Why Citizen Ruth has never felt more prescient

As Roe v. Wade is controversially overturned, we revisit Alexander Payne’s dark satire of the American abortion lobby.


Collin Preciado

In 1973 the United States Supreme Court made a ruling that protected abortion as a constitutional right in America. The landmark case, known as Roe v. Wade, was brought to the country’s highest court after Norma McCorvey challenged a law in Texas that prevented her from choosing whether or not to go through with the pregnancy of what would be her third child. The court ruled in her favor and the decision would take precedence over every law in America that prohibited the practice outright – until now. 

The U.S. Supreme Court is comprised of nine judges appointed for a lifetime term by the sitting President of the United States, so rulings tend to go with the political majority of the court’s makeup. Donald Trump was able to appoint three judges during his presidency, bringing the total of Republican-appointed justices to six out of nine, which explains in part why Roe v. Wade was successfully overturned on Friday 24 June, almost 50 years after it was enshrined to protect the rights of people who need access to abortions.

The American debate over abortion never went away to begin with – the country’s population remains completely divided on whether a person with a uterus has the right to make decisions about their own body despite the court previously declaring that a constitutional protection. 

This static dispute is perfectly framed in a two-line exchange from Alexander Payne’s underrated and often forgotten feature film Citizen Ruth (1996). Speaking to a clan of self-proclaimed “Baby Savers,” the title character expresses her intention of having an abortion and proclaims “I’m a woman and my body belongs to me, right?” The leader of the group responds by screaming “Your body belongs to God!”

Starring Laura Dern in her greatest performance, Citizen Ruth centers around the indigent Ruth Stoops who finds herself caught in a tug of war between the two polar extremes of the pro-choice and pro-life movements of the United States. After Ruth is arrested for the sixteenth time within eighteen months for huffing patio sealant, the irate Judge Richter (David Graf) informs her that she’s being charged with endangering a fetus after a blood test determines she’s pregnant. At this point, Ruth has already surrendered four of her children to the state due to her uncontrollable addiction issues, so the judge privately suggests outside the courtroom that she “do us all a favor and go take care of this problem” and the charges will be dropped. 

While cold-turkey detoxing on the jail room floor, she prays to God to help her. The film goes so far as to suggest her prayer has been answered as a bell goes off and a group of singing pro-life fanatics enter the holding cell with her. They listen to her story which leads to her being taken in by a family of suburbanite bible thumpers who are intent on convincing Ruth to complete the pregnancy. Ruth eventually finds herself among the pro-choice camp as the media whirlwind coverage of her situation escalates to a national level pulling her in every direction. She wavers a bit on whether or not she wants to have the baby as both sides seek to incentify her decision, ultimately determining money as a prime persuader.

Despite the grim premise and loaded subject matter, the film is a larger-than-life comedic satire. While initially dipping a toe into the harsh realities of drug abuse in the opening minutes, everything that follows is mostly played for laughs. Like most Alexander Payne films, the heart of the movie is really in the egotistic nature of the characters themselves rather than the absurd Americana backdrop they occupy. The film isn’t necessarily looking to change anyone’s mind about the ethics of abortion, but it does have a lot to say about the leaders of the opposing movements.

Representing the Christian pro-life right is Norm Stoney (Kurtwood Smith), the patriarch of the family that first takes Ruth in. He’s a pillar of the community who fancies himself as an all-American humble servant of the Lord who runs a church service in his living room. On the pro-choice left is Diane Siegler (Swoosie Kurtz). She lives on a farm compound with her partner Rachel (played by the late and unrecognizable Kelly Preston) where they chant feminine adorations at the moon. While on different sides of the issue, both Stoney and Siegler define themselves as righteous do-gooders. Their real passion is being seen and honored as heroes, so when their efforts to assist Ruth for their devout Cause are met with Ruth’s general apathy, their true character and resentment can barely be contained.

Ruth, on the other hand, has no religious crusade or agenda of her own other than she just wants to get really high as often as possible. She’s crass, selfish, emotionally stunted, consistently stupid, and at one point she even punches a child – yet Ruth is somehow the most likable character in the film. This is in no small part due to Laura Dern’s astonishingly sympathetic and iconic portrayal of the derelict drug-addicted vagrant. Dern has a vacuum-sealed grasp of who this person is and depicts her without any winking condescension or whiff of judgment. The reason the film works, the reason why you are able to laugh, is because Dern operates on a completely different level than everyone else around her, having the time of her life sinking her teeth into Ruth’s emotional chaos and drug-induced outbursts. Ruth never pretends to be anyone other than herself which cannot be said about the zealots surrounding her.

If Citizen Ruth is trying to make any point, it can be found in a quick scene at the end of the film, where Ruth finds herself trapped in an abortion clinic surrounded by a mass of protestors from both sides. As she tries to find a way to escape, it becomes clear that there’s no way of getting around the crowd. In an act of desperation, she simply decides to walk through the assembly. No one stops her and no one seems to even recognize her – she slips away anonymously, as if no one was really concerned about her to begin with. It’s this truth that often feels forgotten amid political jockeying around abortion: those who will suffer most from losing their reproductive rights are the most disenfranchised, often not heard within the debate.

The cruel decision made by the Supreme Court will undoubtedly impact the most vulnerable within American society – as Alexander Sanger, grandson of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, said in a recent street interview, “You cannot make abortion go away by criminalizing it. All you do is make it unsafe.”

If you are in the United States and require help with reproductive care, visited Planned Parenthood to find out more. NNAF is raising funds to support safe access to abortion for women, regardless of location, across the United States. 

Published 24 Jun 2022

Tags: Alexander Payne Citizen Ruth Laura Dern

Suggested For You

Southern film festivals in the age of the Alabama-Georgia abortion bans

By Madeleine Seidel

As film workers across America’s Deep South face an uncertain future, events like Sidewalk continue to show the way forward.

Eliza Hittman: ‘I sat down with abortion providers to try to understand the story I wanted to tell’

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

The writer/director on how first-hand research informed her ‘poetic odyssey’, Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

Twenty years on, Election feels more relevant than ever

By Patrick Sproull

Tracy Flick’s almost thwarted candidacy is an eerie presage of our current political climate.

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.