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Sundance 2023: The Sheer Heights of 'The Disappearance of Shere Hite'

When I was scrolling through the projected Sundance schedule, The Disappearance of Shere Hite sounded like a kidnapping thriller – which isn’t my usual genre – but the thumbnail caught my eye: a beautiful woman half submerged in water, writing in a notebook. Of course, I had to click.

My assumption of it being a narrative was quickly squashed. Upon further reading, I realized that it was a documentary and that the late Shere Hite was a sex researcher (not abducted). Her work focused on female pleasure, which was all I needed to know when I bought my virtual ticket, wanting to go in mostly blind. Although the discussion around women’s sexual pleasure has grown over the years, it continues to feel lightyears behind what it should be.

The documentary opens with archival footage from 1976. A young Shere sits for an interview for her culturally shocking book, “The Hite Report: A National Study of Female Sexuality.” It was a product of years-long research from thousands of anonymous questionnaire answers on female sexuality. Expectedly, the interviewer is borderline disgusted that she would write about such a taboo subject. The cameraman has a different reaction, snickering like a kid who is unable to take the topic seriously. It’s a tense but honest cold opening that hints at what is to come. But as soon as the audience is introduced to Shere’s burgeoning success, they’re taken to present-day interviews of Shere’s inner circle.

Instead of recounting her life from the beginning with her birth in 1942, the story starts in 1968. She had recently moved from Florida to New York City to pursue graduate studies in history at Columbia University. Her friends emphasize her determined, tough nature. She could only afford to live in the basement of an apartment building infested with rats, overseen by a landlord who would shut off the heat in the winter. To cover university fees, she modeled for photographers and illustrators, serving as a reference for James Bond movie posters and posing nude for Playboy.

In addition to these sound bites from her close circle, voiceovers of actress Dakota Johnson reading her personal journals accompany the narrative. Shere wrote extensively about her dive into women’s liberation. Already seeing her modeling as preening for the male gaze, it wasn’t until she posed as an Olivetti girl that she took definitive action. Olivetti girls used Olivetti typewriters. Just like the typewriters, the girls were “sharper, looser, never uptight” unlike the grouchy and “sloppy” girls who used other products (per their marketing). This branding ignited outraged picketing that a woman’s worth was determined by whether or not she used the latest typewriter, and Shere joined in.

Withdrawing from Columbia due to its conservative culture, she stayed in New York, furthering her education through different means. Shere joined the National Organization for Women (or NOW), and her real work began. With the camaraderie NOW gave her, she had the support to combine her scholarly background with her passion for gender equality. She learned how to operate a printing press and would bring her own supplies to a store, work overnight, and then grab a phone book to mail her questionnaire out one by one, getting her study to reach a broader audience.

As much as the documentary is a tribute to Shere, it also provides an intimate look at the culture of the time. Up until this point, the talking heads have primarily been Shere’s friends, but as the focus shifts towards her studies and activism, Shere’s colleagues take center stage. Janet Wolfe, a clinical psychologist, revels in what a serendipitous time it was for them. 1970s New York City was simultaneously experiencing the second feminist wave, a rise in cognitive behavior studies, and the sexual revolution. Thus, women of different backgrounds had the opportunity to meet and discuss pressing matters. Namely, late civil rights activist Florynce “Flo” Kennedy makes brief appearances in archival footage which is a happy surprise and nod to the intersectionality of the time.

It is acknowledged that this time of political unrest hampered the women that Shere fought and worked with, but they dove into the report nonetheless. In the documentary’s hardest-hitting sequence, the voices of different women’s statements bleed into the next. They confess to faking orgasms, unhappy marriages, infidelity, never receiving proper sex education, and feeling hopeless that they don’t know how to enjoy sex. A similarly structured and powerful sequence comes later in the documentary from men’s perspectives. They feared underperforming in the bedroom and wrote of the torment they felt from not being able to express their emotions. It’s an impactful, deeply felt moment because the same sexual and emotional issues persist in our society today. Despite the sex education advancements made over the last forty years, abstinence-only programs still exist in American schools.

Although feminists and fellow sexologists praised “The Hite Report,” the general public pelted Shere with criticism (if it can even be called such). The second half of the documentary focuses on her detractors, the people who called her methods invalid or who claimed that she was simply lying to spite all men. It became clear that most of her critics did not read her books, but she continued to give interviews, perhaps hoping that one day they would try to understand. Few listened or treated her with respect or took her seriously. So she left. By the new millennium, she had renounced her American citizenship and became a naturalized German. However, The Disappearance of Shere Hite is more of a nod to the fact that she is under-credited for her work. Her academic community may know her name, but the documentarians believe she is largely overlooked by the general public.

Some may accuse this documentary of not being as groundbreaking as it thinks it is, but The Disappearance of Shere Hite emphasizes that it’s thanks to Shere’s writings the belief that women should take equal pleasure in sex isn’t news. The documentary’s purpose wasn’t to preach to the nonbelievers but to the already converted. Yes, such a purpose holds negative connotations, but it serves to inspire an audience that has perhaps forgotten its roots. It reinvigorates and uplifts a generation that has already been worn down by bleak news headlines that come up day after day. Because even in her exile, Shere lived out the rest of her life with people who loved her. She even returned to modeling, but this time on her own terms. The Disappearance of Shere Hite is a time capsule of the 70s, a successful call to action, and a beautiful tribute, convincing me that Shere more than deserves her flowers.

Here's to hoping this one finds distribution.

- Grace


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