Nicole Newnham on the Power of Words in “The Disappearance of Shere Hite”

As recently as 2006 when Shere Hite made one of her last media appearances on “The Colbert Report,” the then-Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert wondered aloud if she invented the female orgasm. Of course, he was joking, but he was far from the only one to ask her the same question with a straight face when Hite had been one of the few to seriously speak about female sexuality openly in public, finding enormous success three decades earlier when she first published “The Hite Report,” a survey of women who could speak candidly about their sexual experiences under the cloak of anonymity that Hite would take any blowback for when facing conservative critics on her book tour. The rarely shared information, rigorously gathered by Hite through surveys she’d pass out any which way she could, would make the book a best seller instantly and subsequently sell over 50 million copies, yet after years of public scrutiny, the same kind that she once saw herself as a shield from for other women, she receded from the spotlight and as influential as “The Hite Report” once was, it similarly escaped the social consciousness.

“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” seems poised to spark a resurgence of interest when affording the writer and researcher the vital and vibrant portrait that she once gave to so many other women and her example became proof why so few are willing to come forward. Roundly criticized in predominantly male media circles for her research methodology and her work often eliciting giggles when those interviewing her could bring themselves to say words like “orgasm” or “clitoris,” Hite emerges as a gladiatorial figure in the profile from the “Crip Camp” co-director who bravely entered the ring time and again to demystify and take any notions of shame away from discussion of female pleasure and as much of an open book as she presented herself, the film allows her to express in her own words the whiplash she experienced from having done the work to present the real lives of women and reduced to one-dimensional image in the public sphere, her personal papers given voice by Dakota Johnson.

However, as Hite surely would’ve wanted, it isn’t her voice alone that you hear as Newnham and crew resurface her studies, devoting evocative and spirited sequences to the women who shared the most intimate details of their lives with her in their written responses and while a portrait emerges that there’s no monolithic female experience, there is strength in numbers when so many women have been compelled to keep their stories to themselves and comparing notes could make life feel far less lonely. A major highlight of Sundance this past January, the doc remains without peer as one of the most refreshing films of the year and as it arrives in theaters, Newnham spoke about how the conversations that it’s sparked after its festival screenings have been going on from the very start of production amongst a multigenerational crew, the energy that went into the film’s exuberant survey sequences and her fascination with coalition building and creating one herself inside “The Disappearance of Shere Hite”’s production.

How did you get interested in this?

The story between me and Shere Hite really started when I was 12 and I found “The Hite Report” in my mom’s bedside chest and I was like sucked like through some portal into this different world. Of course because I was 12, it was going to be different for me when I was just learning about sexuality in general, but I learned things by reading that book that I just didn’t learn anywhere else throughout the rest of my life. As I grew up, I would periodically think back to “The Hite Report,” because it was my frame of reference for knowing I wasn’t crazy, or other people experience this, because the way sexuality is presented in our culture, as we know, is very homogeneous and restricted and kind of patriarchal, so it was a blessing to me that I read that book.

Then I read her obituary in the New York Times in 2020 and the headline was “Shere Hite. She explained how women orgasm and she was hated for it.” And it really stopped me in my tracks. And I never really thought about who was this woman and what happened to her? And how could a woman like that get forgotten? So those burning questions started to take shape in my mind around a film and I also remember specific women’s voices from that book, which is wild, but I was very interested in the idea of a film about a one person like that, but also about all those women and then discovering that there were the actual surveys, and even audio recordings of some of the women themselves was just like wildly exciting to me.

I’m just going to jump into it then since those are some of the most beautiful sequences of the film. What was it like to bring all those women’s voices out?

I was awesome. It was so creatively satisfying because Shere’s archive was at Harvard in the Schlesinger Library and there were the original surveys women had written back, so we had the handwriting, and even the envelopes that they had mailed to her, which were so beautiful. They’d written her little notes and drawings and we had all of that human expression in those things. Then we had a handful of audio cassette tapes that people who just couldn’t bear typing responses to all those questions had sent her unsolicited and those were amazing because on some of the tapes, I could hear like the men of the household in the background moving around and doing things [while] the woman was speaking really softly. It just gave you this visceral sense of the intimacy with which these women were sharing things that they’d never shared with anyone before with Shere Hite.

