“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” opens with a 1976 TV interview with Shere Hite about her pioneering study, “The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality.” As she talks about the revelations of her research — that women masturbate, and most men don’t know how to please them — the interviewer tells a crew member to stop snickering.
Then a cut reveals that what we’re watching is actually a clip being screened within another archival clip, from a 1994 interview, in which Hite reflects on her early media appearances. It’s a nifty opening that drives home Hite’s prominence in culture from the 1970s to the ’90s — and how strange it is that the groundbreaking feminist, who died in 2020, is barely discussed now.
Nicole Newnham’s film recoups Hite’s story from the margins of feminist history with both style and substance, taking its cue from its subject. Tall, blonde and immaculately dressed, Hite was a model who appeared in Playboy, and a Columbia University graduate student who railed eloquently against sexism and classism.
“The Hite Report,” which compiled questionnaires completed anonymously by thousands of women, was a best seller — but in interview after interview, Hite struggled to be taken seriously. By the time her later studies on male sexuality and women’s love lives were published, she had been labeled a male-basher and a fraud, and went into self-imposed exile in Europe.
Newnham weaves deftly between biography and history, damningly situating the backlash to Hite’s taboo-breaking work alongside Anita Bryant’s anti-gay activism and Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings. Yet the film also shimmers with hope. Dulcet-voiced readings of Hite’s memoirs by Dakota Johnson (also an executive producer) remind us that it is possible, even in an unyielding world, to think far beyond one’s time.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite
Rated R for brazen talk of women’s sexuality. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. In theaters.