Stylist talks to filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West about how Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s achievements can provide a blueprint for modern feminism.
In this brave new world, cultural icons are made through memes. Want proof? After a four-decade career in which she quietly revolutionised the American legal system from the inside out, it was blogging site Tumblr that catapulted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to global, cross-generational fame.
The blog ‘Notorious RBG’ was launched on Tumblr in 2013, and it quickly spawned a fast-selling range of tongue-in-cheek merchandise. The titular pun likened Bader Ginsburg to late rap titan the Notorious BIG, a comparison that Bader Ginsburg approves of. “It’s absolutely right,” she has joked. “We’re both from Brooklyn.”
Over the course of this decade, Bader Ginsburg had been anointed the queen of liberal politics by young people who keep one eye on the news and the other on social media. A series of dissents she penned in her 70s and 80s struck a chord online: no law degree was required to understand her forthright, uncomplicated writing style as she criticised conservative decisions on subjects such as abortion and voting rights.
But as Bader Ginsburg’s fame grew online, her remarkable story remained somewhat buried underneath top-line quips like ‘You can’t spell “truth” without “Ruth”’. And it was this lack of mainstream knowledge of her accomplishments that prompted filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West to start work on the documentary RBG.
An essential film for the #MeToo generation, RBG details the extraordinary life and times of a woman who argued six cases dealing with gender discrimination before the Supreme Court in the Seventies, and won five of them. A woman who, at the age of 85, performs daily morning planks with a personal trainer. A woman whose influence on progressive politics – as the last liberal judge sitting on the Supreme Court in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial appointment – is such that swathes of people hold their breath when she so much as books a hospital appointment.
While Bader Ginsburg is primarily a change-maker in the US, RBG will resonate with women around the world. We can all learn from this stirring, thought-provoking documentary – whether that means aspiring to a supportive, equitable marriage like Bader Ginsburg’s, or being inspired by her commitment to remaining calm when tackling injustice.
Ahead of the UK cinema release of RBG, Stylist sat down with directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West to discuss how Bader Ginsburg’s blueprint can give us all hope.
The renewed interest in Justice Bader Ginsburg’s achievements was kicked off by millennials making her into a meme in 2015. How did that occur?
Betsy West: I think it was growing frustration on the part of a lot of [American] progressives with the way the Supreme Court was moving to the right. They read one of her opinions about voting rights; [in 2013] she was dissenting that the court should relax protections guaranteeing voting rights for African-Americans in states where they had been historically disenfranchised. She wrote the memorable line: “Throwing out [these protections] is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
That blew up and prompted a young law student to start the RBG Tumblr. People just responded to this idea of an elderly grandmother who was objecting in a very clear, forceful and persuasive way to some of the decisions made by the court.
Julie Cohen: She’s used the attention that’s been focused on her to educate young people about the constitutional issues that have been at the heart of her career for decades. That’s pushed it forward. She embraced it and used it to educate, and that made it blow up more.
Ginsburg is someone who’s taken the legal system, a traditionally conservative framework that’s often worked against women, and used it to enact radical change. What can activists operating now learn from this?
BW: When women were out in the streets protesting [in the Seventies], she was in the courts, with the long view in mind to strategically tackle generations of discriminatory laws. They were symbiotic. It’s just we knew about Gloria Steinem and what she was doing; we didn’t know what Ruth Bader Ginsburg was doing.
It’s not her way to raise her voice and to scream and shout and protest. It is her way to look at a challenge and figure out, ‘How can I do something to change this?’ I think there are a lot of lessons in that. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a time for protest, it just means you have to think about it as a big picture and where you want to go.
We saw a tremendous amount of women running for office in our [November 2018] mid-term elections [in the US]. It was a moment when women said ‘There is a political system here, it’s been working against us and we need to get into the game’. You can say Justice Ginsburg is an inspiration for that, as well as the current political situation.
JC: Like you said, running for office, getting into the electoral process – those are traditionally conservative avenues. But using the system to make deep permanent change [to itself] is sometimes the most radical notion of all.
The way Justice Ginsburg talked about anger being useless was really interesting. A lot of women are angry now, but it feels stifling at times without proper guidance on how to channel it into change.
