Politics & Culture

The directors of RBG talk Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legacy and feminism

Betsy West and Julie Cohen aren't afraid of the F-word.
Reading time 14 minutes
Courtesy of CNN

There was never any doubt that RBG, both the woman and the film, was going to be a hit. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (also known as the ‘Notorious RBG’ in the meme world) has dedicated her life and extensive career to advocating for gender equality in both the private and public sphere and, since her appointment to Supreme Court Justice in 1993, has played an instrumental role in the historic Affordable Health Care Act in 2010 and the landmark Obergefell vs. Hodges case that made same-sex marriage legal across 50 states. For 85 years, Justice Ginsburg has shown strength and determination despite opposing forces from all levels of the political hierarchy—a strength that has earned her worldwide, shall we say, notoriety.

The women giving audiences a chance to know Justice Ginsburg beyond the politics are co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, both well-versed in the field themselves. West, the former Senior VP of CBS News, and Cohen, the filmmaker behind The Sturgeon Queens [2014] and American Veteran [2017] are adamant that RBG is more important now than ever before.


LANGUE: This film is incredible for many reasons! It has a feminist outlook, there is a feminist perspective when it comes to love, which I think is something that we don’t really see touched upon in film lately. It’s always one or the other. You can be in love, or you can be a feminist. This is a woman who never had to compromise any part of herself for her career, or her love life, or her family. Why did you decide that now is the time to make this film.

WEST: We came up with this idea, it’s actually almost four years ago. That was before the #MeToo movement had taken off, before Times Up, before the very dramatic change in our political landscape. This was highly anticipated, but we had both interviewed Justice Ginsburg for previous projects in 2011, and I think Julie in 2013. In 2013 that was just when she was getting a lot of attention for the very blistering dissents that she was writing and the court was moving to the right. She was becoming the Notorious RBG on the internet. At a certain point in early 2015, Julie and I looked at each other and said, ‘Justice Ginsburg has all these fans, but they don’t necessarily know the whole story.’ There’s just so much more to the story, like her work as a crusading litigator on behalf of gender equity, and also we knew then about this feminist romance. So, we were attracted to this because we thought it was so interesting, and so important and would speak to many people, both men and women. That’s when we said, ‘Hey, someone should make a documentary and it should be us.’


LANGUE: There is also a lot to be said about millennial women right now in terms of voting and feminism. For instance, 54% of millennial women don’t identify as feminists and only 28% of young voters say that they’ll certainly vote in the 2018 midterms. What do you think RBG would say to get people voting and identifying as feminists?

COHEN: I’m not sure that Justice Ginsburg would say anything in particular to women to get them to vote. But, I think her whole life story, and everything she’s done in her career and her personal life, really speaks volumes about what women can accomplish when they put their minds to it, and the power of coming forward and speaking up. In her case the power had to do with what she accomplished as a young attorney at a time when it was not at all recognized widely in this country that our constitution might guarantee equal rights for men and women. That was a radical notion at the time that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was arguing in front of the Supreme Court, and she spoke up and moved that point from being a crazy, zany idea, to being the law of the land. That’s pretty good!

WEST: I don’t know the specifics of voter turnout and I’m interested to hear the percentage you gave for millennial women. As someone who has been in the workforce for a number of decades, I have seen a shift in recent years in the way people consider the word feminist. There was something of a backlash to the women’s movement in the 1980s and feminism became the “F” word a little bit. Feminists were lacking in a sense of humor, they were boring, dogmatic, anti-male, you name the stereotype. I think that there’s been something of a shift that I witnessed really in the past decade. Beyoncé put feminist in neon lights behind her. A lot of celebrities and millennial women in general are a little more willing to embrace the idea of feminism. Certainly, Justice Ginsburg has said that she considers herself a feminist and probably a humanist. She believes gender equity is good for all of us—men and women—and that this is something that helped our society as a whole. She’s never wavered in that. I think that millennial women are beginning to understand exactly what she did to make that possible and how the definition of feminism can include a supreme court justice who has used her talents for the good of our society and having a fabulous and romantic marriage at the same time.


LANGUE: I, too, was shocked when I read the percentages. Do you think that some women think the work is done, and so they no longer need to publicly identify with feminism?

COHEN: Certainly some women might argue that the work is done I think maybe they’re incorrect. There’s always backlash to women’s progress. It has been an ongoing thing in our society for many decades. Probably even many centuries. Every time there is a step forward there’s people saying, ‘Oh, you’re going too far.’ I guess the hope would be that the example and the cultural popularity of someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg would help kind of push that the other way. People that look at her and admire her would sort of have to rethink some of their stereotypes of what they think a feminist is. Just like a figure like Beyonce, by publicly proclaiming herself a feminist, actually does a lot. People are like, ‘Oh, no, she’s not horrible! She’s not someone who’s not fun, and beautiful, and sexy. She’s cool! She’s a feminist? Interesting.’ A lot of young women really admire RBG. They understand she’s a feminist. In fact, I believe the phrase she’s used about herself is, ‘flaming feminist.’ She kind of wears it loudly and proudly. Part of the problem with people in movements seeking progress is that there’s always an attempt to cast them as being uncool. She’s kind of bringing feminist-cool to the fore.

