At 89 years of age Dr Ruth Westheimer is every bit the outspoken sex expert we know (and love) her to be. Her advice? “Don’t just sit there and suffer. Don’t fake it. Do something about it.” And that is exactly the message director Ryan White portrays in this heartening new documentary Ask Dr Ruth. The film tracks the extraordinary life and career of Westheimer from her humble and tragic beginnings as a holocaust survivor to a buzzing jam-packed schedule of lecturing, authoring, and personal appearances. Not to mention her larger than life personality despite her charmingly petite frame, “I love anything that is small and perfect. Like me.”
While the film centres on Westheimer’s incredible self-made career as a world-renowned psychologist and sex therapist and her status as a pop culture icon, it also explores her traumatic past as a child of the Holocaust. After being forced to leave Frankfurt and her parents on a Kinder transport and sent to an orphanage in Switzerland 10-year-old Westheimer spent her childhood witnessing the very worst of humanity. Denied a high school education because she was a girl, Westheimer spent her nights reading borrowed textbooks and it was this dedication to her studies that sparked a lifelong passion for learning and educating others.
The retelling of Westheimer’s childhood is beautifully captured with stunning hand-drawn illustrations that emphasise the dichotomy between her innocence as a little girl and the brutality of Nazi Germany. This aspect of the film is offset with the traditional documentary trope of incorporated archive footage and interviews with her family and closest friends.
The documentary maps the length and breadth of her extraordinary career beginning with her radio show Sexually Speaking which started as a pre-recorded 15-minute segment airing weekly at midnight to her widely successful TV show Ask Dr Ruth, where Westheimer established herself as a household name.
While allegations and criticisms of highly explicit language and “reckless advice” come thick and fast, Westheimer cheekily admits that the only reason she can get away with what she says is because of her age and height; “I’m an older woman, not tall and blonde and gorgeous.”
Her important work defending and advocating for planned parenthood, the LGBTQ+ community, and the Aides crisis of the 80s and 90s has also marked her as a champion for the misunderstood and unaccepted. And she attributes her progressive world-view and all-accepting outlook to the hard lessons learnt under Nazi rule, especially for those seen as “subhuman” because of their way of life.
The documentary celebrates Dr Ruth’s status as the goddess of good sex and her role in promoting healthy and satisfying choices for all people. Her no-nonsense approach to talking about sex works to breakdown taboos and discomfort making her a pioneer not only in the academic community but also wider popular culture.
Ask Dr Ruth cements the true identity of Westheimer as a woman determined to tackle the opportunities and challenges life presents with joy, kindness and an overwhelming sense of gratitude and love. And no one says it better than she: “After all of the things I have survived, I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.”
Review by Isabelle Aswad