The biopic documentary is well-worn territory at this point, it’s the meat and potatoes and bread and butter of non-fiction filmmaking. This year’s Sundance Film Festival will see premieres of films on Little Richard, Indigo Girls, Judy Blume, Brooke Shields, and Michael J. Fox. While the best such projects reveal something deeper about a beloved public figure, rarely do they uncover a previously unknown or long-since forgotten cultural phenomenon. Combining the delights of an eccentric character study with the tension of a thrilling investigation, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” restores a forgotten trailblazer in sexuality studies to her rightful place in feminist history. That she ever disappeared in the first place is the sad shock at its poignant core.
Directed by Nicole Newnham, who co-directed the Oscar-nominated 2020 film “Crip Camp” with James Lebrecht, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” thrums with the pulse of a story that was waiting to be told. Well aware that most viewers will be unfamiliar with her subject, Newnham doles out the ample material at a dizzying clip, hooking the viewer into a shared fascination with this lost chapter of cultural anthropology. It helps that her subject is quite stunning, brilliant, and an avid documentarian of her own life. The mysterious Shere Hite is so charming you’ll be left wondering how it is that no one under 60 has ever heard of her.
A sexologist, researcher, and cultural historian, Shere Hite authored three books on human sexuality, the first and most explosive being “The Hite Report.” Published in 1976, “The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study in Female Sexuality” was the first published work to say that women’s primary sex organ was the clitoris, challenging the dominant belief that women orgasm solely from penetration. Her research was based on 3,000 anonymous surveys, which she mailed across the country in the hopes of reaching the widest possible cross section of American society.
Voiced by executive producer Dakota Johnson, the film relies on Hite’s writing as well as many television appearances to speak for her. An engaging writer driven by her indignation at women’s oppression, she is a galvanizing narrator of her own story. She writes frankly about her emotional state: “Also eating me up was the passivity required of females, which made me very hostile.” And she could craft a barb with lethal precision: “The [feminist] movement’s intellectual debates made Columbia University’s look pale and anemic.”
Newnham assembles a host of feminist academics that could probably all make for equally compelling documentaries, and a deep roster of Hite’s former boyfriends and collaborators provide color. The most tickling addition is none other than Gene Simmons, who lived upstairs from Hite in the Fifth Avenue apartment that he says “could have been a small palazzo in Europe.” Though there’s a lot of material to get through, Newnham makes space for a little detour into 1970s New York nostalgia, seamlessly blending more general archival footage with the hypnotizing images of Hite in her heyday.
The pushback to Hite’s work was swift and sweeping, as the male establishment interpreted the explosive revelations as a direct attack. In interview after interview, Hite is challenged, belittled, and demeaned, and the onslaught took a toll on her considerable vanity. A former model for Playboy, she was subjected to attacks on her character and intellect, and her scientific methods were challenged. Each media appearance is a case study in mansplaining, on a national stage. “She carried the weight of the criticism all the time,” one friend observed. After footage of her storming off a set went viral, her publisher stopped printing her latest work. Eventually, she exiled herself to Germany, renouncing her U.S. citizenship in 1995.
The boldest revelations in the film aren’t just about Hite, however captivating her story is. What Newnham and her interview subjects really hammer home is the broader erasure of feminist history that led to her retreat from cultural consciousness. It’s a depressing trend that Hite predicts herself when she says: “I just found it troubling that perhaps young women coming along will have to fight the same battles.” The information in “The Hite Report” may not seem as revelatory today, but the mystery of pleasure and sexuality persist for many women around the world. It’s hard to imagine a new book on women’s sexuality being nearly as controversial, but it’s equally hard to name a contemporary work that has had the reach and impact of “The Hite Report.”
The film ends on a somber note, with the news that Shere Hire died in 2020 after a long illness. It was reading her obituary that inspired Newnham to take up the subject, and to share the untold story of this galvanizing figure in feminist history. During this depressing period of backsliding on women’s rights, it’s a monumental task that feels more vital than ever.
“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” premiered on January 20th at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.