If you think a documentary about an American Supreme Court justice is not for you, then RBG is out to prove you wrong. From the film’s opening credits, my feminist heart swelled at seeing the female names on the screen in positions so often occupied by men: directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, a half dozen female producers and executive producers, cinematographer Claudia Raschke, editor Carla Gutierrez - the list goes on. And it’s only fitting for a film about one of the most influential women in America who has spent her life arguing for equal rights regardless of gender: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, better known as the Notorious RBG.
There’s no denying Ginsburg is a superhero of American culture, only instead of a cape she wears black judicial robes and a trademark lace collar. She has become an icon for modern-day feminism, specifically for women who’ve grown up from the days of 'girl power' into an intelligent and vocal generation demanding substantive governmental and legal change. This is a generation that lives on the internet, and this is where Ginsburg has found her modern-day fan club. As one RBG interviewee points out (Irin Carmon, who along with Shana Knizhnik wrote the book Notorious RBG), every time Ginsburg writes a dissent, the internet explodes. Currently the sole woman on the Supreme Court, she has come to be the face of resistance at a time of a significant shift to the right.
The beauty of this film is that it captures, not only, the tremendous impact Ginsburg has had on American politics and society - particularly with her legal work in the 70s - but also the things about her that make her such an unlikely cultural hero: her reserved personality, her lack of interest in much of contemporary culture (her passion for opera notwithstanding). At one point, West and Cohen show Ginsberg a clip of Kate McKinnon doing her RGB impersonation on SNL for the first time, and when asked if the caricature reminds her of herself she laughs and says “Not one bit. Except for the collar.” When asked if she has a smartphone, she admits that she had two “until they took one away from me - apparently nobody uses a BlackBerry anymore.”
Despite her quiet nature, RBG doesn’t seem to mind her growing cult status. The film makes a good point of demonstrating how Ginsburg’s politics have shifted left over her time on the bench - as new conservative judges come on, Ginsburg has allowed herself to be pushed left in order to compensate. Now, her dissenting opinions have become infamous statements of protest in their own rights.
American society has much to thank Ginsburg for - equal rights for spouses regardless of gender, the baseline assumption that discriminating against someone for their gender is as unjust as discriminating against people based on race, and a better understanding of institutional sexism, to name a few. For UK audiences, who may know very little about the powerhouse that is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG should be required viewing. It's a much-needed reminder that quiet voices can have a big impact if they persevere. As Ginsburg says, "Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time."
An in-depth look at Ginsburg’s impact on the American judicial system this is not - luckily we have podcasts for that (I urge the interested to check out Stitcher’s RGB: Beyond Notorious series and More Perfect’s second-season episode Sex Appeal) - but it is a great overview of the life’s work of a woman who undoubtedly changed the course of justice and it still fighting today. And while RBG's interviews and pop culture montages may at times feel more fan-girl than serious political discourse, I for one was totally on board for the ride.
RGB opens in the UK on Friday, 4th January.