You may know her as Justice Ginsburg or perhaps by her "meme name," the Notorious R.B.G., which has permeated everywhere from Instagram feeds to the streets of Women's Marches. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a major pop-culture icon over the past several years, and a new documentary, RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, explores all the reasons why — particularly by shining a light on a side of Ginsburg that some fans of the judge might not know too much about.
"Justice Ginsburg is quite adventurous in all kinds of ways," Cohen says, speaking alongside West speak on the phone before the Sundance Film Festival, where their documentary premiered. The director doesn't just mean that the 84-year-old Ginsburg has a regimented workout routine that would put people half her age to shame; while making their doc, West and Cohen discovered that the judge has such an affinity for physical challenges that go far beyond the gym, in difficulty and terrain.
"She’s gone parasailing, she’s gone white water rafting," Cohen says, with West adding, "Her husband was not parasailing, she was parasailing." Cohen reveals that Justice Ginsburg's family told her that when they go on vacations together, it's the judge who wants to go horseback riding or is "eager to find something to climb."
Not many people doubt that Ginsburg is an inspiring individual, but the documentary RBG showcases bold parts of her life not normally seen by the public. The two directors teamed up to tell the story three years ago, when Ginsburg first began gaining internet popularity. "When she attained this fame as the “Notorious R.B.G,” we realized that a lot of her new fans didn’t know this history, and we thought ‘this is the perfect opportunity to do this documentary about this extraordinary woman,'" West explains.
And it's true; as the doc shows, Ginsburg completely deserves her status as a leader of the resistance, both with her powerful dissents on the Supreme Court and her bold approach to life. "Even as a woman in her 80s and even as someone who’s had two serious bouts of cancer, she still has a real zest for life and a spirit of adventure," Cohen says. While the directors set out to teach millennials about RBG's history, they say they ended up learning that people's iconography of the Supreme Court Justice wasn't just internet meme lore.
"To me the surprise was that some of the things that she’s gotten a reputation for, I thought they were a little bit like urban legends maybe," says Cohen with a laugh. "Before we saw the workout I did not actually believe that she could plank or do 20 push ups, or lift weights, I just thought there’s no way that tiny little lady is doing that, but then we saw it and it was true."
In the documentary, audiences are treated to footage of Ginsburg lifting weights and doing dozens of push-ups — real push-ups, as the justice herself clarifies — all while wearing a sweatshirt with the words "Super Diva" on the front. "She was given that sweatshirt as a gift from the Washington National Opera when she did that performance… ‘The Daughter of the Regiment,’ which is in the film," West explains.
RBG includes scenes both of Ginsburg attending operas as a spectator and of her debut opera performance in Nov. 2016. As the film reveals, opera plays almost as great a role in Justice Ginsburg's life as the law. "The level of delight in the music is just huge and kind of tells you a little something about her," Cohen says. "She is a serious knowledgeable opera fan — she knows her stuff," West adds. In fact, that wealth of opera knowledge allowed her to become true friends with the late Justice Scalia, a fellow opera lover. Despite Scalia and Ginsburg's opposing ideologies, the two shared many interests unrelated to the Supreme Court. In RBG, a photo of Ginsburg and Scalia riding on an elephant together is shared, adding even more proof that Ginsburg is a fearless adventurer.
Aside from telling stories about parasailing, workout routines, and opera performances, RBG reveals how integral Ginsburg's work has been in the promoting gender equality under the law. "There’s no question, her great love in addition to her [late] husband Marty, is the law," Cohen says. "She is really dedicated to the law and the issues and what she sees as her responsibility as a citizen and now as a justice to uphold the Constitution."
As RBG highlights, Justice Ginsburg's work for the ACLU made a great impact on gender equality by introducing cases of gender discrimination to the Supreme Court. In one case shown in the documentary, Ginsburg argued for a man who could not collect Social Security after his wife died as the benefit had been called a "mother's benefit." In choosing this case to represent, Ginsburg strategically illuminated how gender inequality affects both men and women.
According to Cohen, she and West chose to feature cases which "speak for how Justice Ginsburg improved life for Americans of both genders when she fought to make men and women equal under the law." The ability of Ginsburg to not only argue that women's lives would improve through law-enforced gender equality but to also make cases for why it would help men as well is a fascinating aspect of the documentary. As Gloria Steinem, who appears in RBG ,explains, "Ruth took a case in which a man was discriminated against in order to show the depth and the importance of sex discrimination. Very intelligent thing to do."
The subtle approach of Ginsburg became a key point of focus for West and Cohen. "I guess she could’ve been yelling at the men in power back in those days," Cohen says. "But she took the approach of ‘OK, these little boys don’t quite understand what’s going on here, and I’m going to gently and patiently teach them.'" West adds, "She basically had to teach these justices that yes, discrimination exists."
While not everyone can do what Ginsburg as done as far as effecting legal change, people who admire the Supreme Court justice can learn a lot just by familiarizing themselves with her life's work, especially in terms of gender. "We started this long before the #MeToo movement and long before new recognition of current problems facing women," West says. "We do think that this film provides a great context for the long history in the battle of equal rights for women."
Even if audiences don't leave the theater with a newfound inspiration to practice litigation, they can at least enjoy discovering more about an incredibly accomplished woman. "Watching someone fight the fight and win is just like fun, I mean I hope people learn a lot, but [we] want people to leave the theater feeling celebratory," Cohen says. If there's any reason to celebrate, Ginsburg's litany of achievements is probably it.