Dir: Nicole Newnham | With: Dakota Johnson, Shere Hite | US Doc 118′
What is in a name? Or more to the point, what is in the named title of a work of documentation. The acclaimed documentary about the academic Shere Hite comes after acclaim at numerous film festivals including Sundance where it premiered over a year ago. The Disappearance of Shere Hite is a misnomer; another example of American Exceptionalism that declares one doesn’t exist if one escapes from the hermetic puritanism that holds sway in the laughable declared “Land Of The Free”.
Documentaries of this sort exist in a state of pedagogy for the unaware, at times this can be limiting but here documentarian Nicole Newnham (director of the transgressive documentary Crip Camp) uses several devices to create a narrative that impresses and creates the possibility of a series of ‘what ifs’ and ‘could bes’, these include Dakota Johnson reading from Hite’s dairies and writings and, more movingly, a collection of oral histories comprised of the letters she received from women who had filled out her questionnaire: this became her groundbreaking and incendiary ‘The Hite Report’, which was published in 1976.
The film glides through the chronology of her life in a nonlinear fashion which adds to the sense of mystery if you approach the film without much prior knowledge of Shere Hite. She was at Grad School where she discovered the first feminist women’s groups that were starting to spring to life in New York. Paying her way through school as a model, the variety of modelling that many in the industry look down their noses at: adverts for white goods and Robert McGinnis’ famous James Bond illustrations including on the shoulder of Sean Connery for Diamonds Are Forever.
It was Socrates who claimed that “Beauty is a short lived tyranny”. Right from the start of her modelling career Hite discovered the self-evident truth in that aphorism, and started to look for an ‘out’ before the industry would crush her like so many women before her. The final straw appears to be when she was cast in an advert for Olivetti, with the tagline: “The typewriter is so smart she doesn’t have to be.” From there she started writing questionnaires to hand out to women in the hope they would fill them in and post them back to her. She felt this was more likely to get a honest response than phone or in person interviews.
When the book was released it was an instant publishing phenomenon and she was invited to do lots of media appearances. This is a time we can now look back at and see the beginning of the Culture Wars that have continued in furiosity, and where we find now ourselves adrift from an empirical reality. As so many intelligent women have discovered, holding truth to power – especially 1970s patriarchy – means you will be attacked and demeaned in numerous ways. Her detractors cast doubt on her Scientific methods and flagged-up photographs she had posed for in ‘Playboy’ while a student.
The attacks only intensified when Shere started working on a male version of ‘The Hite Report’. This provided another opportunity for male critics and academics to refuse to believe the men questioned in the report, particularly in regards to their personal feelings and claims that toxic masculinity had affected relationships with their fathers, at home, and in workplace. It has taken decades for certain men to break through these negative attitudes. Robert Gottlieb (who died recently and was featured in the documentary made by his daughter, Turn Every Page) was one of the book’s only male supporters at the time. He claimed to have been devastated by the opinions shared that those men who took part.
In the end Shere Hite did what so many US Iconoclasts are forced to do, go into exile to avoid facing public humiliation or defamation. Her escape led to a second life in England and Germany. She died after a long illness in 2020. At that point the original Hite Report was the 30th best-selling book of all time. Ironically, most contemporary American feminists are unaware who she was and how important she was, standing alongside the legendary Sexologists: Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson. @D_W_Mault
IN CINEMAS FROM 12 JANUARY 2024