JC: You can get stuck in anger. Anger often doesn’t create forward momentum, it gets your brain tangled and you’re stuck like an engine that won’t rev. Figuring out how to take circumstances that should make you angry and channel them into positive action is probably the way to go.
BW: I think that’s right. Of course Justice Ginsburg’s been angry – she’s had a lot of things happen to her, especially as a young woman, that would make you feel angry. But she also sees where she wants to go and how she can get there. When you’re dealing with your colleagues on the Supreme Court or the political process, sometimes yelling and screaming isn’t the best way to convince people to come to your side.
What was the most surprising thing you learnt while working on this film?
JC: She has a reputation – which she deserves – for being super serious, very intellectual, pretty reserved, an introvert. But there is a whole other element to her personality which we got to know and think we showed in the film, of someone who can make a really witty zinger, of someone who gets misty-eyed with this lovely romantic emotion when she talks about her husband. Of someone who belly laughs while watching Kate McKinnon do a wacky impersonation of herself on Saturday Night Live.
At the heart of RBG is the love story between Justice Ginsburg and her husband Marty, which is such a beautiful partnership. How did that relationship influence her and her career?
BW: She always says that meeting Marty Ginsburg was the luckiest thing that happened in her life. They met in college; she was very beautiful and had lots of suitors but Marty was the first boy who loved her because she had a brain. He was an accomplished lawyer himself but not in any way threatened by her – he used to brag about her to his classmates.
It was Marty who understood how important it was when she started doing the groundbreaking work arguing women’s rights cases. He took over more of the housekeeping role at home with their two children so she could pursue it. And in the Nineties, it was Marty – who was very well-connected in Washington – who made sure President Clinton considered her for the Supreme Court.
Looking at them, I came away thinking that as a young woman, that’s the model I want to emulate. I think a lot of women now are reconsidering their relationships with the men in their life – whether romantic, familial and/or platonic – and what they want those to look like. I wondered how many potential Justice Ginsburgs are out there now, hampered by unequal relationships.
JC: Absolutely. Are now and have been in the past. What brilliant women might have achieved more if they had a husband who was loving them by backing them up and supporting them, rather than saying women should be seen and not heard, or any of the ways men can make women’s lives more difficult?
I think [their relationship] is a lesson: the main instruction should be to men. I hope men are coming out of our film going ‘I need to be more like Marty Ginsburg.’ We’ve had tons of women saying to us ‘I need to find a Marty’, but not that many men stating ‘I need to change my behaviour and be there more.’
BW: It’s not that men are necessarily holding back women [in romantic relationships], but sometimes they don’t understand what women do to keep everything going, especially in a household. That’s one of the biggest issues; to say things like ‘Hey, there are two parents here. Why are you always calling the mother when there’s a problem at school?’ Which is one issue Justice Ginsburg talks about. It’s a slow process of re-educating.
Since you began making RBG, the #MeToo movement swept across the Western world. Did it prompt you to reconsider Ruth’s legacy?
B: We see the film in a different way; it resonates more profoundly. Women of mine and Julie’s age look at the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and we say that not only is it time, but look at what we’ve been putting up with for so many years.
We thought it was the price of entry; that in order to have these really cool jobs – our background is network television – we had to put up with sexual harassment. You laughed it off because it wasn’t violence or rape but then you realise that it’s a whole continuum and it all leads to the other behaviours.
Seeing those movements and then watching Justice Ginsburg’s story of how she fought for women to have access to the workplace makes it read in a different way.
As filmmakers, are you noticing more of a thirst for women’s stories told by women?
BW: Absolutely. When we started on this project we decided we needed a majority female crew, especially in the leading production roles. And [on the other side], the response we had from well-educated, politically engaged people who came out of the film and said ‘I didn’t know she did all that,’ made us realise there are a lot of really great stories out there involving women that are not being told. It’s a big opportunity.
JC: History in general, as portrayed in textbooks, media or news, isn’t necessarily the history of the most important advances that have been made. Choices are made about what stories we don’t tell, and there are so many people who’ve made huge contributions to history that aren’t known.
In the vast majority of these cases, it turns out it’s a woman or person of colour, [or both] at the centre. We’re not saying much right now but we have two projects in the works, both about women, one about a woman of colour, that are stories people should know more about – and we’re really enthusiastic to be part of the process of telling them.
RBG is playing nationwide in the UK now