The Disappearance of Shere Hite
2023, R, 118 min. Directed by Nicole Newnham.
REVIEWED By Alejandra Martinez, Fri., Dec. 1, 2023
How does history fall through the cracks? How does it repeat itself? The Disappearance of Shere Hite, a documentary about the sexologist and author of The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, doesn’t have all the answers to these questions, but it is a riveting, disheartening, and all too familiar case study.
Nicole Newnham's documentary offers a tender and ruminative journey through Hite’s life, her work, and what happened to her in the wake of backlash to her research. The result is both a look at the advances made since Hite published her groundbreaking findings in 1976 and a reflective look at where we’re headed if we continue to forget our past – and it's especially poignant in a post Roe v. Wade world hellbent on keeping progress at bay.
It’s fitting that the opening credit sequence begins solemnly, with people propping up photographs of Hite, preparing for a requiem in her memory after the writer's death in 2020. That scene imbues the film with a respect and warmth for Hite, underscoring the loss of her as well as her knowledge. Passages from her personal writings are read by Dakota Johnson, accompanied by warm and grainy archival footage and talking head interviews where we learn about Hite’s life and work from those who knew her best. That narration is engaging, and interviews with Hite’s friends, colleagues, and former partners create a multidimensional portrait of the writer. Newnham, best known for 2020’s Crip Camp, does a great job intertwining the two, sometimes having a passage Hite wrote about a certain person play over footage of them now. Even though the film uses no contemporary interviews with Hite, her voice is present throughout.
Similarly, there is narration of the answers by anonymous women and men surveyed by Hite. Their voices carry over archival footage and photographs of the written responses, talking through their emotional and physical lives, creating an intimacy that is deeply moving.
(One thing left unexamined is the limit of Hite’s work – who falls through the cracks when a research focus is so binary? The film doesn’t address this, making for a curious blind spot.)
Yet the film must also look at the painful backlash and Hite's fall into obscurity. There are several instances in which she confronts her most ardent critics, often men, who questioned her methodology and motives after her books were published. While her difficulties with taking even constructive criticism were well-known, it seems that the majority of the critiques Hite faced were thinly veiled misogyny. In one especially harrowing sequence, she is invited onto The Oprah Winfrey Show to address an all-male audience and their petulant complaints. The looks of hate, disdain, and disgust on their faces as they lob their critiques and insecurities at Hite are burned into my brain.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite is an illuminating, haunting, and ruminative documentary worth watching, if not for crystalizing the history of Hite’s work on film then for a look at how much and how little things have changed for women. Toward the end, a few of Hite’s contemporaries lament the loss of her familiarity among younger feminists: At least this film will give them a chance to learn about and remember Hite.