lifestyle.

Harvard law student Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones, standing) seeks to make a name for herself in what has traditionally been a profession for men only as seen in the inspiring new biopic, “On the Basis of Sex.” Photo by Jonathan Wenk, courtesy of Focus Features.

This was the world that Harvard University law student Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) faced as she began her pursuit of a legal career. She looked forward to the opportunity to prove her worth and live up to her potential. But, despite the impressive credentials that enabled her acceptance into this prestigious program, Ginsburg and her female colleagues routinely faced openly antagonistic discrimination toward them. This included chiding from Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), who outwardly challenged the women to justify why they deserved slots in law school that he sincerely believed rightly belonged to men. Such gender-based prejudice rankled Ginsburg to no end, so much so that it pushed her that much harder to excel.

But, in spite of her efforts to focus on her studies and career advancement, Ginsburg found herself having to take on a more traditional role when her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), a law student one year ahead of her, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Suddenly the young wife and mother found herself having to care for an ill husband, along with her toddler daughter, Jane (Lily Mitchell, Violet Mitchell), while attending to her coursework, as well as aiding Martin in completing his studies. It was quite a full plate, but a steadfast Ruth was determined to succeed.

Thankfully, Martin was cured of his illness, graduating on schedule with a job awaiting him as a tax attorney at a New York law firm. But, with Ruth still having a year of school remaining, to avoid being separated from her husband while finishing up, she completed her education at Columbia University, from which she graduated first in her class. However, even with such a formidable academic pedigree to her credit, Ginsburg faced more frustration when she sought to secure a position with any number of New York law firms. For all of her accomplishments, potential employers simply couldn’t bring themselves to hire a woman, including those that readily recognized her talents. Even Martin’s enthusiastic recommendations went ignored. The legally sanctioned sex-based discrimination that held back so many women did the same to Ginsburg, despite her abilities and accomplishments.

Tax attorney Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer, left) encourages his wife, Ruth (Felicity Jones, right), a passionate advocate for eliminating legally sanctioned gender-based discrimination, to take on an unlikely case to make her point, an inspiring fact-based story brought to life in director Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex.” Photo by Jonathan Wenk, courtesy of Focus Features.

Given her lack of success in securing work with the New York firms, as a “fallback,” Ruth reluctantly took a position as a professor at the Rutgers University law school, teaching civil procedure with an emphasis on the discriminatory aspects of the legal code. She was less than enthusiastic about having to “settle” for this position. She would have preferred to serve as a full-time practicing attorney, as well as an advocate for equal protections for women under the law, a cause championed by one of her idols, pioneering lawyer Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates). Little did Ginsburg know, however, that this position would be the springboard to her greatest accomplishments.

After years of teaching at Rutgers, much of it spent with quiet regret that she was not living up to her aspirations, Ruth got the break she was waiting for. Martin came upon a case that he suggested she should take on, one that could change everything, both for her personally, as well as for the cause of eliminating legal prejudice on the basis of sex. It was an unusual case, one rooted in tax law (not one of her specialties) but one that also had gender-based discrimination written all over it.

In essence, the case involved an instance where a male plaintiff (Chris Mulkey) was denied a tax benefit that was otherwise readily available to women. The strategy involved here was to argue that discrimination based on sex fundamentally violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, hurting both men and women, regardless of gender. If she could convince the court to rule in her favor, it would set a precedent that could open the door to potentially knocking down all of the other laws on the books that legally sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sex.

Working with American Civil Liberties Union colleague Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux, left), activist attorney and law professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones, right) takes on a court case with the potential to set a precedent for eliminating legally sanctioned gender-based discrimination in the inspiring new biopic, “On the Basis of Sex.” Photo by Jonathan Wenk, courtesy of Focus Features.

While preparing for the case, Ginsburg began to see the profound impact of what a victory would mean. The implications would not only change the law, but would also potentially help to change the culture, something that could be a major benefit to an upcoming generation of women, like Ruth’s now-teenage daughter (Cailee Spaeny), a feisty idealist cut from the same cloth as her mother. Because of this, Ginsburg could see the tremendous weight she was placing on her own shoulders. But, if successful, she could also envision the tremendous influence a favorable ruling would have in reshaping the country and setting it on a new path for the future.

Working with longtime colleague Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as husband Martin, who would argue the tax aspects of the case, Ruth went to court to take up the cause. And, just to make things even more interesting, opposing her in court would be a team led by attorney Jim Bozarth (Jack Reynor) backed by one of her old foes, Dean Griswold (who had now become Solicitor General of the United States), and one of her former Harvard law professors (Stephen Root), who recognized though was reluctant to acknowledge her abilities. The showdown was thus set, with a lot riding on the outcome.

This film, a dramatized account of incidents described in the documentary “RBG” released earlier in 2018, shows what it means to passionately advocate for change but doing so in a well-reasoned manner, one that evokes results that ultimately make much possible through small, measured steps. What’s more, it demonstrates how it’s possible to fundamentally change the nature of something as sweeping as a nation’s culture by means that convincingly persuade and don’t call for browbeating others into submission. Thankfully, we have brave souls like Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the helm to help make such changes possible. And, given her success in the wake of these efforts, eventually becoming associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s obvious her impact has been considerable.

