Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the most important Americans in modern history. She’s a crusader for women’s and minority rights. She’s a brilliant legal mind. She’s a success story worthy of the title of “American Dream.” She inspires hatred in her detractors as much as she does hope in her admirers.
She also inspires some memes, and apparently, that’s the most important thing. Fucking millennials.
The new documentary, RBG, has a lot to enjoy, as it gives us a fun biography of one of the most influential justices in Supreme Court history. It also gives us some insight into her family life, as the normally circumspect Ginsburg (in private life at least), gives the cameras access to the trinkets of a life well lived, one that will hopefully continue for a good long time.
The problem is that filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen choose to focus on the octogenarian’s viral popularity as a framing device, rather than give us anything deeper than a scratched surface into Ginsburg’s life, career, and invaluable contributions (still needed, by the way) to American political discourse. One of my complaints about modern pop culture – especially pop radio – is this idea that being popular equates to being good, quantity equals quality, and that’s just not true. West and Cohen here try to promote something genuinely good in order to make it popular, which is a noble endeavor, but it doesn’t always land.
The film opens with a montage of conservative talking heads (audio only, but voices like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh are distinguishable) calling her a “witch,” and otherwise defaming her. This could have set up a deep-dive look into the divisiveness of our society, with her as a microcosm given her fiery dissents in recent years. It could have been the start of an exploration piece about whether her detractors merely disagree with her positions politically, or her literal position as a woman physically sitting on the Supreme Court. Instead, they’re never brought up again, instead leading into an opening montage about how awesome Justice Ginsburg is, dismissing it as a Taylor Swift-esque, “haters gonna hate” moment.
A lot of the interviews follow a similar pattern. A couple of childhood friends marvel at her working out in a “Super Diva” sweatshirt while they’re too old and feeble to get out of the chair. A large amount of time is devoted to the “Notorious R.B.G.” Tumblr memes and the blog/book written by its creator. Hell, there’s a not insignificant portion of the end credits devoted to the Twitter and Instagram handles of other meme creators. Even the tour of her private home is more about her wardrobe than anything relating to politics or jurisprudence. I’m surprised no one called her “on fleak.”
It’s a shame because Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a fascinating figure, and one who remains vitally important to the survival of our democracy. I know I should critique the film I saw instead of the one I wanted to see, but it seems like a real missed opportunity not to explore her within the modern geopolitical climate, like the way the GOP and Donald Trump stole a seat on the high court from President Obama, or the way Trump and his ilk (as well as George W. Bush before) tried to delegitimize the court by calling them “activist judges” when it ruled against them by their Constitutional mandate.
Instead, the only major notes from across the aisle are a cursory mention of her friendship with the late Antonin Scalia (whose vacated seat upon his death was stolen by Republicans and held for Neil Gorsuch), and the brief moment of manufactured controversy when she criticized Trump during the campaign. It’s true that the justices should be impartial and non-political while determining cases, but she’s still an American citizen, as entitled to her opinions as any other.
The one truly bright spot of the doc is probably unintentional, given the attention paid to women’s liberation moments throughout the film, and that’s her relationship with her late husband, Marty Ginsburg. There’s a beautiful “love at first sight” story about their courtship, their adventure together as parents, and the lovely juxtaposition between her coy public persona and his love of a good joke. He was always her biggest cheerleader, even though she never really needed one, and every moment of insight we get into their relationship is heartwarming and pleasing.
Justice Ginsburg was, is, and will continue to be an absolute necessity in our democracy, even though the unofficial position of the opposition party seems to be a fervent wish that she die as soon as possible. She’s a trail blazer, and when her time is up, there will be a line of women to carry on her fight. Hers is a story worth shouting from the rooftops to the entire nation. And while the film itself is charming and offers some new perspective on her life and career, most of it is preaching to her ever-growing choir and trying to make “fetch” happen. She deserves better than to be relegated to social media.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How many Learned Hand jokes can you come up with? Which dog representing a SCOTUS justice are you most like? The answer may surprise you! Let me know!