If, partway through Nicole Newnham’s extraordinary new documentary, you find yourself fighting the urge to do a bit of Googling — just to make sure that Shere Hite was a real person and you are not the victim of some wildly elaborate deepfake prank — don’t be alarmed. Be a little ashamed, perhaps, but not alarmed: You are not alone if you simply can’t stop asking yourself, “How on earth did I not know about this woman before?” “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” is an astonishing, moving and beautifully made corrective to the cultural amnesia that has for decades surrounded Hite, the author of “The Hite Report,” a landmark 1976 survey on female sexuality that is reportedly ranked the 30th bestselling book in history.
Aside from a few blips here and there, like a 2006 “Colbert Report” appearance and the obituaries that ran after Hite’s death in 2020, there’s been a silence so deafening — in the wake of a very noisy period of celebrity — that it’s hard to ascribe it to mere carelessness. When Hite mentions, in a 1970s interview, her then-controversial assessment that the absence of terminology for key aspects of the female sexual experience was not an accident, but a linguistic example of suppressive patriarchy in action, it irresistibly suggests a parallel that makes her own subsequent “disappearance” feel closer to erasure.
“Billy, feel free to stop sniggering,” says a 1976 TV interviewer crisply to the cameraman whose audible titters following Hite’s use of the word “thrusting” have ruined the take. Hite, a former model with a gorgeous cloud of strawberry blonde hair and a highly covetable sense of style, had a casual, soft-spoken way of deploying words like “clitoris,” “penetration” and “masturbation” that, back then, seemed to make everyone uncomfortable but her. Suddenly, a cut reveals that the interview is playing on a monitor during a 1994 broadcast about Hite. She smiles ruefully at her younger self, just on the cusp of her period of maximal success, from this later vantage point, when admiration had turned to aversion, and expectation to disillusion. It’s an example of editor Eileen Meyer’s imaginative cutting style that extends into the sound design, with dreamily overlapping fragments of Hite’s writing, melodically narrated by Dakota Johnson, intuitively interlocking with Lisbeth Scott’s score and the piano concertos and disco cuts on the soundtrack. Unlike other, more formally functional archive-reliant biodocs, the craft gives Newnham’s film a rich, thoughtful, embroidered texture.
It’s not a straightforward chronology (not until much later do we learn anything about Hite’s childhood) but a timeline does emerge. Hite paid her way through grad school, where she was an expert in “the French Revolution, classical music and Balkan farming,” with modeling stints, meeting photographers and illustrators who would become lifelong friends. “I was crazy about her,” says Mike Wilson, who took some of the loveliest early photos of Hite, posed as a Clara Bow-like silent movie star or a Fassbinder melodrama heroine surrounded by plush fabrics and flaring mirrors. Hite posed for Playboy. She became the template for many of the girls bedecking Robert McGinnis’ famous James Bond illustrations, including both the lovelies draped over Sean Connery on the “Diamonds Are Forever” poster. Modeling suited her, she claimed, because it gave her the “most independence with the least personal involvement.”
Then she took a gig as an “Olivetti girl,” appearing in advertisements so flagrantly sexist that when she heard the National Organization of Women was staging a protest against them, she joined it. Through NOW, she met a whole new set: activists working at the forefront of the women’s lib movement, campaigning on LGBTQ issues, and advocating for the rights of sex workers. So when the idea for a nationwide women’s sex survey came to her, she had support, though not so much that she wasn’t in debt to her eyeballs, and having to spend her nights churning out tens of thousands of questionnaires on a hand-cranked mimeograph machine.
With the publication of the book came wealth and fame beyond her expectations. But even at the height of her popularity the media commentary about her was often incredulous, condescending or outright hostile. That only worsened after the publication of her subsequent book on male sexuality: Some of the talk-show footage from around that time, like an Oprah appearance where she’s barraged with insults and vengeful male fragility by an audience of nothing but men, are genuinely enraging to watch. And it’s even more difficult to witness the agitated erosion of Hite’s confidence, which you can track from one appearance to the next, until a seemingly inevitable walkout that a carnivorous media used as evidence of Hite’s unreliability and lack of credibility.
Almost as impressive as the inspiring yet sobering story she tells is the way it is told by Newnham, whose last film, “Crip Camp,” won the Audience Award in Sundance and went on to be nominated for a documentary Oscar. Despite featuring a few of the avowedly bisexual Hite’s romantic partners, Newnham is careful never to let her doc become a roll call of her lovers, nor even does she seem particularly interested in Hite’s sexuality or the details of her personal life. Instead, taking its cue from a subject who saw no contradiction between intellectual and political seriousness and a playful love of beauty and flamboyance in everything from home decor to dress style, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” is put together with such visual verve and creativity that even its most prickly passages are compulsively enjoyable to watch. Archival footage is thoughtfully chosen so that when Hite is not on-screen — and there is a lot of footage of her — the film feels as though the vintage images were made to order. And new interviews with surviving friends and supporters (including a surprise appearance from Gene Simmons of KISS) are shot with warmth and an eye for the eccentric by DP Rose Bush: One particularly charming aside has a psychologist friend of Hite’s, now presumably in her late 70s, puttering around her apartment singing, “This is the dawning of the age of asparagus,” as she feeds her dog.
It’s hard to know to what extent we have been gaslit into excising Hite’s place in feminist history when contemporaries like Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer and Marilyn French are household names and other sexologists, like Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, have had biopics (“Kinsey”) and prestige TV shows (Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”) made in their honor. But it’s a shame that Hite is not around to witness Newnham’s act of un-erasure, to see her work celebrated and her charisma recaptured by a film that deserves to become one of the documentary events of the year. It’s a shame that she won’t get to sit with a movie theater audience and observe just how differently the footage of her being patronized, minimized and attacked plays to a 2023 crowd. But maybe it’s some comfort that, certainly by the end of Newnham’s exemplary film, we are unlikely to ever forget about her again. Here’s to the necessary, and long-overdue, reappearance of Shere Hite.