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Thread: THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE (Nicole Newham 2023)

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    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area



    A feminist writer's great fame and later trouble

    There is nothing original about the method of this documentary, but it successfully blends archival clips and current talking heads to bring back to awareness a researcher and writer about sexuality of the seventies and eighties who became a famous figure and played a part in the women's movement but now seems relatively forgotten, even though her books remain in print, worldwide.

    Hite's first and most famous book, The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, first published in 1976 and republished even today and in many languages, was groundbreaking, made her well off (for a while anyway) and famous, and is listed as around the 30th most widely published book in the world. But things eventually went wrong, hence the "disappearance" of the title.

    The Hite Report is a title that echoes The Kinsey Report. Building on Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, Hite sent out thousands of mimeographed questionnaires of which perhaps twenty percent were returned to her. The book looked into female sexuality from individual experience and found much that was not then widely known. It emphasized that vaginal orgasm was a myth and that women got a great deal more pleasure from masturbation than from intercourse. Her soft voiced use of words like "clitoris," "orgasm," and "masturbation" sent out shock waves on national TV. The findings and emphases fit in with feminism and the women's movement. Some men, of course, took no interest or uneasily looked the other way, though they actively took arms or began debunking both Hite and her work only when she began writing about men.

    The most interesting and colorful part of the film depicts Hite's early days in New York. She was a graduate student but worked at many jobs. It was the seventies. People who knew her then talk about how she struggled to support herself, especially doing modeling, some very artistic, working with several fine photographers who became close friends; others for James Bond covers and Olivetti became famous. She was never not striking and stylish. She also did some of her sexual study research while working at the Natinal Organization of Women (NOW). So much was going on. She had tremendous drive and focus. There were a number of men in her life and we hear from them now. When she became a success she left her rat-and-roach-infested Central Park West basement apartment and took a beautiful Fifth Avenue ground floor one that she decorated in baroque splendor and lived in with the German classical pianist whom she married. It would be a pretty interesting life even without the groundbreaking writing, the super-bestseller, and the notoriety. Shere Hite is just a striking cultural figure, a biographical goldmine only touched on here, starting with the strawberry blonde red hair and ivory skin and lovely clothes and moving on to the extraordinarily bold, groundbreaking books.

    Hite had been deserted early by both parents and raised by grandparents in Florida, and after college there did graduate work at Columbia University, reportedly interested in "the French Revolution, classical music and Balkan farming," which she abandoned, according to her, due to the chauvinism of her male academic supervisors. Her work showed intelligence and high seriousness, which some men disbelieved in due to her beauty and sexiness. She published a number of other books and was a respected contributor to the feminist movement. We hear from some of her close movement associates and friends of the time. We also hear from a number of her boyfriends, who are interesting people. One book in particular, published by Knopf (we hear detailed comments on this débâcle from both her editor and her publicist there), also based on questionnaires, was about male sexuality and male emotional lives, which she found to be lonely and frustrated. This report received many negative reactions, among men at least. The backlash against feminism is underlined here by clip passages about the anti-feminism of the Christian right highlighted by the media dominance of Anita Bryant and the success of an abuser of women like Clarence Thomas getting confirmed for appointment to the Supreme Court, where he spearheads the retro anti-female movement of today.

    She was vulnerable to ad hominem criticisms of her seriousness - she had worked as a model and posed nude for Playboy, not behavior deemed fitting for a scholar and researcher. The fact that she was tall, good looking, had dramatic red hair and dressed beautifully may not have brought favor either. ("Living well is the best revenge," but doing so may bring on the vengeful envy of others.) Anyway several generous clips from TV programs on which Hite appeared show her beginning to be ground up by the machine of media. She made the mistake, some think, of entering into debates with her detractors when she should have let her work speak for itself. Some shows, like the long-ago Oprah with an all male audience, is as Jessica Kiang says in her enthusiastic Variety review, "genuinely enraging to watch." TV was never a place where intelligence reigned.

    After this plans for a paperback edition were dropped and publishers didn't want to sponsor new books by Hite. Her self esteem had been wounded by crude attacks on her work. It isn't surprising, though sad, that she dropped out and (perhaps inspired by her world-touring musician husband, whom we hear nothing about) chose to stop living in the United States altogether, even renouncing American citizenship.

    In one short period Hite lost control, not turning up for one interview and angrily walking out of several others on the air. At some point she in fact did disappear, leaving the beautiful Fifth Avenue apartment virtually overnight. Her latter years, when she resurfaces, show her living somewhat sub rosa in England, Germany, and Paris. Though the film doesn't tell us this till the final titles, she renounced her American citizenship in 1995, assumed the German citizenship of her husband, and died in 2020.

    Jessica Kiang writes, "You are not alone if you simply can’t stop asking yourself, 'How on earth did I not know about this woman before?'" That is reason for seeing this interesting, sometimes shocking film.

    The Disappearance of Shere Hite, 116 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2023, showing at over a dozen other festivals, all domestic, except Amsterdam. US rlease started Nov. 17, 2023. Metacritic rating: 84%.
    genuinely enraging to watch
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-18-2023 at 09:19 PM.


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