Ask Dr. Ruth is the latest documentary to land on Hulu that focuses on a female icon still fighting the good fight. The streaming platform appealed to the zeitgeist last year by nabbing the rights to the politically-tinged ode to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — RBG — a figure who has quietly become a pop culture phenomenon thanks to SNL impersonations and social media memes and merchandising that uses her likeness to clothe the resistance. But Hulu’s new documentary from Ryan White (The Keepers) on a woman of a certain age still wielding quite a bit of influence is less about igniting a revolution and more concerned with educating us on the impact of America’s most famous sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
If you were a child of the 80s and 90s, you’re probably familiar with Dr. Ruth’s work, so when the doc opens with clips of a pint-sized German woman being quizzed on penis size by the likes of David Letterman and Johnny Carson, you might laugh along as nostalgia takes root. Dr. Ruth was often relegated to late-night viewing where she had free reign to discuss a range of sexual taboos without offending daytime TV sensibilities.
It’s funny of course, to see this grandmother spouting off sexual terminology to sputtering male talk show hosts, a way to break the ice and introduce, or re-introduce, Dr. Ruth to the masses, but it’s also quietly revolutionary. This woman was talking about clitoral stimulation and orgasms at a time when just the word “vagina” was enough to scandalize the midwestern masses. And she was doing it with the kind of chutzpah that makes our scandalized outrage at graphic content these days seem, well, ridiculous.
For Dr. Ruth, her rise to fame from a radio talk-show host who got more listeners in her 10 p.m. time-slot than the morning rush hour guys, to a TV personality with a Simpsons’ caricature, was proof that America needed to be educated on sex, specifically, “good sex.”
The doc explores this, tracing Dr. Ruth’s war-torn beginnings as a child trying to survive the Holocaust, separated from her family and forced to fend for herself in an orphanage in Switzerland while her parents were sent to concentration camps. Ruth became a self-reliant young woman because of this, something that, however inadvertently, shaped her views on sex.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to correlate the idea of empowering female sexuality back to the [fact] that she had to make her way in the world as a young girl on her own,” White told Uproxx during the Tribeca Film Festival. “She had no one except herself and therefore, she had to take all the responsibilities for herself.”
The film explores this sense of independence the war fostered for Dr. Ruth. She escaped to Israel where she fought with the Israeli army for a time. She found her first husband by flirting with the hottest male nurse in the building and she left him to pursue her education. Her second husband, she describes in the doc, bored her with his stupidity and when she moved to America, a single mother with no grasp of the language, she read romance novels to learn English. Dr. Ruth’s life is an exercise in autonomy, so it only seems right that her professional career would be dedicated to gifting others a sense of control over such an intimate part of life.
White scoured through hundreds of hours of footage to reacquaint himself with just how much of a maverick Dr. Ruth was in her time.
“I think I more remembered her as the lady I wasn’t supposed to listen to on television,” White says. “We looked at a lot of stuff about how television covered sexuality at that time. She really was revolutionary. I mean, some people may see it as tame today, the types of things she was doing, but I think she really paved the way for so many parts of sexuality that we considered standards, now. Dr. Ruth was part of that normalizing.”
Dr. Ruth championed gay rights and spoke out about the AIDS crisis during a time when doing either could earn you serious repercussions. Saying she was a pioneer for the LGTBQ community is one thing, but watching as she fields questions from callers back in the ’80s, men worried they’d contract AIDS because they shared a drink with their girlfriends who hung around with “homos” drives the point home. Dr. Ruth wasn’t just a resource of knowledge, a charming older woman who could talk about the birds and the bees without making you cringe, she was the sole voice cutting through clouds of ignorance and bigotry to help people not only tap into their deepest desires sexually but to accept themselves, to not be ashamed of who they were.
And while her life is filled with fascinating stories and awe-inducing accomplishments, it’s her work, how it’s shaped the way we talk about sex on TV, and how it’s still relevant some 30 years later, that deserves more attention.
Dr. Ruth was being heckled on stage, threatened with citizen’s arrests, and confined to late-night TV hours. In the years since her show aired, TV’s gotten more brazen, more committed to shock value. As White says, she probably wouldn’t survive in today’s TV landscape, but that doesn’t mean she’s not needed.
“Unfortunately, I think so much of the work that she was doing in the 80’s and 90’s is bubbling back up in ways that aren’t healthy,” White says. “Whether that’s a threat to funding to Planned Parenthood or the possibility of abortion not being legal anymore or the threat to LGBTQ rights and transgender rights. All these things that, 30 years ago, this woman was speaking about. I often get asked, ‘Who’s the Dr. Ruth of today?’ I don’t think that we have one. I just think we live in a different world that’s sexualized in such a different way. Dr. Ruth, first and foremost, was about education. She was not about anything confrontational. Which we see so much of on television today.”
We might be seeing more sex on TV than the 80s and 90s allowed, but it’s hard to tell if the sex has gotten better. For every scene shot with the female gaze or a consensual pairing on screen, there are hard-to-stomach rape scenes and full-frontal nudity that feel exploitative at best. What Dr. Ruth wanted talking about sex on TV to do was rid us of the stigma attached to it and encourage us to explore healthy ways to fulfill our sexual desires, to empower us in a way. And that might be the biggest strength of the new documentary charting her life’s work.
‘Ask Dr. Ruth’ begins streaming on Hulu on June 1st.