Ryan White’s Ask Dr. Ruth is the latest in a string of recent documentaries (RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) that profile trailblazing liberal figures in modern American history. This time around, the liberal figure in question is Dr. Ruth Westheimer. A tiny woman (only four and a half feet tall) who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, Westheimer became famous in the 1980s for hosting TV and radio shows about sex. On these shows, she not only freely dispensed sex advice, but she also engaged in frank discussion about then-taboo subjects like AIDS, contraception, masturbation, and homosexuality.
Given what she’s known for, you’d think that Westheimer grew up in some kind of hippie commune. As Ask Dr. Ruth shows us, however, Westheimer’s life story is actually full of great hardship and tragedy. Born in Germany to Jewish parents, Westheimer was sent to a Swiss orphanage in January 1939, eight months before the outbreak of World War II. Although she consequently survived the war, her parents ended up being murdered in Auschwitz.
After the war ended in 1945, moreover, Westheimer found herself wandering around the globe. First, she immigrated to Palestine and fought as a sniper in the Israeli War of Independence. When an explosion then put her out of action, she moved to Paris and studied psychology at the University of Paris. In 1956, she finally immigrated to New York, where she worked as a researcher and professor before eventually starting her broadcasting career in 1980.
Overall, Ask Dr. Ruth has several things to recommend it as a film. Like RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, for one, White’s work spotlights a figure whose accomplishments have largely been forgotten by younger generations. Unlike its predecessors, moreover, Ask Dr. Ruth also does a fairly decent job of showing how controversial Westheimer once was, providing footage of evangelical and conservative figures who denounced Westheimer’s permissive views.
Sadly, Ask Dr. Ruth is ultimately weighed down by two major problems. To start, it’s quite cheesy. Many of the scenes feature soppy background music that tries to manipulate you into feeling compassion for Westheimer. Furthermore, in order to retell the story of Westheimer’s life, White frequently relies on animated re-enactments, a decision that melodramatizes material that’s already quite dramatic by itself.
In the end, however, the biggest issue with Ask Dr. Ruth is that it’s just too tame. By choosing to focus almost exclusively on Westheimer’s personality and biography, White advances a relatively “safe” vision of feminism. To put it somewhat differently, the film’s central irony is that it presents feminism, an inherently radical doctrine, in the form of a sweet old lady who talks of “true love” and makes comments that are always cute, funny, and inoffensive. If you want a film that challenges or provokes you in the way that Westheimer once did for millions of Americans, Ask Dr. Ruth just isn’t it.