Rights + Justice
Gender + Sexuality

Power Women

In the theatres, Congress and courts, feminists are joining the system to fight it.

By Dorothy Woodend 7 Jan 2019 |

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture editor.

The ability to control our bodies. To have the kind of sex we want. To call our enemies the rudest names on Twitter if we want. To wield power at every level. Somehow, well into the 21st century, such basic assumptions about women’s rights are still flash points for political conflict.

Women are hungry for a new wave of feminist fighter heroes, and here they come. But it ain’t all pussy hats and pillow fights.

Even as 127 women were sworn into the U.S. Congress this past week, including Kyrsten Sinema, the first-ever openly bisexual female senator, Roe v. Wade appears very much under threat in America.

In Brazil, the new human rights minister vowed to institute a policy of girls wearing pink and boys wearing blue, while in In Ireland, women gained access to free and safe abortion for the first time in decades.

As pundits debated whether it was appropriate for women to use the term “motherfucker” to refer to a U.S. president who has bragged of grabbing women by “the pussy,” in India, women formed a human chain, some 385 miles long, and stormed a temple long preserved for men only.

When it comes to the battle of the sexes, a new world war is building on many fronts, as an Atlantic essay points out. “But besides their hostility to liberal democracy, the right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing, which often goes unrecognized in the U.S.: They all want to subordinate women.”

Into this struggle, strides the tiny figure of one Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The woman is never long out of the headlines, whether it’s her health concerns, legal opinions, or standing in for the hopes (and fears) of the American women. She has been the subject of books, articles, and now, a cinematic reimagining of her life and work entitled On the Basis of Sex.

If you were hoping for some quick and dirty action based on the title, prepare to be disappointed. What you will get is a feminist fairy tale, complete with an indomitable hero, fire-breathing dragons, and a handsome prince, who cooks, cleans, takes care of the kids, is endlessly supportive and encouraging, and ready to roll in the bedroom.

From the inaugural scene, director Mimi Leder’s sturdy bio-pic presents Ginsburg as a creature of pure will, striding through a sea of dark-suited men at Harvard Law School in 1956, in a nice dress and shoes, with only a sliver of sex running up the back of her seamed stockings.

As one of the few women entering the hallowed halls of Harvard, she is quickly shown her place, but gosh darn it, this dame don’t know when to quit. Every time she is forced into a corner, she comes out fighting, wielding her intelligence and ferocious determination, like a tiny little Rocky Balboa, all hard fists and a set jaw.

This is the second film about RBG this year (Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary portrait was released earlier in the spring) so the facts of Ginsburg’s life, education and career have been well-established. This new version adds extremely attractive lead actors and swelling strings. Ginsburg’s struggle for female equality is presented as a love story, albeit a polyamorous one. The lady loves the law as much as she loves her partner.

Two spectacular specimens of humanity play Ruth (Felicity Jones) and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer). Hammer, last seen getting sexy with the peach fuzz of Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name, makes for a toothsome addition to the action. The man is almost distractingly attractive, like a vanilla latte in human form, all warm foam, caramel-coloured hair, and a stir stick.

Throughout the action, the pair enjoy an active love life. There’s a fair amount of smooching, humping, and even a flash of lacy underthings, as the Ginsburgs fall into bed to celebrate various victories, legal and otherwise. One wishes they spent even more time taking off briefs instead of writing them. Lay that Hammer down, Armie...

Okay, this is getting too dirty, back to the action in the courtroom.

‘You know how men are’

When Ginsburg happens upon the case that will make her reputation, initially things don’t seem too exciting. It concerns a man named Charles Moritz, who hires a nurse to care for his elderly mother, and then tries to write it off on his taxes. Section 214 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code denies him the right to do so because he is an unmarried man. The deduction is limited to "a woman, a widower or divorce, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized."

