On RBG

Examining Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s heroism in the recent documentary

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RBG movie poster. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s RBG is a documentary reflecting Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life. The film depicts a world that promotes the simultaneous possibility of human connection and graceful progress—a world in which even a conservative justice like Antonin Scalia was able to have a profound friendship with Ginsburg, an idea not often entertained in today’s Congress or justice system.

In the film, Sen. Orrin Hatch, who recently endorsed and voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, expresses his deep respect for Ginsburg and commends her legal work. The Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Hatch is a member, enthusiastically supports Ginsburg’s nomination, even while she claims legal qualifications rooted in an unwavering commitment to gender equality.

Ginsburg dazzles the committee with her confidence; Joe Biden smiles front and center, and a young-looking Dianne Feinstein beams with pride. With overwhelming bipartisan approval, the Senate confirms Ginsburg 96-3.

The development and success of this documentary puzzled me. I resisted watching it and avoided the deluge of popular literature based on Ginsburg’s life. She seemed to me like another white Washington bureaucrat whose story reinforced an image of American success long proven to exist for only a small percentage of citizens. As evident even in this laudatory film, Ginsburg has never been a radical feminist like Gloria Steinem or bell hooks, and she will probably never be a ringleader for the #metoo movement or fourth-wave feminism.

Perhaps the problem with my skepticism was that I was looking for this radical other when I should have been thinking about the people who have been fighting the fights we continue to fight for. From many different angles, RBG unabashedly characterizes Ginsburg as a hero, and it won me over despite my distrust of the idea of heroics.

It would be a mistake, however, to interpret RBG as a call for political unity and a restored sense of compromise. This would be cliche and it would be missing context of the movie. It is much better to consider how the 85-year-old Ginsburg fell in her office earlier this month and broke three ribs, then went back to work the following night. Now, more than ever, there is so much work to do.

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