Sundance London ’19: ‘Ask Dr.Ruth’ is a Feature-Length Dedication to Everyone’s Favourite Sex Therapist

Known as the grandmother of sexual liberation, the minute figure of Dr. Ruth Westheimer is an anachronism amongst the mainstream American prudishness of the 1980s. She speaks with a forthright, scientific approach to sexual pleasure, bound to the philosophy that if something isn’t working in the bedroom (or in the living room, or on the kitchen table), then the problem should be remedied, rather than ignored. Even today, her distinctive image still rings as a delightful oddity. Imagine: your lovely gentle Granny telling an audience of millions that they need to utilise the clitoris to achieve orgasm. This is the scene that many envision when considering Dr. Ruth’s career – yet, as Ask Dr. Ruth admirably proves, there is so, so much more to this incredible woman than first meets the eye.

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Dr. Ruth Westheimer in Ask Dr. Ruth (2019) © Sundance Institute

The documentary begins with Dr. Ruth conversing with Alexa – yes, the Amazon robot – in a charming introduction to a ninety year old who is clearly happy to move with the times. Dr. Ruth laughs as she asks Alexa if she’ll get a boyfriend; “Sorry, I can’t answer that,” the robot abruptly replies, to the complete amusement of both subject and audience. This is a perfect setup for a film which will continue to explore Dr. Ruth’s extraordinarily lovable personality, alongside a deep respect for her academic achievements. 

A crucial element of Dr. Ruth’s life, which is heavily featured within the documentary, is her status as a Holocaust survivor, something which the woman herself believes influenced her straightforward approach to love and relationships. In the film’s first crucial mistake, the incredibly personal story of Dr. Ruth’s experience as a Jewish Kindertransport refugee is told through a series of animations with an American voiceover, distinctly separating the lonely, independent teenager shown on screen from the eclectic career that followed decades later. As a tale of continued growth, Ask Dr. Ruth doesn’t quite manage to capture the coherence of Dr. Ruth’s story as both a ‘survivor’ and a modern day hero, instead relying on the brilliance of its subject to carry the film through. It is instead through interviews that her existence as a Jewish refugee, her feelings of displacement when living in a Swiss orphanage, and her love for America as her true home shine beautifully: despite her considerable wealth, she remains living in the Washington Heights apartment she has resided in for decades, in a “neighbourhood full of immigrants”. After such a traumatic childhood, the knowledge that this remarkable individual has found true contentment is a real comfort.

Elsewhere in the film, archive footage of Dr. Ruth’s various appearances on television iconise her wisdom on the topic which everyone thought about, but never really had the confidence to speak plainly about; sex and more particularly, sexual problems in tandem with relationship difficulties. Outside of its central subject, however, the documentary again falls flat in contextualising Dr. Ruth’s rise to fame. The topic of sex therapy as a whole is only skimmed upon, as are the changing attitudes to sexuality in American culture in the 70s and 80s; the AIDs crisis (or, as I like to call it, the systematic murder of a community which the Reagan administration deemed unworthy of basic human rights) is discussed briefly, but this is an outlier within a film that doesn’t quite know where in history to place Dr. Ruth. As an individual, of course, her work was groundbreaking, but it is a pity to overlook the circumstances in which this change occurred.

Despite some flaws in execution and an over-reliance on the effervescence of its subject, Ask Dr. Ruth works as an introduction to this once-controversial American figure, with a heartwarming sense of positivity towards healthy, open communication. As an academic, as a proud immigrant, as a mother and a wife and a television personality, Dr. Ruth is impossible not to love – but it is her almost selfless concern for the lives of everyday people that makes her a true icon of the sexual revolution.

Ask Dr. Ruth is available now on Hulu.

For the rest of our Sundance London coverage, click here.

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