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Why 'On the Basis of Sex' Fell Short

On January 11th director Mimi Leder’s movie On the Basis of Sex, the semi-biographical movie about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, was released in American theaters, and despite its importance as a moving story about an inspirational figure, it missed in terms of visual storytelling and story arc.

On the Basis of Sex opens on a series of shots of suit-clad Harvard law students, all of which are men save for the movie’s protagonist: “the infamous” Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), one of nine women in her class, and clad in bright blue. The moment is one of pride for young women aspiring to traditionally masculine careers in the audience.

However the color symbolism, with Ginsburg and the other women in her class dressed in bright colors such as blues and yellows next to their male classmates’ blacks and grays, is blatant, if not a little distracting, given that a formal event such of this would be most appropriate to attend in a darker color.

This same visual shot is repeated throughout the film, from Ginsburg’s classes at Harvard, shots of her walking between all-male law firms in New York City, and even the final shot of the film, in which Ginsburg ascends the stairs of the United States Supreme Court building in a similar bright blue suit, with Justice Ginsburg herself making a cameo as the camera turns to view Ginsburg from the front.

Perhaps on several occasions, the color symbolism of the film would be appropriate, and at times, poignant. However, when it makes little narrative sense and distracts from the weight of otherwise important scenes that establish the movie’s themes, the cinematography may appear distracting.

Additionally, On the Basis of Sex was advertised as biographical, which, to be fair, is quite a feat given Ginsburg’s long and storied career. However, the film merely covered the topic of Ginsburg’s first Supreme Court appeal, and left the remainder of her career to reading done at the end, rather than an extension of the story. Film critics and viewers alike claim to have felt cheated out of the longer biopic promised.

The advertisement of the film as biographical was also problematic. On the Basis of Sex erases Ginsburg’s role as the breadwinner of her family for quite some time while her husband completed his studies and battled with his first bout of cancer.

Between a near-anecdotal plot and various inaccuracies, as well as the attempted cinematography of a much better film interspersed throughout, it is a miracle a movie described scathingly by critics as “cheesy” and “under-appreciative” of Ginsburg’s career, one would assume any box office profit would be miraculous.

However, On the Basis of Sex was one of the most successful openings in January, making over ten million dollars in less than three weeks in theaters.

It goes without saying that a film, regardless of the writing techniques of visual storytelling, often boils down to its story in terms of public popularity. Despite its shortcomings, On the Basis of Sex tells the story of a tenacious young woman in her journey to becoming the well-loved Supreme Court Justice known today. Ginsburg is a model for all young women pursuing careers despite the adversity of sexism, and that is more valuable than minor inaccuracies, forced cinematography, and false advertising. The America Ginsburg fought, and continues to fight for is coming into focus, yet in recent years, it has become more important now than ever to remember the bold women who fought to get us this far.

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