Last night my nine year old son and I went to see RBG, the documentary about the life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Hot damn, was it fantastic — we both loved it. As a mom, I loved looking over at my son during the film, his face lit by the screen in the dark theater, and see how completely engaged he was in this doc about the life and times of the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court.
I didn’t quite know what to expect, but knew when I saw the trailer being pushed on Mother’s Day that I wanted to go see it and I wanted to go see it with my boy. Was it about women’s rights? One woman’s impact on the Supreme Court? A love story? Yes, to all of those.
Primarily, I wanted to have my son understand that many of the rights women take for granted now did not exist in the days when his mama was a youngster. I wanted him to understand that history is closer than one might expect and often influenced in immeasurable ways by one courageous individual.
As the film opened with shots of Washington, D.C. monuments and iconic buildings, my boy took my arm and started hopping in his seat. Last month we were there together seeing those same sights while on the Hill to advocate for better resources for childhood cancer. You can read a Chicago Tribune account of that trip here. The shots of RBG on the steps of the Supreme Court had a relevance for him they might not have had before the trip. I could see his excitement and the connections he was making in real time. It was a proud mama moment for me.
The film is cut exquisitely, making it interesting for adults, while accessible for kids, too. There are interviews with Ginsburg’s childhood friends, her two grown children, former colleagues, the president who appointed her to SCOTUS, and young activists who were inspired enough by her to coin the now popular moniker and aptly named tumblr site, The Notorious RBG. There’s a soundtrack that is vibrant and bold and engaging and uplifting. It’s all just so damn good.
Being a white woman raising two young white sons, the weight of helping them evolve into good citizens who are aware of their privilege in American culture rests heavy with me. I take the task very seriously, even more so because of our current political climate. RBG is just another tool I now have, as their mother, to help them understand their role, their place, their responsibilities, and relevant history.
Ginsburg’s story is an inspiring one, with universal themes. After seeing it, there are a few that stand out that will promote great discussion with my boy, and yours, too. In no particular order:
- The film provides a window into the love story between Ruth and her husband, Marty. The couple met in college, on the heels of the death of Ruth’s mother. “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain,” says Ruth in the movie. My boys are being raised in a home where both Mom and Dad cook, clean, and provide child care. For them, this is typical, but there was a time, detailed in the movie, when this was revolutionary. It’s important to let our sons know that equality does not stop at the front door of our homes.
- Audio clips and old photo stills are used to explain a time when the justices of the Supreme Court simply did not comprehend the reality of gender discrimination, including Justice Thurgood Marshall, who helped the Courts see the inherent wrongs of racial discrimination. I learned that Ruth patterned her strategy of using the courts to address gender discrimination by following the playbook Marshall had used almost two and three decades earlier to overturn systemic racial discrimination in American institutions. These are important connections for a kid to make!
- We learn that it was President Carter, in the 1970s, who determined that the vast majority of federal judges looked a lot like him — white and male. He pledged to appoint more women and more African Americans to the bench. Ruth was one of those appointees. This is a great example of a white man using corrective action to achieve equity. Ruth was no less deserving than those white men sitting on the bench (and probably a hell of a lot more deserving than some), but it took a President to address the bias that existed that prevented women and African Americans from being represented.
Honestly, I could go on and on with themes and discussion points that make this movie so relevant for little boys to see, but school pick-up time is right around the corner, and I gots to go. That kid isn’t going to get himself home, know what I mean? My point is, don’t let the idea that a documentary about a Supreme Court Justice would hold no interest for your son. This is a sharp, engaging, relevant movie for our young sons (and daughters) to see. Take them. Talk about what you see. Cheer RBG on and enjoy showing your boy that some women are made of steel and lace.
If you like what I wrote above, read my previous post, “Ten Things I Am Doing to Raise Feminist Sons.”