Hulu’s new documentary on the life of pioneering sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer balances lifelong tragedies with her undying sense of joy.
There’s an America before Dr. Ruth, and there’s an America after Dr. Ruth, and we should feel blessed to live in the latter.
With her diminutive frame, thick European accent and frank but joyful discussion of sex and other taboo subjects, Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer became a cultural icon in the ’80s, still going strong at 90 with a parade of teaching jobs, media appearances, and book deals. (Think of her as the Agnes Varda of fucking.) Director Ryan White‘s new doc Ask Dr. Ruth – which hits select theaters this weekend before a June premiere on Hulu – lets us see beyond the prurient tittering of short German ladies talking about vaginas and peers deeper into Ruth’s life, one filled with unexpected tragedies and a deep search for identity.
The first thing White wants us to see in Ask Dr. Ruth‘s opening minutes is that Dr. Ruth is as spry and full of joy as ever. “Alexa, who is Dr. Ruth?” she cheekily asks her Amazon Echo, her reedy accent forcing Alexa into a few false starts. But when Alexa finally gets it right, she beams to the camera and says, “See? She knows who I am!” More than her accolades and literally dozens of books, more than her tireless work ethic and tragic history, White wants you to know that Dr. Ruth is just as adorable as she seems on TV.
And that she is; much of Ask Dr. Ruth‘s charm lies in just letting the camera rest on this charming old bubbe as she flirts with decades-old childhood boyfriends, exchanges banter with White and the camera crew, and drops matronly wisdom on everyone around her. White’s smartest approach is to get out of her way, letting Dr. Ruth take center stage so she can delight with her adorable vulgarity.
Even in her old age, she can’t be stopped: she has a “minister of communications” who organizes her wall-to-wall schedule, and she’s putting out four books in total this year. At one point, she tells the cameraman that she wants to “show you I can still walk fast”, power-walking away from the camera at lightning speed. More than her frank talk about sex, Dr. Ruth’s joyfulness is perhaps her greatest treasure.
But the doc is more than a personality piece, opening up many chapters of her life you wouldn’t expect if you just knew Dr. Ruth from TV and radio. With the help of dreamlike, motion comic-esque animations, White visualizes Dr. Ruth’s recountings of her childhood in Germany, her parents sending her away to live in an orphanage to spare her from the Holocaust. It’s a hell of a thing to see Dr. Ruth walk into an Israeli gun collector’s home and recount her tales of being a rooftop sniper for the Israeli Army, the tiny 90-year-old loading bullets into a sniper rifle the whole time.
She’s lived a long life, and White follows his subject’s lead in depicting these nuggets of history with remarkable matter-of-factness. After all, this litany of tragedies helped make her who she is today. Even as she goes to the Holocaust Museum to look through records and learn the ultimate fate of her parents (her father was murdered in Auschwitz; her mother’s cause of death, unknown), she processes her grief with a glimmer of hope that things will be better. Perhaps that fuels her unending stream of sex education work – a need to put more light and hope into the world as much as a deflecting tactic to avoid dealing with loss.
Honestly, the parts of Ask Dr. Ruth actually chronicling her rise to fame as an acclaimed radio and TV sex therapist and personality are a bit rushed. That’s probably by necessity, though; anyone watching this already knows how Dr. Ruth talks about sex, and how it made her famous. Still, it’s a stark reminder that just thirty years ago, American culture was far more conservative about sex and sexuality than it was before she came along. Diving headfirst into sexual taboos in tantalizing but accessible ways, Dr. Ruth showed men the importance of centering female pleasure while giving women the opportunity to express their own sexual needs more assertively.
Much like Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Ask Dr. Ruth shines a heartwarming spotlight on one of America’s greatest televised teachers.
More important, though, is the way she advocated publicly for many progressive social issues, from gay rights to abortion – particularly in the Reagan era, where HIV/AIDS dehumanized the LGBT community and the fight to overturn Roe v. Wade began in earnest. As the doc asserts, we have Dr. Ruth to thank for a lot of the openness and knowledge about sex we enjoy today regarding sexuality – not to mention the extent to which women have control over their bodies and pleasure.
And yet, for someone who normalized words like “vagina” and “clitoris” in the modern lexicon, the one word she still finds taboo is “feminist.” It’s a topic of slight discomfort for her when her daughter and granddaughter bring it up; she associates it with second-wave activist stunts like bra-burning. “I’m not a feminist, I’m a square,” she clarifies. Even if she doesn’t adopt the terminology, Ask Dr. Ruth makes clear she’s a modern feminist’s best friend.
From a formal perspective, Ask Dr. Ruth doesn’t reinvent the documentary format. But with a subject as vibrant, interesting, and just plain fun as Dr. Ruth, you don’t really need to. Much like Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Ask Dr. Ruth shines a heartwarming spotlight on one of America’s greatest televised teachers. But where Mr. Rogers taught kids about the power of sharing, Dr. Ruth showed adults the power of sexing.
While we still have a long way to go (especially in an administration that seems to be rolling back women’s and LGBT rights by the day), it’s important to remember who helped us get this far towards sex positivity in the first place. “What the world needs now is love, sweet love,” sang Burt Bacharach; without Dr. Ruth, there’d be a lot less love (and loving) in the world.
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