May 22, 2024 4:00 pm

The Disappearance of Shere Hite
The Disappearance of Shere Hite

The Disappearance of Shere Hite

Years before I learned her story, Shere Hite’s name loomed large in my sociology classes. Her self-titled report about female sexuality was just as talked about as Kinsey’s and Masters and Johnson’s findings. However, in recent pop culture memory, Kinsey got a movie, and Masters and Johnson got a TV show. Hite had been relegated to dusty shelves at the back of thrift stores. Nicole Newnham’s brilliant new documentary, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” brings her words back to life for a new generation. 

Pulling text from Hite’s writings, the surveys that informed her famous work, newscasts, and interviews with friends and former flames, Newnham constructs a fascinating portrait of an ambitious woman. She was smart and pretty, someone who modeled in sexist ads of the day and critiqued their shallowness. She created a glamorous self-image that threatened the Patriarchy yet caught their attention. Ultimately, she paid a heavy price for findings like how few women actually felt satisfied with their male partners, the rampant infidelity among married couples, and how few people at the time understood women’s sexual organs at all. 

Hite’s insightful words guide the documentary from one part of her life to the next. Some come from the many media appearances she made during the heyday of her publishing career when TV hosts invited her to scandalize their viewers. Much of the film’s narration is based on Hite’s writings and performed by Dakota Johnson, who loosely matches Hite’s naturally breathy voice, giving us a sense of the person behind the persona she presented in public interviews. Her eventual disappearance only makes sense in this painful context: her detailed feelings about her background and how the increased scrutiny from moral majority types and chauvinists wore on her spirit. When she starts to defend herself, some in the documentary wish she hadn’t fought back against sexist critics, but her righteous anger feels so controlled in comparison to the blatant attacks on her character and her work. In essence, she was slut shamed out of history, and we are forced to reckon with that loss. 

Newnham (“Crip Camp”) lucked out on a subject who made numerous television appearances and often posed for photographer friends, leaving behind a large visual archive. Newnham and editor Eileen Meyer creatively use these elements to tell Hite’s story and the women of her time. They bring in other footage of the era to illustrate the world of Hite’s survey responders: mothers holding babies, preparing dinner, or preparing to pose for a family portrait. They’re old home movies, zoomed in to keep the identities anonymous, just like with the responders. There are also historic scenes from events like NOW conferences and Florida’s homophobic panic against gay rights led by Anita Bryant and her fundamentalist ilk. As the early feminist movement explained, the personal was political, and these larger cultural moments are also a vital part of Hite’s story. 

“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” feels like an epitaph and a reclamation of her legacy. It’s even more poignant at a time when people are losing reproductive rights, and LGBTQ communities are losing their hard-won protections. It is an introduction to the 30th bestselling book of all time and an emotional journey of a woman who dared to speak truth to power. The film is full of archival riches that lead from one fascinating story to the next, from nonsequiturs like how Hite was the model for two women in a James Bond poster and how her one-time New York neighbor Gene Simmons used to swing by for parties to impactful moments like funding opposition to Bryant’s homophobic crusade and the experience of connecting with other women at feminist protests. 

The documentary shows how much she sacrificed and believed in her work. “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” acknowledges the struggles, hostile questions, and misogynist abuse she endured. But it also finds space for the community she found, her cultural impact, and the effect she had on people. Newnham’s documentary mourns and celebrates this impressive figure so that future generations will understand why she—and the work she pioneered—still matter.

Now playing in theaters. 

Years before I learned her story, Shere Hite’s name loomed large in my sociology classes. Her self-titled report about female sexuality was just as talked about as Kinsey’s and Masters and Johnson’s findings. However, in recent pop culture memory, Kinsey got a movie, and Masters and Johnson got a TV show. Hite had been relegated to dusty shelves at the back of thrift stores. Nicole Newnham’s brilliant new documentary, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” brings her words back to life for a new generation.  Pulling text from Hite’s writings, the surveys that informed her famous work, newscasts, and interviews with friends and former flames, Newnham constructs a fascinating portrait of an ambitious woman. She was smart and pretty, someone who modeled in sexist ads of the day and critiqued their shallowness. She created a glamorous self-image that threatened the Patriarchy yet caught their attention. Ultimately, she paid a heavy price for findings like how few women actually felt satisfied with their male partners, the rampant infidelity among married couples, and how few people at the time understood women’s sexual organs at all.  Hite’s insightful words guide the documentary from one part of her life to the next. Some come from the many media appearances she made during the heyday of her publishing career when TV hosts invited her to scandalize their viewers. Much of the film’s narration is based on Hite’s writings and performed by Dakota Johnson, who loosely matches Hite’s naturally breathy voice, giving us a sense of the person behind the persona she presented in public interviews. Her eventual disappearance only makes sense in this painful context: her detailed feelings about her background and how the increased scrutiny from moral majority types and chauvinists wore on her spirit. When she starts to defend herself, some in the documentary wish she hadn’t fought back against sexist critics, but her righteous anger feels so controlled in comparison to the blatant attacks on her character and her work. In essence, she was slut shamed out of history, and we are forced to reckon with that loss.  Newnham (“Crip Camp”) lucked out on a subject who made numerous television appearances and often posed for photographer friends, leaving behind a large visual archive. Newnham and editor Eileen Meyer creatively use these elements to tell Hite’s story and the women of her time. They bring in other footage of the era to illustrate the world of Hite’s survey responders: mothers holding babies, preparing dinner, or preparing to pose for a family portrait. They’re old home movies, zoomed in to keep the identities anonymous, just like with the responders. There are also historic scenes from events like NOW conferences and Florida’s homophobic panic against gay rights led by Anita Bryant and her fundamentalist ilk. As the early feminist movement explained, the personal was political, and these larger cultural moments are also a vital part of Hite’s story.  “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” feels like an epitaph and a reclamation of her legacy. It’s even more poignant at a time when people are losing reproductive rights, and LGBTQ communities are losing their hard-won protections. It is an introduction to the 30th bestselling book of all time and an emotional journey of a woman who dared to speak truth to power. The film is full of archival riches that lead from one fascinating story to the next, from nonsequiturs like how Hite was the model for two women in a James Bond poster and how her one-time New York neighbor Gene Simmons used to swing by for parties to impactful moments like funding opposition to Bryant’s homophobic crusade and the experience of connecting with other women at feminist protests.  The documentary shows how much she sacrificed and believed in her work. “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” acknowledges the struggles, hostile questions, and misogynist abuse she endured. But it also finds space for the community she found, her cultural impact, and the effect she had on people. Newnham’s documentary mourns and celebrates this impressive figure so that future generations will understand why she—and the work she pioneered—still matter. Now playing in theaters.  Read More