‘The Disappearance of Shere Hite’ Review: Nicole Newnham’s Gripping, Revelatory Doc Rediscovers a Forgotten Feminist Icon

The 'Crip Camp' director returns to Sundance with an outstanding, Dakota Johnson-narrated examination of who Shere Hite was, and why we even have to ask that question.

The Disappearance of Shere Hite
Mike Wilson/Sundance Institute

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, 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 apparently still ranked the 30th best-selling book in history. 

Aside from a few blips, like a 2006 “Colbert Report” appearance and the obituaries that ran after Hite’s 2020 death, it’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 after 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 actually playing on a monitor during a different TV show from 1994, and Hite is smiling ruefully at her younger self. It’s an example of editor Eileen Meyer’s imaginative cutting style that extends to the sound design: Dreamily overlapping fragments of Hite’s writing, melodically narrated by Dakota Johnson, interlock with Lisbeth Scott’s score and the piano concertos and disco cuts on the soundtrack. Where other archive-reliant bio-docs can feel purely functional in form, “Crip Camp” director Newnham crafts “Disappearance” like carefully stitched embroidery.

The chronology is not straightforward (not until much later do we learn anything about Hite’s childhood) but a timeline emerges. 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. She posed for Playboy, and 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 typewriter advertisements so flagrantly sexist that when the National Organization for Women staged a protest against them, she joined in. 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 spending her nights churning out tens of thousands of questionnaires on a hand-cranked mimeograph. 

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 intensified after 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. The erosion of Hite’s confidence continued, until a seemingly inevitable interview walkout that a carnivorous media used as evidence of her unreliability and lack of credibility.

Perhaps it was here that the process of erasure began, but in reclaiming Hite from obscurity, the film takes its cue from a subject who saw no contradiction between intellectual/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 even when Hite is not on-screen — and there is a lot of footage of her — the vintage images feel made to order. And new interviews with surviving friends and supporters (including a surprise cameo from Gene Simmons of KISS) are warmly, characterfully shot by DP Rose Bush.

To what extent have we been gaslit into excising Hite’s place in feminist history when contemporaries like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer are household names and other sexologists, like Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, have had biopics (“Kinsey”) and prestige TV shows (“Masters of Sex”) made in their honor? It’s hard to know, but it is a shame that Hite is not around to see herself vindicated and celebrated 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 an 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.

‘The Disappearance of Shere Hite’ Review: Nicole Newnham’s Gripping, Revelatory Doc Rediscovers a Forgotten Feminist Icon

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition), Jan. 26, 2023. Running time: 118 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) An Industrial Media and NBC News Studios presentation of an NBC News Studios and This Machine production in association with Teatime Pictures. Producers: Nicole Newnham, Molly O'Briend, RJ Cutler, Elise Pearlstein, Kimberly Ferdinando, Trevor Smith. Co-producers: Erica Fink, Eleanor West. Executive producers: Elizabeth Fischer, Liz Cole, Noah Oppenheim, Andy Berg, Eli Holzman, Aaron Saidman, Dakota Johnson, Ro Donnelly. 
  • Crew: Director: Nicole Newnham. Camera: Rose Bush. Editor: Eileen Meyer. Music: Lisbeth Scott.
  • With: Dakota Johnson (voice).