A brief search for historical biopics turns up a lot of big movies about great men. There are several Oscar winners in the bunch, but there are hardly any women to be found at the center of the movie. Men can be the heroes of war, discover something extraordinary or lead an important social movement. Women are likely absent in all but a few scenes. They are supporting characters at best, or relatively absent at worst.
That will not be an issue for the upcoming biographical adaptation of one of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s formative court cases. Coming out on Christmas Day, “On the Basis of Sex” will follow the justice when she was just a scrappy young lawyer. In the new trailer for the film, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is shown facing discrimination throughout her early career. She complains about the sexist dismissals she got from firms she applied to, the names men called her and other instances where men tried telling her what to do. In one shot, she seems to be the only female lawyer adrift in a sea of faceless suits, but she is resolute in her determination to make equality a legally sound ruling.
According to Variety, the case featured in the movie will be Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, in which Bader Ginsburg argued against the discrimination of a widowed husband from receiving his wife’s benefits after her death. In addition to Jones, Armie Hammer will play her equality-minded husband, Marty Ginsburg, and Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates and Sam Waterston will round out the cast.
Historical biopics were long a part of Hollywood’s oeuvre. Before Jphn Ford was known exclusively for westerns, he made “Young Mr. Lincoln” about the early days of the 16th president. MGM Studios made movies based on the lives of scientist Marie Curie and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. While men still dominated the genre, many of the films that did focus on women were about British royalty, including several movies about the same monarchs.
Following a renewed interest in women’s stories in the last few years, “Hidden Figures” broke out as a late Oscar season surprise in 2016. The film has since continued to resonate among fans and has led to a reevaluation of the role of women in the NASA space program. The movie gave its leading actresses — Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monàe — a chance to play computer scientists, as lead characters in their own story of success.
That’s a far departure from the roles most commonly offered to black women in movies. In addition to boosting the representation of women of color onscreen, the film shared Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson’s untold stories to millions who had never heard their names.
Whether “On the Basis of Sex” becomes a future classroom staple or another historical footnote won’t be known for some time, but if we can’t rewrite the textbooks, at least we can have pop culture depictions of heroes who remind us of ourselves.