It shouldn’t be surprising by now that history is full of groundbreaking women whose accomplishments are overlooked and whose names get buried. Sex researcher Shere Hite’s near-Stalinist erasure from popular consciousness after writing an all-time-bestselling barnburner of feminist self-actualization — 1976’s “The Hite Report on Female Sexuality” — is the mystery that undergirds documentary filmmaker Nicole Newnham’s evocative, thrilling work of cold-case portraiture, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite.”
The Missouri-born Hite had been a social-history graduate student at Columbia, chafing at the school’s dismissal of her interest in sexuality, when her activism in the burgeoning Second Wave feminist movement led her to start a project centered on women’s sexual experiences. Charting and analyzing thousands of open-ended questionnaires submitted anonymously by women of all stripes, she shocked an unsuspecting public by revealing in “The Hite Report” that women didn’t need men to achieve orgasm, upending years of Freudian distortions about female sexual pleasure. Books flew off the shelves and Hite was suddenly talking about sexual quality and equality everywhere.
That the academic, workaholic Hite was also nobody’s received notion of what a “serious” researcher looked or acted like only added to her media allure. A pale, elegant strawberry blond, she’d modeled to pay tuition fees, and continued to cultivate a chic, glamorous air in private footage and public appearances. She relished her aura of beauty, confidence and authority when discussing what was once taboo, and advocating for healthier bonds between women and men. A talk-show clip of her seated between host Mike Douglas and a stammering David Hasselhoff, Hite coolly wielding a cigarette and waxing about masturbation, is priceless.
That veneer began to crack in the reactionary ‘80s, however, with a backlash to her follow-up studies on male sexuality and relationship discontentment. Her books still sold but as TV got gimmicky, her appearances became ambushes. Misogynistically tarred as a man-hating radical, her questionnaire methodology was attacked (even if her insights weren’t). Then, early nudes were unearthed and used against her. The censured, stricken Hite retreated from view. She denounced her U.S. citizenship in 1995 and, until her death 25 years later, lived in Europe, which she deemed far friendlier.
As a follow-up to her Oscar-nominated “Crip Camp,” Newnham shows once again how compelling she is chronicling the people behind establishment-busting movements. Her great notion in reviving Hite is treating her less like a subject getting scrutinized all over again, and instead as the mesmerizing star of a heroic rise-and-fall narrative. Aided by a wealth of archival material befitting someone who adored the lens (except when Hite later felt threatened by tabloid interviewers), Newnham uses widescreen framing to wonderfully cinematic effect, as if this were a classic woman’s picture freshly discovered and faithfully restored, occasionally scored to the sensual Rachmaninoff concertos Hite treasured.
It’s all smoothly punctuated by original interviews with friends, colleagues, supporters and ex-lovers, and laced with excerpts from Hite’s own writings, read by Dakota Johnson. Crucially, too, we get an occasional voice-over chorus of questionnaire respondents’ own words, a potent-enough sampling that we sense how rewarding this work must have been to Hite, like finding a long-missing map of the feelings, fears and hopes that connect us all.
Most gratifying in Newnham’s investigation is how Hite reclaimed her own positive sense of self in exile through some key female friendships: a love goddess finding refuge with like-minded souls after a bruising battle with unenlightened, resentful mortals. It’s a journey marked by — what else? — a renewed relationship with the camera, only this time via a female gaze more eager to celebrate her photogenic mix of spirit, intelligence, sadness and beauty. And while “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” celebrates that too, it also potently reminds us that it’s invariably what powerful women say and do, not how they look, that most risks their silencing.