Documentary RBG glazes over some awkward truths about the liberal hero

by James Robins / 02 October, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - RBG documentary

A doco on the US Supreme Court’s celebrated liberal, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, doesn’t question her ineffectiveness.

Call Ruth Bader Ginsburg what you want. A “liberal hero”, perhaps, or maybe a “zombie”, a “witch”, an “evildoer”. The portrait that emerges in RBG, a doting documentary of Ginsburg’s life, is of a quietly determined woman whose tiny size and shy demeanour belie a titanic influence on US life as a passionate litigator for gender equality. As an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court since 1993, however, that influence has turned to impotence, an uncomfortable truth this account actively evades.

RBG’s most insightful and inspiring details come early, in Ginsburg’s radical days. Born in 1933 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, she battled her way through Harvard as one of only nine women in a class of 500 men while raising a daughter. In the 1970s, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project with the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing before the Supreme Court for equal pay and equal rights six times. To the dinosaurs on the court, she had to explain the basic operation of patriarchy, weaving her arguments as if “knitting a sweater”, one strand at a time, or scolding them like a “kindergarten teacher”. She lost only one case.

Skipping entirely over Ginsburg’s 13 years as an appellate judge, RBG heads straight for her placement in the highest judicial body in the land. And what goes unmentioned, to the film’s detriment, is the Federalist Society’s efforts to pump ultraconservative judges onto the court. Ginsburg’s ability to sway opinions was neutered by a right-wing stonewall. In crucial cases such as the 2000 election-deciding Bush v Gore and this year’s refugee-restricting Trump v Hawaii, Ginsburg could only issue limp dissents.

As if in compensation for the stifling of a brilliant mind, RBG gives us a flashy montage of icky millennial kitsch, praising Ginsburg’s newfound status as a pop-culture icon: her “Notorious RBG” nickname – a riff on rapper Notorious BIG; an impersonation on Saturday Night Live; a bunch of tedious internet memes; and some incongruous sequences of an 85-year-old Ginsburg at the gym pumping iron in a “Super Diva!” sweatshirt, as if somehow we all need reassuring that she’s still got some fight left.



Video: Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her goldsmith father Kobi
107381 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her go…

by Ken Downie

Filmmaker Andrea Bosshard inherited a creative streak from her goldsmith father Kobi but he also taught her an important life lesson.

Read more
Will Uber disrupt itself with its Jump scooters?
107383 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Tech

Will Uber disrupt itself with its Jump scooters?

by Peter Griffin

Around 800 electric scooters arrived in Wellington this week, with local start-up Flamingo and Uber-owned Jump launching at virtually the same time.

Read more
Libra: Why Facebook is the best and worst company to create a cryptocurrency
107416 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Tech

Libra: Why Facebook is the best and worst company…

by Peter Griffin

There is a strong incentive for Facebook to own the crypto space, the way it has social media.

Read more
Win a double pass to Yesterday
107340 2019-06-18 09:48:44Z Win

Win a double pass to Yesterday

by The Listener

Yesterday, everyone knew The Beatles. Today, only Jack remembers their songs. He’s about to become a very big deal.

Read more
Mass protests protect Hong Kong's legal autonomy from China – for now
107337 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z World

Mass protests protect Hong Kong's legal autonomy f…

by Kelly Chernin

Protesters in Hong Kong have achieved a major victory in their fight to protect their legal system from Chinese interference.

Read more
Sir Roger Hall on why we need to treasure NZ's portrait art
107286 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z Arts

Sir Roger Hall on why we need to treasure NZ's por…

by Roger Hall

On an Australian art tour, playwright Sir Roger Hall found that a portrait gallery can be so much more than a snapshot of a country’s social history.

Read more
ANZ boss's departure: 'What was the NZ board doing to monitor expenses?'
Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on their plates
107161 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on…

by Jennifer Bowden

Forcing children to finish everything on their plates sets them up for a bad relationship with food.

Read more