A love story and social revolution that turns on tax law? The film does its best to jazz up the action, adding scenery chewers like Kathy Bates (as activist Dorothy Kenyon) and Justin Theroux (as Mel Wulf, the legal director of the ACLU). Felicity Jones tries hard to master Ginsburg’s Brooklyn accent, although she occasionally sounds like she’s gargling a mouthful of marbles. Meanwhile, Harvard law baddies and the U.S. government collude to deny Ginsburg’s attempt to redress systemic inequality, burying her in paper with hundreds of cases that discriminate on the basis of sex.

There’s that damn, persistently problematic word, even today. In fact, as Ginsburg’s secretary types up a momentous brief by her boss, she mentions tripping over the s-word. “Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, it reeks of backseats and hormones,” she says. “And you know how men are.” They agree to assign the less inflammatory term of gender. The rest is American legal precedent changing history.

To be fair, the film does a commendable job of dramatizing the finer details of legal wrangling, and despite its somewhat clunky form (historical biopic) there are some stirring moments, interspersed between people in bad wigs and ‘70s clogs. The film in all its stodgy convention, and gauzy ending doesn’t seem terribly radical at first. Like the woman at its core, it charms more than challenges, making everyone happy, and not making things too difficult or unpleasant. This ain’t no Andrea Dworkin joint.

But that might be precisely the point. As Ginsburg’s story indicates, from the driest of subjects can come a deluge of change. The Ginsburgs in their own quiet way modelled genuine equality in the home, as well as the courtroom. And, also as the film makes explicitly clear, in the bedroom.

If you are looking for more revolution in the sheets, sex pushed the narrative forward in a great many films this year. I am thinking of the bedroom power plays in The Favourite, lesbian expectoration in Disobedience, hot troll sex in Border. Sexuality conversion therapy was the subject of both Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

In all of these, the act itself was a liberating force, broadening conventional assumptions about what women find sexy. The sexiest thing about On The Basis of Sex isn’t the rumpy-pumpy stuff, it’s the law itself. As the film depicts, when Ginsburg began her fight, women couldn’t work in mines, or fly military cargo planes.

In one of her influential defences of the rights of women to abortion, she stated: "The state controlling a woman would mean denying her full autonomy and full equality."

Laying down the law

As Ginsburg well knows, if you can change the law, you can change the world. The women taking up new positions of power in Congress have made clear there are a bunch of new sheriffs in town and they intend to lay down the law.

The era of boys will be boys, what Nancy Pelosi called the Trumpian “culture of cronyism, corruption and incompetence,” may well be on its way out the door. Good riddance to rancid rubbish. Among so many women whose equality have been assaulted in one way or another, there is a tremendous reservoir of desire to see justice served.

As Astra Taylor’s terrific documentary What is Democracy? maintains, a key to genuine democratic reform is the deeper inclusion of women in the process. “Real signs of freedom, struggle. Other folk gonna pick up on this,” philosopher Cornel West declares on camera. “The enslaved people will, the workers will, the women will, the gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will, the transgender folk, the bisexual folk, all will pick up on this. Lo and behold! This is a human affair...”

Against West’s roaring soliloquy counter pose what we all know too well. That the political system of the United States, like that of Canada and so many other nations, professes to be far more democratic and susceptible to reform than its calcified, money-clogged nature will allow. By becoming leaders in an existing system, can women mount a real challenge to the power structure? In the courts and in Congress, battle lines are being drawn and redrawn. As the Atlantic essay indicates, although substantive change can take decades, it begins with the most deeply personal and intimate of acts.

And by this, I mean dancing.

When newly elected senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was chided for busting some funky moves, the internet gave a big fat raspberry to the boneheads who sought to shame her into submission. And, if a porn star succeeds in bringing down the U.S. president, with some help from an indomitable female speaker of the house, a tough as nails chairwoman of the House Committee on Financial Services, and a Supreme Court judge with a taste for lacy things, we can all take to the streets and dance our asses off.

Because, what’s revolution without dancing, motherfucker?  [Tyee]

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