Seeking advice from pioneering rights attorney Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates, right), law professor and would-be litigator Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones, left) seeks to take on a landmark case that she hopes will inspire a new generation of women, such as her teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny, center), as depicted in the new fact-based drama, “On the Basis of Sex.” Photo by Jonathan Wenk, courtesy of Focus Features.

In looking back on Ginsburg’s life and career, we see a visionary who has tenaciously fought to bring her outlook into being. This is directly attributable to her beliefs, the cornerstone of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. It’s not clear whether she had ever heard of this concept, but she obviously made (and continues to make) effective use of its principles.

For starters, Ginsburg possessed an unshakable faith in her beliefs regarding fair and fundamental equality, given that it was written directly into the Constitution itself. Because of that provision, any form of legalized discrimination was, in her view, a direct violation of the parent document. Nevertheless, due to widely held culture-based notions about “the natural order of things,” those concepts crept into the law and became established, despite what the Constitution said. To Ginsburg, this was unacceptable.

Therefore, to bring about change, Ginsburg believed that both the culture and the law needed to be amended to produce the desired results. This necessitated the introduction of reformers (like her) into the system that drew up the rules so that the rules could be amended. This began with her entrance into law school (still quite a rarity at the time) and becoming part of what had traditionally been an all-male sanctuary. And then, once on the inside, she had an opportunity to start implementing plans aimed at instituting change. As the film indicates, this was an uphill battle, to be sure, but, considering her tenacity, she was not about to give up, despite the obstacles.

Fortunately, she had the foresight to realize that the system could not be changed overnight; given the longstanding traditions involved, it simply wouldn’t happen that fast. However, by laying a solid, precedential foundation, the groundwork could be put into place to make it possible to steadily chip away at the laws that discriminated based on gender. Those statutes simply could not withstand the challenges against them in the face of prior decisions that maintained such arbitrary distinctions were unfair and illegal. As society became used to these changes, Ginsburg’s belief in the viability of such a gradually unfolding scenario proved valid, bringing about the change she sought, both in the law and, ultimately, the culture.

The beliefs employed in this process were ingeniously devised. To begin with, they mowed down established limitations, exposing their inherent weaknesses and pushing them aside in favor of a new view. But a big part of why they worked had to do with the fact that they arose out of a blending of intellect and intuition, the two elements that feed into belief formation. On an intuitive level, Ginsburg and her supporters knew their outlook was intrinsically more fair than the status quo. And the method by which they ultimately sought to implement it was brilliantly reasoned out, drawing upon the logic that drives the intellect. By fusing these intuitive and intellectual elements, Ginsburg came up with the perfect marriage of influences to formulate her manifesting beliefs.

Taking such a stand, however, was anything by a mainstream position at the time. Even though we may take these views for granted now, they were still generally considered fringe notions when she made her case. Arguing for them took great courage, moving past whatever fears and apprehensions she might have had and living heroically, quite a feat for a woman facing a judiciary and legal opposition that was solidly all male. But, armed with the power and conviction of her beliefs, Ginsburg had formidable weapons at her disposal, something that obviously stood her in good stead.

The impact of her beliefs and actions has been, to say the least, immensely impressive. She established a legacy that has carried on to this day, summoning up legions of followers to carry on the work she began. And, as noted before, this army of advocates has changed the way the culture addresses these issues, no longer looking at them through outmoded blinders based on passé subjective traditions but rooting them firmly in fundamental fairness and equality. Now that’s quite a creation.

This somewhat formulaic but nevertheless inspiring biopic about the early days of Ginsburg’s career is one of those feel-good offerings that has natural audience appeal. With fine, underrated performances by Jones and Bates, the film capably walks viewers through the complexities of the litigious landscape without resorting to excessive legalese while simultaneously putting a human face on the central issues in question, both in the lives of the protagonist and those for whom she served as advocate. To be sure, the pacing sometimes gets bogged down, and the screenplay tends to unfold in a safe, tried-and-true, somewhat predictable manner. Nevertheless, the inspiration “On the Basis of Sex” affords and the ideas it champions are well worth the play they get here, something that should prove uplifting to those who seek fairness, equal opportunity and even-handedness in all of their endeavors. It’s particularly appropriate for impressionable young minds, such as those of an upcoming generation of women looking to make their mark on the world – and the culture at large.

But, then, that’s what heroic figures make possible when they take on their causes. They trap those who would hold others back by using their opponents’ own weapons against them, a clever strategy that frequently leaves them holding all the cards while their vanquished adversaries cower in utter defeat. They set an example not only for their followers to embrace, but that also fundamentally changes the attitudes of those who try to stifle them. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of those iconic figures who did just that, opening new doors – and new vistas – for both her immediate constituency as well as everyone else. She has spent decades showing us what it means to play fair – and the rewards that such noble conduct is ultimately capable of bestowing on us all.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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