The Disappearance of Shere Hite — The Clit Vanishes
Why Nicole Newnham’s documentary isn’t nominated for Oscar, I’ll never know
Once upon a time, there was a book called “The Hite Report,” the 30th bestselling book of all time, which made the-then spectacular claim in 1976 that the clitoris was the seat of women’s pleasure.
Its author, feminist researcher Shere Hite, solicited thousands of questionnaires from women who spoke with uncommon sexual candor. 70% said they were faking it in bed. Hite exposed the notion that women could achieve satisfaction through the procreative act of “thrusting,” which was as silly as demanding that men should climax by tickling their thigh.
Women (and men who appreciated the thrill of mutual lovemaking) adored Hite for her fearless demand: sexual equality and empathy.
The doctrinaire churches of the day condemned her. Political conservatives added Hite to their pile of grievances against uppity women. Academics who didn’t have one female professor in their university departments scoffed at her completely.
Most grievously, the media, the pundits of daytime TV and late night talk shows, crucified her, with poison-tipped mansplaining, scurrilous accusations, and “gotcha” journalism.
And then— Hite disappeared, a short 13 years after her research changed the world.
Shere Hite vanished from her apartment, and from the United States altogether. Today there is a generation who doesn’t know her name, although they’ve certainly felt her effects.
The story of Hite’s heyday, her mystery and mastery, is recounted with cinematic brio by director Nicole Newnham, in her new documentary, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite.”
Newnham is known for co-directing the Oscar-nominated “Crip Camp,”—and her new work is sure to be in Oscar contention again. “Hite” is a tour-de-force achievement in script, editing, photography, music, and use of archival footage. It showcases interviews from author Kate Millet, to Hite’s dearest apartment neighbor, rock star Gene Simmons.
I interviewed Berkeley resident Newnham upon the theatrical debut of her feature:
Q. Tell us about one of the passages in your film, where we hear original women’s letters to Hite, describing what their sex lives are really like.
A. In the Schlesinger Library Hite archives, I first heard the audio cassette tapes that many of Hite’s respondents used to answer her 100-plus questions. It was the “lightbulb” moment. I was so struck by their intimacy. I could sometimes hear their husbands in the next room, or the television, as they spoke quietly into the microphone.
One of Shere’s friends said she had created the biggest consciousness-raising group of all time through “The Hite Report.” We wanted to plunge the film viewer into the middle of that experience.
We then went back to the written surveys and cast women from our own lives to record the responses. We used archival home movie footage to illustrate them, along with the handwriting, drawings, and ephemera that women sent to Shere. We pinned the voices in different places during the sound design, with Shere at the center, so the viewer feels they are in her head as all this wonder is received by her.
Q. You attended controversial screenings of the work at the Cleveland Film Festival earlier this year.
A. Yes. Women were traumatized and angry about the overturn of Roe and the abortion restriction laws in their state. This story is a lightening rod. Women came up to me after screenings and literally could not talk, they were so moved, just standing there, weeping in front of me.
When we are robbed of these stories of change, we forget what we’ve accomplished together. It’s so important to bring stories like this back into cultural consciousness, as co-director James LeBrecht and I did with “Crip Camp.” I think of that as my mark when it comes to choosing subjects.
I hope the activism, creativity, and humor in our film is a North Star. Think of how incredible it is what Shere did; what the women’s liberation movement accomplished!`
Q. Hite never apologized for her high style, her romantic panache, her years working as photographer’s model. She never “toned it down.”
A. Yes, she redefined femininity for herself as aligned with beauty, strength, truth, the enlightenment. She embraced it as a strength, dressing in a hyper-feminine manner, even though she was criticized for it nearly every day.
Her story spoke powerfully, for example, to our director of photography, Rose Bush, a trans woman. She does so many younger viewers, who’ve moved past looking at gender the way my older generation was pushed. Whereas older women still have questions like, “Why did Hite dress that way if she wanted to be taken seriously?” — younger folks see her style as badass, an icon.
Q. Have you faced prejudice, as a director, in making this movie? Tarred by the sexual? Have you met critics who wanted you to be harder on Hite?
A. I’ve had some who warned me not to tackle Shere Hite.
But my overwhelming experience was those who were excited to learn Hite’s story and hopeful about what good work it can do. Thankfully, the film found a distribution home at IFC Films and Sapan Studio.
The thing that moved Josh Sapan to acquire the film was that his grandmother had given him a copy of “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” when he was fifteen. Standing behind this film was paying it forward. Even in a market where the streamers are shy of political content, we are able to get the film seen. I’m thankful to Josh Sapan’s grandmother every day!
Q. You’ve said that Hite reminded you cinematically of a Hitchcock heroine . . . What do you mean?
A. Shere often presents like one of those blonde, hard-to-get-close-to, endlessly intriguing and beautiful Hitchcockian female stars. She is riveting on screen. In the way that those heroines seem trapped in those films, like butterflies in a box, I thought Shere seemed trapped by the patriarchy in all the endless hostile TV shows she appeared on, pushing to get her message across.
We had a chance to subvert that paradigm.
We knew she created her image to be like the strong, film-noir stars of the 1930’s films she loved. We wanted her, cinematically, to be that large and enigmatic— and get underneath that image to her prescient and brilliant mind.
This review was originally published in a briefer version in The SF Chronicle.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite doesn’t have a streaming debut as of this writing, but when it does, I’m sure you’ll find it at JustWatch, so bookmark it, and you’ll be the first to know!
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