WEST: I think that a lot of feminists in the 1970s were expecting more rapid change in our society. The fact that congress is still—women are still underrepresented in the halls of power in 2018 is maybe surprising to people who fought in the early 70s. We were making huge changes. Gloria Steinem talked about how it takes a hundred years for real lasting change to happen, and there are swings of the pendulum. But, if you really look at where we are now compared to where we were in the 1970s, as Julie said, it’s just most people accept the fact that women deserve equal citizenship under the law and that was not the case in the early 70s and that is huge. So, there has been a lot of progress made, but there’s more to go.


LANGUE: Do you guys think there will be a female president in the near future?

COHEN: We are filmmakers, not prognosticators. We’re probably getting out of our power zone. I think anyone looking at our political landscape would have to say two things. First, there’s no predicting what the heck is gonna happen at any point and I think any woman running for president is facing an uphill battle. More uphill than most. I’m not saying it’s never gonna happen. Someday, it will happen. Being a woman is a drawback for a percentage of some of the public. I think it would make it harder to win votes. Someday it will happen.

WEST: Some people have suggested that a Republican woman would have a better shot at becoming a president before a democrat. Who knows? As Julie said, it’s a very unpredictable political landscape and as you suggested, there are a ton of women who are entering the political landscape this year across the spectrum. All kinds of different women, with different points of view, that’s very heartening.


LANGUE: What was the process like for you guys to make this film? There were a lot of different perspectives, but very, very valued voices throughout the film itself. Of course, it’s centered on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but we got to hear from family members, childhood friends, her granddaughter specifically. Even the cameos with Antonin Scalia, which I found very interesting just because of how different the two of them were. Just making sure that you could consider everyone’s voice, perspective, and point of view—what was that like?

COHEN: Just hearing you describe it reminds me of how much fun it was. Yes, there were a wide variety of people we were filming and a wide variety of themes and context in which we were filming with Justice Ginsburg. That variety is what made the process so illuminating for us as filmmakers.

WEST: Our organizing principles were to find people who really had played a significant role throughout her life. So, that’s what we were looking for as opposed to necessarily commentators on her. Most of the people that we interviewed had a significant connection to her. That’s what I hope helped bring her to life, bring the various aspects of her personality to life. The fact that she is a very reserved and quiet person, it was wonderful to hear her childhood friends sort of talk about what she was like as a young girl. She didn’t talk much, she wasn’t calling up on the phone and gossiping. She was a serious person, but she had a kind of charisma even then, and that carried through. We were bringing her to life with people who knew her—who know her.


LANGUE: I just have to say, watching the film, Ruth Bader Ginsburg--as much as we know about her--she still has this air of being very enigmatic. As much as she wants to reveal about herself is revealed, and nothing more, or nothing less. I think that was very interesting to just watch her interact in the film, and see a bit more life to her instead of just knowing her as the “Great Dissenter.”

WEST: Just to pick up on that, I think that our editor, Carla Gutierrez did a fantastic job in helping to illuminate her personality and to show her quiet sense of humor, the sparkle in her eyes, the moments where she was lively, smiling and laughing. She does have a great sense of humor, she loves to laugh. We were thrilled when we showed her Saturday Night Live, which was the parody, that was a complete surprise to her and her reaction to it was very genuine and quite wonderful. But, Carla did a very good job in editing the film in a way to give you time to spend with Justice Ginsburg, who is a kind of quiet, reserved person who doesn’t quickly emote, or feel that she needs to fill the spaces.

COHEN: Agreeing with that, and I agree with you, Christel. What was nice about what we were able to capture on film, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg in particular, a little bit more from a sly smile than you can from her actual words. She generally uses her words quite carefully. When she’s having a moment of sheer delight, you can feel that.


LANGUE: Both of you have a good amount of political background, so what do you think is next for you guys? Are you just going to sit on this project for a little bit and let it marinate while the American political landscape continues to combust and implode? Or, do you have any other tricks up your sleeve?

COHEN: We’re not just gonna be sitting and marinating! We’re trying to use the opportunity that the popularity of this film has presented to tell more stories about women whose lives maybe American history hasn’t considered enough. I’m not sure I would agree with the characterization of that as political in the way we usually talk about politics. Electoral politics isn’t so much what we’re interested in, but there is something to what you’re saying. There is something inherently political to telling the stories that aren’t usually told.

WEST: Yeah, I think so. We both have backgrounds as journalists and we do consider ourselves journalists. We have focused on an area that has been largely ignored by the media until recently, which is a great opportunity. There are a lot of fantastic stories to be told that we think will resonate with audiences in today’s climate--political, social, or otherwise.


LANGUE: Now that we see Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s huge popularity with this movie, it’s almost as if it’s become part of the phenomenon. Every time I mention Justice Ginsburg, everybody mentions this film. Did you expect it to blow up to the magnitude that it has?

COHEN: In a word, no. We hoped and expected that the film would get some traction and that there would be some public and audience interest. What’s unfolded has been beyond those thoughts, hopes, and expectations.

BW: I think it’s been very gratifying to see the different audiences that have responded to the film, certainly older women who know what the world was like have responded very emotionally to the film. Really young girls who identify with Justice Ginsburg, 7, 8, 9 year olds who show up wearing collars and just love the idea of this tiny older woman in a place of power. That’s great, and I think your generation of younger women who are just entering the workforce or having been there for 10 years or so, and men too! A lot of men get in touch with us and that’s very gratifying. We’re really glad that it’s touched many audiences. This story is universal.

RBG is currently in theatres worldwide and can be accessed on demand via cable/satellite systems, CNNgo platforms, and CNN mobile apps.



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