Two women who came of age in the wake of women’s liberation, whose determination landed them at the top of their respective fields: fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are each legends in their own right. Their biographies in many ways couldn’t be more different. Born in the tiny parish of Tintwistle, England, Westwood made her way to London and began designing clothes in the back of a shop she rented with her then-boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren. Malcolm and Vivienne were at the epicenter of, and in some ways even invented, the punk era in Britain. McLaren became the manager of the Sex Pistols, and Vivienne designed the band’s iconic, irreverent clothing: safety-pinned t-shirts, images of swastikas and inverted crucifixes. In the documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (dir. Lorna Tucker), Westwood is reticent about these years and dismisses punk as a movement that commercialized itself and thus forfeited its own power. The film compensates for Westwood’s refusal to delve into her past with archival imagery of Sid Vicious wearing Westwood’s designs, and a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum to view their collection of Westwood’s punk-era clothing. These forays into the past never quite convey the impact that the punk era had on the fashion that followed, and the filmmakers don’t interview other designers who may have been able to shed light on Westwood’s influence.
Fast forward to Westwood’s fashion empire and her uneasy relationship between fashion and capital. For years, the designer has been engaged in an effort to reconcile her concern for environmental issues, such as climate change, with her fashion empire. We see, in a brief segment, her travels with Greenpeace to the Arctic Circle to view the melting glaciers, and Westwood herself briefly addresses her concern to limit the amount of waste produced by her own company. Ultimately, though, an overreliance on Westwood’s—albeit clever and forceful—voice results in a missed opportunity for the film to convey clearly the designer’s stance on the fundamental contradiction of her life: the conflict between conservation and commerce.
By the time Ginsburg sat for her interviews, she was able to speak as she saw fit, providing understated but piercing commentary, but the burden for her to tell her life’s story did not rest solely on her shoulders.
RBG (dir. Betsy West and Julie Cohen), by contrast, accomplishes with its tidy structure what Westwood does not: it evinces the power of Ginsburg’s indelible impact on contemporary culture. One of the perks of living in Santa Fe is that, during the high tourist season, one of the directors of RBG happened to be vacationing here and offered to do a Q&A at the end of the film. So I know from Julie Cohen that Ginsburg, either from wariness or simply busyness, didn’t grant the filmmakers an immediate interview, but put them off for almost exactly two years. During that time, West and Cohen interviewed a slew of people, including childhood friends; law school classmates; Ginsburg’s two children; Bill Clinton, who appointed Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993; and plaintiffs from some of Ginsburg’s most important early victories for gender equality. By the time Ginsburg sat for her interviews, she was able to speak as she saw fit, providing understated but piercing commentary, but the burden for her to tell her life’s story did not rest solely on her shoulders.
Two threads guide the trajectory of RBG: one is archival video of Ginsburg’s Supreme Court nomination hearing, during which she offers a coherent and compelling recap of her decades-long career as an advocate for women’s rights. The film’s other anchor is the narrative of her relationship with her husband Marty, who appears during Ruth’s first semester as an undergraduate at Cornell, and whose tireless efforts to support her career are prominent in most interviewees’ recollections. Like Westwood, RBG ranges back and forth through time and subjects, but because of these signposts, Ginsburg’s biography emerges as an almost inevitable trajectory, whereas Westwood’s appears more like the woman herself: mercurial and rebellious.