America’s Sex Therapist is 90 and Not Slowing Down
DIRECTED BY RYAN WHITE/2019
If celebrity was a machine, it would be one that reduces. I don’t mean reducing in size, exactly, but in complexity. Complications, contradictions, quirks – all eliminated in favor of a lowest-common-denominator shorthand. Easily caricatured. Easily marketed.
This has never been more true than in the case of Dr. Ruth Westheiemer. Who is she? Why, she’s the tiny sex therapist with the big smile and the German accent! There’s your shorthand! It worked like a charm when Dr. Ruth was all over talk shows and advertising and even tried her hand at acting. But unsurprisingly, there’s alway been more to Dr. Ruth than her 4’7” frame, her girlish laugh, and her willingness to answer any question – really, just about any question – when it comes to sex.
The new documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, directed by Ryan White, reverses that celebrity machine and gives us a picture of Karola Ruth Westheimer that contains far more tragedy and courage and spirit and stubbornness than we could ever see when she was making David Letterman blush, or advertising Herbal Essence (“Try the body wash!”).
Dr. Ruth was not a reluctant star. It’s clear from Ask Dr. Ruth that she loves the limelight and the attention of her fans. She’s also a compulsive doer, with an energy level that defies comprehension. She does not walk down the street: she hustles, at a pace I’m sure I would have trouble maintaining. At 90, she still teaches classes at Columbia University, does public appearances, writes, and like a good grandma, encourages everyone around her to eat something.
Yes, there’s that, too. Dr. Ruth is a mother and grandmother. Her first two marriages were brief – Dr. Ruth speaks warmly of her ex-husbands, but dismissively of the relationships. But in her third marriage, to Fred Westheimer, this unstoppable woman found a partner for life. Together they raised two children, both interviewed in the documentary. Dr. Ruth’s four grandchildren also appear. It’s from her children and grandchildren that we get some of the most interesting insights into Dr. Ruth’s character: that she spoke very little to her own children about sexuality, that she resists calling herself a feminist, that this women who endured unspeakable tragedy only shed tears in front of her daughter once, when her husband died.
Onscreen Dr. Ruth seems both forthright and guarded. She talks freely about her first sexual experience, but brushes off several of White’s inquiries with “What a stupid question!” She controls her image tightly and absolutely never discusses politics. Except, of course, when she does – because matters of sexuality and politics are always entangled in this country. Dr. Ruth was always an outspoken advocate for abortion rights and a supporter of the gay community even during the AIDS crisis (or perhaps, especially, during the AIDS crisis). This made her a foe of the family values crowd, as did her frank discussions of masturbation, fetishes, and other formerly taboo topics. It now seems almost quaint, some of the things she said that caused a stir. Whether our current frankness about sex is seen as a blessing or a curse may vary, but it’s hard to argue with Dr. Ruth’s driving sexual ethics: consent, openness, and mutual satisfaction.
Ask Dr. Ruth is a solid examination of Dr. Ruth’s life, if a bit predictable in its structure. There are lengthy animated sequences of her early life, perhaps necessary since footage and photos are lacking for that period. The film is a worthy partner to last year’s RBG – both films about smart, ambitious, high-achieving women long viewed as liberal icons, who turn out to be so much more, including beloved Jewish grandmothers. “Having it all” is still a demanding vision given to us by the Women’s Movement, but some people like Dr. Ruth seem to come awfully close.