It is not so simple to state things simply. To hear it done, then, on late-night television programs, radio shows, sitcoms, morning news panels and daytime talk shows, is to feel both the wholesomeness of the act (finally, someone is saying it!) and its illicit nature (I can’t believe someone is saying it!).
And when the source of such frank talk is a diminutive, bespectacled 90-year-old, Jewish woman, speaking in English and dunked in thickly accented German, it’s also quite funny.
That Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s cultural reach remains so wide after so long is a testament to the feeling she has created by speaking plainly about sex for decades. And the new documentary that chronicles her life thus far, Ask Dr. Ruth, captures it nicely.
Dr. Ruth, as she’s known, has been in the public eye since 1981, when she made her first appearance on WYNY-FM to take calls and give advice on sex, love and relationships. Her qualification for the role came not only in her status as a licensed sex therapist, but as a deeply empathetic listener who had no time for innuendo, and asked that you just come out and say it. This is often to great comic effect; in an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, she insists that he use the word clitoris.
If it were simply funny, it would not quite explain her reach. The filmmakers show how Dr. Ruth’s plain speaking was so often employed for good, and why her popularity exploded in the way that it did. When few public figures were willing to speak in defense of homosexuality, Dr. Ruth was there to defend the rights of consenting adults in the privacy of their bedrooms; when even fewer were willing to talk about HIV/AIDS, she was there again. She sought (and still seeks) to dispel myths about orgasms and lack thereof (she visibly bristles when a male audience member uses the term “frigid”).
Men and women alike call in to her radio show and daytime talk show, knowing they’re on the air, knowing that Dr. Ruth will not allow them to obfuscate when they ask about the most intimate of subjects. When a man hesitates as he’s asking a question about his wife and a vibrator, Dr. Ruth smiles sweetly and asks him bluntly: Would he like to see his wife use the vibrator? Yes, he admits. Then just buy her one, she says. End of call.
Ask Dr. Ruth splices the major plot points of her career with interviews with children and confidantes, which are revealing in themselves. Her agent speaks to her indefatigable nature, and her adult children do the same. They theorize that part of the reason their mother has worked so hard for so long and continues to do so is that to stop and consider for a moment the tragedies of her life — parents killed in the Holocaust; third and most loved husband felled years ago by a stroke — would be too dreadful to bear. And so when she flashes her newest book to the camera, noting that it is her 40th, one feels both her pride and her sadness.
One particularly interesting interview comes with one of her granddaughters. She is of a generation of young, liberal women who want to proudly proclaim themselves feminists in action and in personal branding, and Dr. Ruth is often claimed as a feminist icon; she married and divorced as she pleased, spoke about women’s sexual pleasure at a time when it was nearly impossible to do so and raised children in New York City on her own while pursuing postgraduate degrees.
And yet her granddaughter is reduced to cajoling her into calling herself a feminist, which she finally does, with some reluctance. Dr. Ruth, in doing what most might call political seems to see her work as simply speaking the unspoken.
Much of what she’s accomplished, she says, noting particularly her HIV/AIDS advocacy, is a response to having once been a victim of the Holocaust. Taken to a Swiss orphanage by the kindertransport, she spent many of her formative years sweeping the floors and mending the clothing of the Swiss children who were above her station. These flashbacks, as well as the ones to her time in Israel, are nicely animated and retain the emotional weight of the rest of the movie.
Her life in Israel, however, feels curiously unexamined compared to other parts of her life. She was a sniper in the Haganah and was nearly killed by a mortar, but precious little time is given to this period in her life. Additionally, a reenactment of her running to the basement of the building struck by said mortar is jarringly out of touch with the rest of the movie, as it seems to have been filmed by someone running down the stairs with a low-quality hand-held camera. An odd choice, to say the least.
Ask Dr. Ruth is at its best when she is laughing. Hers is an infectious, wonderful laugh, and always in good humor. Even when she’s lightly chastising her advice-seekers for gingerly tiptoeing around their desires, it’s not mocking them for their prudishness. It’s a laugh that says, look, even I, 4-foot-7 and with the memory of the Holocaust, can say these things with ease. Why shouldn’t anyone be able to?
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