RBG Reveals the Woman Behind the Memes

The documentary understands that it was a different kind of radicalism that made the justice notorious.

At left, Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a Biggie-style crown. At right, RBG speaks at an event.
Photo illustration by Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo. Photos by Jim Young/Reuters, Thinkstock, and Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

So here is where I confess that a small part of me was living in dread of Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s new documentary RBG. In part that’s because of a generalized humbug-ness you’ll always get from the Supreme Court press faithful around the cult of personality that sometimes obscures what truly is subversive and radical about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in service of an ex post facto myth built on coffee mugs and rapper memes.

But Cohen and West’s documentary manages to dig beneath the easy narrative that paints Ginsburg as all badass all the time, to excavate the truth buried beneath: Ginsburg isn’t just an 85-year-old cultural icon, she’s also an 85-year-old cultural icon who spent a lifetime opting for litigating over protesting, for painstaking incremental legal work that took years to bear fruit, and who still feels more comfortable in the world of words and text than in the world of fame and notoriety. RBG captures that paradox beautifully.

For one thing, the filmmakers allow Ginsburg’s own words to speak for themselves—the movie features vast amounts of audio and text that capture Ginsburg’s language, as a Supreme Court advocate at the ACLU’s groundbreaking Women’s Rights Project, as a nominee to the court at her own confirmation hearing, and in her written opinions at the high court. Not only does the documentary serve as a kind of auditory time capsule, as we listen to her voice morph from gentle but forceful young litigator to the halting octogenarian we hear today, it also preserves her words and rulings as enduring legal artifacts. This is more than just the predictable story of who Ginsburg was and who she has become. It’s also a monument to the formal written legal legacy that transcends her own life story and changed a nation.

At one point in the film, Ginsburg describes her love for the opera by saying, “The sound of the human voice is like an electrical current going through me.” Oddly, it’s the sound of her own voice across 40-plus years of erecting American gender protections that surges most powerfully through the film. Later in the movie, she will note, earnestly, “The law is something I think I deal with well. … I don’t have the kind of talent to be an opera singer.” And that statement is so perfectly apt. The law is indeed something she “deals with well.” The law as written by her hand in her own voice is in fact its own character in the film.

And that took work. The film makes the point—almost too forcefully—that this is a woman who works. She works all the damn time. When her late husband, Marty, had cancer in law school, she typed all his notes and then hers, while raising an infant. She never learned to cook. According to her kids, she sleeps only a few hours each night and then sleeps all weekend to recover. In a taped panel discussion, Marty quips that he would have to lure her home from the office to eat dinner. Her grown children note, without much humor, that as kids they had a notebook called “Mommy Laughed.” And as her daughter, Jane, dryly remarks, “It had parsimonious entries.”

The movie does a fairly comprehensive job of sketching out the well-known arc of the justice’s life. She lost her mother at a painfully young age. Her witnessing of the Red Scare, and the ways in which the First Amendment’s speech and press clauses alone protected against tyranny at that time led her to law school, where she felt, in her words, “I could do something that could make society a little better.” She was smoking hot gorgeous, if that matters to you. (It seems to have mattered not all that much to her.) She was one of nine women in a Harvard Law class of 500 men in 1956. She distinguished herself at the Law Review, then followed her husband’s career to finish law school in New York, and graduated from Columbia at the top of her class—and yet, of course, upon graduation, “not a law firm in New York would employ me.”

The movie tracks her tactical approach at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project—a plan of action she chose in part because, as her biographer, Wendy W. Williams, points out, “marching and demonstrating wasn’t Ruth’s thing.” She launched a slow and subversive litigation campaign to challenge America’s mammoth regime of institutionalized gender discrimination. (At the time, in many states, women could, for instance, be fired for pregnancy, and husbands could not be charged for raping their wives.) She famously won five of her six arguments at the Supreme Court, often by representing male plaintiffs who were challenging gender disparities in the law—in military housing allowances and Social Security benefits, for example—that were rooted in assumptions that men had jobs and women stayed home. By bringing claims brought by men who were harmed by these assumptions, she showed the justices how archaic and unfair these laws could be.

Ginsburg’s reflections on what it was like to stand before nine men attempting to convey what sex discrimination does to women quickly becomes the most timely and salient thread in the movie: How do we talk to men in times of massive political upheaval? How much do we cater to their fears and sensitivities? How do we support male allies when no small part of you wants to punch the whole patriarchy on the mouth?

Ginsburg’s own answers will frustrate some of the #MeToo generation, and perhaps her views are fundamentally a product of her own time. As the movie opens, Ginsburg recounts her mother’s foremost life teaching, the twin rules to which she returns always: “be a Lady” and also “be Independent.” Ginsburg defines being a lady as “not being overcome by useless emotions, like anger.” And throughout the film, her admirers characterize her as “shy” and “ladylike” and “reserved” and “soft-spoken,” and the advice she offers her law student granddaughter—who adorably refers to her throughout as “Bubby”—is that “the way to win an argument is not to yell.”

