PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 20: Dakota Johnson (L) and Nicole Newnham (R) attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival premiere of “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” at The Ray Theatre on January 20, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
By Lucy Spicer
Just about everyone interviewed in The Disappearance of Shere Hite readily admits to having been utterly charmed by its subject. “I fell for her, and I’m a gay guy,” chuckles Nicholas Latimer, vice president of publicity at Alfred A. Knopf.
Shere Hite was beautiful, magnetic, a former model, and a sex researcher who wrote one of the bestselling books of all time, The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, first published in 1976. Hite and her books were widely covered by the U.S. media for almost 20 years, and she helped to “undefine” how female sexuality had been viewed up until then. So how is it possible that some young feminists today have never heard of her?
“I read her obituary in 2020, and I read it with a shock, because I had stolen the book from my mother’s bedside cabinet when I was 12 or 13 years old,” says director Nicole Newnham at the post-premiere Q&A at The Ray Theatre in Park City on Friday, January 20. “The overwhelming feeling I had was, ‘How could this person who changed my life and so many people’s lives have disappeared so completely from public view?’”
“[The film] felt like some sort of poetic justice that was necessary,” explains Newnham, who returns to Sundance with a documentary that combines archival footage and excerpts from Shere Hite’s own journals (narrated by Dakota Johnson) to trace the writer’s rise to fame and sudden disappearance from the public eye.
The Hite Report contained the results of some 3,000 anonymous questionnaires Hite had sent out to women across the U.S. The anecdotal, essay-style answers revealed the candid feelings respondents had about topics including sexual satisfaction, masturbation, femininity, and relationships. The book caused an instant sensation: Many women felt vindicated seeing their private thoughts echoed by others, but critics insisted that Hite’s research methods were unscientific and misleading.
Newnham’s film tackles Hite’s journey chronologically, beginning with her time as a poor Ph.D. student at Columbia University in New York City. The research that culminated in Hite’s bestselling works was deeply entrenched in the feminist movement that was sweeping the city in the 1960s and ’70s. Archival footage of protests and present-day interviews emphasize the intrinsic intersectionality of feminism and give context as to why Hite’s books were so groundbreaking. By the end of the film, once the U.S. media and publishing companies have attempted to erase Shere Hite from the public consciousness, we’re invited to contemplate censorship, repeated erasure, and the cyclical nature of the fight for equal rights.
When asked at the Q&A whether The Hite Report would meet a different reception if it were published today, actor Dakota Johnson says, “I think it would be widely appreciated. … I think a rerelease is timely.”
The recent restrictions on abortion rights and increase in anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the U.S. prove the timeliness of a film that highlights the censorship Hite endured for wanting to give people a voice. A prescient quote by Hite herself helps to illustrate the importance of keeping stories like hers alive: “I just find it troublesome that perhaps younger women coming along will have to fight the same battles over again.”