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The Disappearance of Shere Hite

Directed by Nicole Newnham
Produced by Elise Pearlstein, R.J. Cutler, Nicole Newnham, Kimberley Ferdinando, Molly O'Brien, and Trevor Smith
With: Mike Wilson, Robert McGinnis, Iris Brosch, Gene Simmons, and the voice of Dakota Johnson
Cinematography: Naomi Amarger and Rose Bush
Editing: Eileen Meyer
Music: Lisbeth Scott
Runtime: 118 min
Release Date: 20 January 2023
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color: Color

The latest visually dynamic historical documentary by Nicole Newnham, the Oscar-nominated director of Crip Camp (2020), is a portrait of a mysterious cultural figure who, perhaps not so mysteriously, has been practically forgotten or erased by contemporary society. The Disappearance of Shere Hite explores the legacy of the late writer whose sexological work built upon the lauded biological sex studies by Masters and Johnson and Alfred Kinsey. Her book The Hite Report on Female Sexuality became a sensation when it was published in 1976, and according to The Guardian, it has gone on to sell over 48 million copies worldwide. Yet this volume that, according to the film is the #30 best-selling book of all time, seems to have vanished from American public consciousness. Through interviews with those who knew Hite, vintage TV appearances, and a treasure trove of archival photos and film, Newnham and her collaborators compile an enthralling story of an outspoken yet enigmatic feminist, her groundbreaking work, and the infuriating backlash that silenced her.

Shere Hite was a young scholar who, when she discovered she wasn't taken seriously due to her class, gender, and physical appearance, dropped out of academia to become a successful working model. While that profession valued her distinctive beauty and provided a decent living, modeling did not make full use of her many gifts. After an appearance in a particularly sexist commercial for a "smart typewriter," Hite became part of the burgeoning women's lib movement and began surveying women about their sex lives. These surveys were anonymous. Hite mimeographed her long list of questions and sent them to women nationwide. The most significant finding was that 70 percent of the 3,000 women who sent in the survey didn't experience orgasm from penetrative sex. This result aligned with Masters and Johnson's conclusions in Human Sexual Response that stimulation of the clitoris was how most women achieved orgasm. However, Hite's findings contradicted the pioneering research team's suppositions by pointing out that masturbation and manual stimulation were the most natural and direct routes to achieving this goal, rather than vaginal penetration. She criticized Masters and Johnson for incorporating pervading cultural attitudes about sexual behavior between men and women into their research.

This pronouncement was a lot for men in the 1970s to absorb, but the most significant backlash to Hite's work came from her follow-up books, The Hite Report on Men and Male Sexuality and Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress. Both volumes were released in the 1980s when the religious right had become a powerful political force, and daytime tabloid talk shows were coming into their own. Watching the barrage of fragile male egos and professional TV hypo-Christians relentlessly attacking the author despite never having read any of her work—almost always the case with rabid crusaders on all ideological sides—is enraging. In the 1970s, despite her lack of training as a public figure, Hite usually seems to have the upper hand in TV confrontations. Her frank discussion of taboo subjects, offset by her soft-spoken demeanor, strawberry blond curls, willowy figure, and sculpted Germanic features, made her an unexpected crusader who unsettled those interviewing her. By the '80s, the tables had turned, and her style, looks, modeling background, and aloof nature were all weaponized against her by ignorant blowhards looking to discredit anyone woman who dared suggest that the male-centric understanding of sexuality might be found lacking by a majority of the female population.

One angle of attack was to discredit Hite's research because it was not conducted scientifically. This fascinating element of the story goes underdeveloped in the movie. We hear mainly from Hite in archival responses to the critique in which she claims her methodology is no different from that of market research. She points out accurately that the random phone polling done to discredit her is an absurd way to conduct sex research and can only result in false results. Still, I wish Newnham had presented more contemporary views on how Hite's methodology was and is appraised, dissected what "scientific" means in this context, and explored the difference between random anonymous surveys and anecdotal evidence. The film doesn't point out, for example, that Masters and Johnson were attacked from the same quarters for their research being too scientifically derived.

Newnham, cinematographer Rose Bush, and editor Eileen Meyer utilize the screen in ways I initially thought off-putting. Their intellectual, archives-based documentary seems deceptively surface-oriented as it subtly constructs a complex picture about a substantive subject. Whenever a documentarian chooses to make a movie in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, especially a movie that relies heavily on more squarely framed film and TV footage from the '70s and '80s, I start watching predisposed to an adverse judgment. Too many filmmakers use this screen format because it "looks cinematic," even though the narrow frame usually does not serve their footage or their film well. But this team quickly won me over. The way The Disappearance of Shere Hite is presented does not smack of crass Instagram filter shallowness. The archival footage and, especially, the photographs, are laid out and woven together to give the film the look of an elegant collage of divergent media stitched by perceptive visual artists.

The film's musical score by Lisbeth Scott and sound design by Tom Myers work in conjunction with the visuals to immerse us in a world that feels unmistakably feminine, at least by the traditional definition of that term as it was used at the time the movie centers on. The contrast between the calm, elegant, sophisticated picture of Hite's worldview, as presented by the filmmakers, and the ugly, harsh, loud, and willfully ignorant environment of the traditionally masculine world of TV news, magazines, and talk shows (even when Oprah is the host!) reinforces the film's themes in a distinctly cinematic way. The picture reminds us, as I guess we still need reminding, of how repetitive and predictable our American culture-war cycles are.

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Nicole Newnham crafts a visually dynamic historical documentary about the mysterious, influential, and all-but-forgotten feminist sexologist whose work challenged patriarchal attitudes about intimacy and sexuality.