This past January marked the forty-ninth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which granted women the right to an abortion up to the third trimester of pregnancy. It may not get a fiftieth. In December 2021 the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, which would ban most abortions in the state of Mississippi after fifteen weeks if upheld. Though it can be a fool’s errand to predict the way a case will go, the conservative justices that now hold a 6-3 majority indicated in their lines of questioning a willingness to dismantle many of Roe’s protections. If you were born after 1973 it can seem a bit surreal to contemplate life without the guarantee of bodily autonomy, particularly if you have a uterus. It’s almost enough to make one yearn for a time when such questions were mostly theoretical, as they were when Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth was released in 1996.
Though the film is not based on her, Roe plaintiff Norma McCorvey had more in common with the title character than viewers might realize. She was living in Dallas and pregnant for the third time when she was referred to attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee; the two previous children had been given up for adoption. The “Roe baby” eventually would be as well – the case took more than three years of trials to reach the Supreme Court, and McCorvey never underwent the procedure she sought. Initially claiming to be a victim of rape, revealed in 1987 to be a lie, she was also a frequent drug user and drinker. Later in life she became a born-again Evangelical, and later still a Roman Catholic, joining the anti-abortion movement and getting arrested for heckling Sonia Sotomayor during her Senate confirmation hearing. Her relationship with the truth slippery to the end, McCorvey stated on her deathbed that she’d been a paid protestor and believed in a woman’s right to choose.
We’ll never know how much of her own story McCorvey did or didn’t fabricate, but what could politely be termed her “entrepreneurial spirit” lives on cinematically in Ruth Stoops. When we first meet Ruth she is in the midst of unpleasant-looking intercourse with a nameless man on a dirty mattress. In quick succession she will be kicked out of the apartment, beg $15 off her brother who’s taking care of two of her four kids, and use the money to buy patio sealant that she huffs out of a paper bag in a back alley.
As played by Laura Dern, Ruth is all id – bratty as a teenager, impetuous, manipulative, and single-minded in her selfishness. One of our most fearless actresses, Dern’s casting here plays like a funhouse mirror version of the characters she portrays for frequent collaborator David Lynch, twisted to satirical ends rather than horrific ones. It’s a performance remarkably devoid of vanity, not simply because of how realistically strung-out Dern looks, but because she’s able to sap Ruth of any redeeming qualities and still make her compelling to watch.
Picked up in the alley by a pair of cops who know her by name, Ruth is taken to the hospital where she’s told of her latest pregnancy. The judge she’s brought before for the twelfth time decides to make this a “teaching moment” and charges her for felony criminal endangerment of her fetus. I’m not sure how widespread this practice was in 1996 because I was ten years old, but it’s certainly a thing now, used largely to punish and incarcerate poor and minority women in states like Oklahoma and Alabama, often after they miscarry due to drug use.
While it’s never clearly stated where Citizen Ruth takes place, we can infer, given it’s an Alexander Payne film, that it’s Nebraska. Indeed it was partly filmed there, according to the end credits, along with Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is roughly four and a half hours from where I grew up on the other side of the state – around a lot of the same Evangelical types who end up taking Ruth under their wing. The judge has informed her privately that he’ll commute her sentence if she gets her situation “taken care of” in that evergreen euphemism, inadvertently setting off a partisan firestorm that will take on national stakes. Soon Ruth is tugged back and forth between the sanctimonious pro-lifers on one side and the condescending pro-choicers on the other, both factions more concerned with making a point than protecting the person at the center, when all she really wants is to find her next high.
Without getting too much into spoiler territory, let’s say that Payne finds a way for Ruth to have her cake and eat it too, escaping into the sunset with a bagful of money like the American hero she’s been set up to be. There’s no reason to believe she’s learned any lessons from her experience; most likely in a couple weeks’ time she’ll be right back where she started. It’s a symbolic victory for someone incapable of rising above the symbolic import that’s been invested in her.
The issue is that she’s largely a symbol for Payne too. This isn’t a fatal flaw, and I think his film still works more often than it doesn’t. But critic Mike Clark was right to call Citizen Ruth “schematic” in his contemporaneous USA Today review. Payne will never have firsthand knowledge of the anxiety that goes into making this kind of intimate decision. Frankly, neither will I, privileged to have had unimpeded access to the birth control of my choice since I was eighteen (unless they come for Griswold next). It’s easy to be sanguine about political futility when your rights aren’t being debated or threatened. Pointing out that there are fanatics on both sides used to mean you could get away with not taking one. But things have changed, more than Payne, or any of us, probably anticipated when he conceived of his film. A world where a man can sue a clinic on behalf of an aborted fetus or laws criminalize doctors for providing life-saving care is one that’s increasingly difficult to laugh at. But that means it’s all the more crucial for bold filmmakers to offer a space to do so. If Citizen Ruth now looks like a relic from a freer time, it’s also a reminder that a woman’s work is never done.
“Citizen Ruth” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.