The Disappearance Of Shere Hite Review: An Enlightening Documentary On A Foundational Feminist Figure [Sundance]

There seems to be a misconception in certain circles in both the left and the right that female sexuality is inherently pornographic. While it certainly is true that pornography often fetishizes and distorts the image of women, that shouldn't mean that women shouldn't be able to express what arouses and sexually excites them freely. Associating the discussion of female sexuality with potentially-violent porn and, by proxy, male sexuality is arguably one reason why women's sexual interests have become so taboo to discuss in our modern age.

However, as the Sundance-premiering documentary "The Disappearance of Shere Hite" proposes, female expression of sexuality shouldn't be defined by what the patriarchy defines it as, an idea that the titular sexologist promoted. Nicole Newnham's film retraces the life of Hite, who made waves with 1976's study "The Hite Report" and whose authentic and anonymous findings were treated with intense controversy. Chock-full of archival footage and interviews with those in her closest circle, it asks why she and her research were essentially written out of feminist history for so long.

As we find throughout the documentary, it's because of the same sexist criticisms and scapegoating that we still label women with today. However, "The Disappearance of Shere Hite" is not just important for its subject matter — outside of its timeliness, it is a well-constructed and thorough examination of both Hite as a theorist and the larger discussion around female sexuality and autonomy.

A woman scorned

Hite was a woman of many identities, and all of them are displayed here in "The Disappearance of Shere Hite." Her background as a working-class, bisexual, former nude model (something that could be interpreted as sex work, given how some of these photographs appeared in Playboy) is shown to inform all aspects of her research, and these facts are integrated through well-edited archival footage.

Not a single piece of footage is used without meaning, even if they could be interpreted as unfavorable on her part. In fact, these types of instances, such as one from a botched interview with "A Current Affair," are utilized smartly. Much of the sexist confrontations in the film highlight her vulnerabilities while greatly supporting her thesis on male fragility. This effective editing and splicing are why these ideas are still conveyed despite a recurring miscast voiceover by producer Dakota Johnson, who, in an unrelated incident, recently made a pretty tasteless joke about the sexual assault accusations made against former co-star Armie Hammer.

The coloring of the documentary also is instrumental in telling Hite's story. Her high femininity is a recurring symbol of her popularity and pushback. Thus, the decision by colorist Ayumi Ashley to tint it in traditionally feminine colors adds an additional sense of reclamation to the film. The centering of fellow feminists, such as Karla Jay, in the talking heads segments also adds much-needed credibility to the call for reintroducing Hite into the feminist canon.

How do you define love?

Perhaps the greatest strength of "The Disappearance of Shere Hite," however, is its poignant sense of hope. Despite the hardships Hite endured in the media and her eventual exile from the public eye, an overarching optimism makes the documentary so engaging to watch. It hopes that women eventually do not have to endure what she did and that the radical feminism of the future will be sex-positive and inclusive. Unfortunately, much of modern radical feminist discussions online have been infiltrated with hateful anti-trans and anti-sex worker rhetoric, along with a pervasive sense that violent BDSM pornography and women freely expressing their sexuality are one and the same.

However, as Hite and her documentary demonstrate, it doesn't have to be like this. Radical feminism can involve radical self-love and inclusion just as it can be about destroying patriarchal systems. Sex and the embrace of female sexuality is a powerful tool, one that Hite's research and theories heavily promoted. As such, "The Disappearance of Shere Hite," in its thoughtful compilations and equally important talking heads, should be required viewing for every self-described feminist as we strive for a more sexually-inclusive world. Without it, Hite's hopes for a truly equal world might have been for nothing.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10