The justice describes her own approach to Supreme Court arguments as primarily an educational enterprise: “I had a captive audience,” she says of oral argument in 1973 in the landmark case that was Frontiero v. Richardson, where the nine male justices asked her “not a single question.” “I saw myself as a kind of kindergarten teacher in those days,” she later muses of the arguments that followed. Ginsburg wanted to show the justices male plaintiffs they could identify with. She also wanted to explain to male jurists who didn’t believe that gender discrimination even existed that they should be thinking of their daughters and granddaughters in these appeals.

This honey-over-vinegar approach is perhaps most striking when we see Ginsburg addressing cadets at Virginia Military Institute, a once all-male school that only admitted women after 1996, when Ginsburg penned her majority opinion in the most important gender case in a decade: United States v. Virginia. In the film, a female cadet who entered with the first class of female students describes a confrontation with a male student who refuses to accept her: “I want to know why you are here and why you want to ruin my school,” he tells her. That maps almost flawlessly onto the famous question Ginsburg describes being asked by Erwin N. Griswold, the dean of Harvard Law School upon her arrival: “Why are you taking a place at the law school, occupying a seat that could be held by a man?” she was asked. (She has since clarified that she now believes he was attempting to smoke out sexism rather than shame her.) Ginsburg’s advice to the VMI cadets is of course trademark RBG: “Wait and see,” she tells them, “you will be proud of the women they become after graduation.” Some might say that after four decades of activism, “wait and see” is not enough anymore.

In a national moment of unbridled female fury—from the women’s marches, to #MeToo, to fun with nondisclosure agreements and Michael Cohen—Ginsburg’s overarching strategy of empathy and compassion, and her decadeslong crusade to make women visible to important men, can come across as anachronistic and disempowering. Nobody wants to be cast as the kindergarten teacher for clueless men anymore, and as my friend Rebecca Traister has written so powerfully—about women’s anger and this moment—“Letting all this out is undeniably exciting. Its power, to some extent, comes from the fact that it is almost terrifyingly out of control. Anything is possible, good or bad.”

Women who want to get past the RBG workout footage and the flying ninja Ruth narrative will have to reckon with this paradox. A generation of young women who are sick to death of performing empathy and centering powerful men may resist being told to accept incremental progress, or to act as kindergarten teachers. We no longer believe that men who only see sexism when it affects their wives and daughters are genuinely fighting for equality. And viewers who are frustrated with such arguments may lose it in earnest at the retelling of the decadeslong friendship story of Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia—who claimed until the end that the Constitution affords women no protection against gender discrimination, and who inveighed against so much of the gender equality Ginsburg worked to enshrine in the law.

Ginsburg’s explanation for her friendship with Justice Scalia is as heartfelt in the film as it has been throughout her career: “Why should I feel uncomfortable?” she asks. She found him hilarious. He made her laugh. And the few scenes of Ginsburg belly-laughing are arresting—whether she’s watching Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on SNL or doubled over laughing at a Scalia quip, it’s mesmerizing to watch the typically sober jurist completely uncontrolled in her laughter. Viewers who can’t forgive her close kinship with the late Scalia may not understand that for her, this was less about appeasement than amusement, and also that Ginsburg isn’t asking for our forgiveness in the first place. She believes so deeply in friendship and collegiality and in institutional stability. Her devotion to Scalia and to reasoned persuasion are at the center of that conviction.

Her small-c conservative approach to her work is also laid bare in the fact that RBG presents as a 1950s romance. Her life is completely shaped by the great love story of her career: her marriage to Marty Ginsburg, who died of cancer in 2010. (Justice Ginsburg was, of course, on the bench the next day to read an opinion in a major case.) In one frame after another, the film captures the gentle devotion Marty felt for his wife (there’s a shot from her confirmation hearings in which her children are exuberantly hugging her, and Marty is tenderly brushing back a strand of her hair). And it highlights the complexity of a partnership in which he was the extrovert and she was the diligent wonk, and how he subordinated his law practice to her career, because—from first glance—he loved her for her brain. Before “before his time” was even a dream, Marty Ginsburg was devising a way to support his wife’s calling. He relentlessly campaigned to get Bill Clinton to put her on the court, because she didn’t have the temperament to push herself forward. In a dozen ways, the film reveals that he was the feminist rock star for decades before the country discovered his bookish wife.

There are so many moments to love in RBG, but perhaps more than the throngs of cheering college students with RBG tattoos, the best part is the story she really wants told: that she stands on the shoulders of legal giants, that she converted doubters into allies when everyone else was out marching on the streets, and that the law itself can change minds, and times, and realities, without the requirement of celebrity, fanfare, or fame. The fact that—as she often says—at 85, suddenly everyone wants to take a picture with her is a happy reward, but it was never, ever the point.