A few minutes into RBG, the new documentary about Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was having Fahrenheit 9/11 flashbacks. Michael Moore’s propagandistic attempt to thwart George W. Bush’s re-election bid was equal parts entertaining and dishonest, and as the credits rolled while I sat in that packed theater fourteen years ago this month, I remember feeling dismayed about our country’s acrimonious partisan divide—not least of all because of the audience’s unabashed celebration of Moore’s approach. No tactic, it seemed, was beyond the pale to stop the Dubya menace.
And so I groaned inwardly when the opening scenes of RBG harkened back to the vitriol pervading that earlier theater. It starts with a solid three minutes of quotes from conservative politicians, commentators, and talk radio firebrands blaming the justice for all manner of social ill and calling her a slew of unsavory names. Not this again, and especially not now I thought. Aren’t we even more desperate to find common ground, given the current cultural landscape?
Thankfully, those opening few minutes don’t define the overall tone or approach of Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s new release. In light of the compelling story that follows, they serve to remind viewers of the need to pull back the curtain of our divisive rhetoric and to reckon more honestly with the people beyond the culture wars. In RBG, West and Cohen offer a welcome salve for our society’s wounds, a celebration of Ginsburg as Ginsburg, irreducible to any political stance. The personal and professional facets of Ginsburg’s life paint a variegated portrait of a singular figure whose virtues, values, and experiences resonate—surprisingly—with both conservatives and liberals of good faith.
Many details of Ginsburg’s life are familiar to viewers: her tenure at Rutgers pioneering the field of women and the law, her work with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, her appointment to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton in 1993, her fiery dissents to the court’s conservative faction. But fleshing out that picture of Ginsburg as feminist icon are the details the film offers of her own personal fight for standing in a legal profession bent toward men. She thrived despite these barriers, serving on law review at Harvard and tying for first in her graduating class at Columbia.
Even more impressive is that she took on these challenges while caring for an ailing husband and young toddler. For Ginsburg, though, these domestic roles were crucial to her professional success: “I think my life was more balanced. . . . I was less apprehensive than my classmates because there was something going on that was more important, frankly, than the law.” Ginsburg, of course, possesses a gifted legal mind, but RBG shows that she has grit and grace, too, all of which is evidenced in her rich and enduring love affair with Marty, her husband of fifty-six years. Although Marty died in 2010, the film includes footage of his doting on her at public appearances and excerpts from letters he penned to her. Clearly the two were partners: her supporting him during bouts of cancer, him supporting her legal career and even advocating for her appointment to the Supreme Court. Theirs is a relationship to emulate no matter one’s political persuasion.
But the film is not merely intended to inspire—though it does inspire—as much as it aims to delight, and the unexpected details from Ginsburg’s life delight us most: her children’s mockery of her cooking, her love for opera, her strenuous workout routine, her collection of collars to feminize her justice robes. Ginsburg comes off as relatable, with her own quirks and foibles, preferences and habits. She rarely watches television and has no patience for small talk (so says more than one interviewee). She laughed off her gaffe of falling asleep at the 2015 State of the Union address, saying she was not 100% sober, and she apologized for her inappropriate remarks (given her role on the Supreme Court and need for impartiality in matters involving the administration) critiquing candidate Trump in the 2016 election. With such inclusions West and Cohen defy today’s great sort that requires flattening out human complexity to dub public figures either friend or foe.
Although the filmmakers nod to the cultish following that has sprung up around Ginsburg, the film itself resists the hero worship that’s so tempting in our divisive times. In RBG, Ginsburg is neither deified nor demonized; she is instead humanized, which counterintuitively honors her more any sort of idolization would. This is not to say that conservatives won’t find in Ginsburg’s story much with which they disagree; her conflation of abortion access with dignity for women, for example, deleteriously denies the dignity of unborn children.
Careful viewers of the film, however, can trace this lamentable blind spot back to her fixation on women’s rights; such reflection can spur pro-lifers to expand their moral imagination to work toward just solutions for all parties involved in a crisis pregnancy, child and mother included. The bottom line is that situating Ginsburg’s more progressive stances within the larger context of her life and career, as RBG does, encourages critics of those stances to more fully understand and engage with them.In RBG, West and Cohen offer a welcome salve for our society’s wounds, a celebration of Ginsburg as Ginsburg, irreducible to any political stance.
And more than anything, RBG presents a woman who welcomes a good debate and sees real value in it. Her affinity and acuity for the law found a worthy opponent in none other than the incomparable conservative justice Antonin Scalia. Their longtime friendship, documented in the film, stretched back well before their days on the Supreme Court and adds another wrinkle to the liberal caricature of Ginsburg some might prefer. An ACLU colleague of Ginsburg’s confesses that she could never be friends with a “right-wing nut job” like Scalia. Yet Ginsburg and Scalia’s friendship was genuine, evidenced by the easy rapport they had in joint appearances and, even, in their sharp disagreements, which were always on points of law and never personal.
These good will disagreements, which Ginsburg truly appreciated, refined her own position, as iron sharpens iron. For example, in talking about United States v. Virginia, the case that required Virginia Military Institute to admit women, Ginsburg has credited Scalia’s dissent with strengthening her own written opinion. She had real affection for him and deep respect for his mind and personality that was undiminished by their antithetical theories of jurisprudence: “As annoyed as you might be about his zinging dissent, he’s so utterly charming, so amusing, so sometimes outrageous, you can’t help but say, ‘I’m glad that he’s my friend or he’s my colleague.’” To rejoice in the other — what a beautiful sentiment, life-giving even.
We are surely in a tough cultural moment, and it’s tempting to embrace a one-dimensional distortion of those who disagree with us. RBG is a poignant argument for why doing so would be such a shame. That is the film’s gift to its viewers, an intimation that there’s a story behind any person we may encounter, no matter how contrary or disruptive we might find them. More than that, it’s a charge to remember their value and to respect their dignity.
We cannot afford to ignore that charge. We have a choice, as Auden so starkly put it, to love one another or die. For we are, even as our hyper-partisan age denies it vociferously, inextricably bound together in a network of mutuality, our fortunes intertwined.