In trying to bring those to life, we ended up figuring out that the first scenes were about that sharing [of information] process, and then the second scene about the surveys is really about female orgasm and how people specifically express that. So we found the written responses that were the most resonant and exciting and meaningful to us and we cut them together. Then we went through a process that was really amazing where we actually went back to the original surveys and looked at the demographic information about each person and the people that we had selected were extremely diverse in every way you you can possibly think of. Then we cast our friend — people we knew to read those voices, but we adhered to the demographics of the actual survey respondents, so for instance, Mary Lampson, our one of our consulting editors who’s in her seventies reads a voice [from someone in] their seventies. And we brought people in and picked people who fit those demographic categories that were really good to read those voices, but even the recording sessions were very cathartic and moving to people. The people reading it were getting a lot out of it, and we were too. It was making us talk about all these things and so many things in the process were like little consciousness raising sessions, giving us a taste of what what the actual process had been like at the time, and then infusing that back into the film.

Was it interesting moving from “Crip Camp” to this when you were really capturing the spirit of this collective energy going on?

I think I was attuned to that. I’m in love with the 1971 to ’76 period in American history, because even though it was very tumultuous and tough in some ways, there really was a broad cultural sense of the ability to create a better world and that that could be a collaborative activity. People were open to finding new allies around doing that and the idea of undefining sex from this very rigid notion and then opening it up to “Okay, what do we as individuals and also as a culture want it to be?” That seems so idealistic and almost old fashioned — to think that people were believing that they could do that then, but they really were. And for me and Jim LeBrecht and I, “Crip Camp” was about reactivating people and regalvanizing people to see, yes, people actually thought maybe we can do this thing and then they gathered together with lots of different people and built coalitions and that was one of the main reasons why the ADA came to be. And isn’t that incredible? And I felt the same way about Shere’s research. There was the opportunity to repicture a time when we were like happily imagining how things could be better for both men and women or people of all genders, if we were capable of recognizing the societal constructs that were oppressing people and move past that. In some ways, the generation post-“The Hite Report,” and the sexual revolution and feminism have done that. There has been progress, but in other ways, I think we’re still really living with those restrictions, so the story is an opportunity for people to engage with all of those questions, and hopefully think about what kind of future they would like to create.

What was it like to build a coalition of your own as far as the crew working on the film? From what I understand, the team that helped develop the project at NBC News was relatively young and the production was multigenerational.

Originally, I started independently researching the project and there was a producer at NBC News named Erica Fink, who read the same obituary I did and started thinking about it as something that NBC News Studios could do, unbeknownst to me. She was outraged as a young woman who had studied feminism that she had never heard of Shere Hite, but when she went into the database there, it turned out that NBC had done a lot of reporting on her, including packages where they had and raw material that had never aired or had only aired in some tiny capacity, so that made her more curious and there was a lot of material for them to work with. I ended up having a chance meeting where somebody told me they were developing a film about a sex researcher from the 1970s, and I was like, “If it’s Shere Hite, please let me know. I really want to do that film.”

I was pretty fascinated by to what extent it would still be relevant and I wanted this film to be as resonant with younger audiences as it was to people like me who lived through that Shere Hite era, and [NBC News Studios] was very generous about supporting me to really build the team that I wanted. We ended up partnering with This Machine, RJ Cutler’s company and I really knew I wanted to work with Eileen Meyer and Lauren Schwartzman, our editor and our assistant editor on “Crip Camp,” and also bring in Mary Lampson because, again, Mary is brilliant and was around during this time and involved in radical filmmaking and change making back in that era. Then were able to bring on Rose Bush, who is a trans woman, as a [director of photography] and that was really important to us too because Shere’s work, in my mind, was very prescient about how she thinks about gender, and they were very resonant for Rose, and Rose was really wonderful about helping us achieve that way that Cher was very ahead of her time, refusing to disacknowledge her love of beauty and femininity [which] was something we really wanted to bring into the cinematography and the look and feel of the film, almost as a political statement in and of itself. Everyone, including the colorist, was really chosen for their particular perspective — that includes men and women – and how the project resonated with them and the whole process was a dialogue between all of us wrestling with the material itself and the work that Shere did and what we saw happen to her.

It seems obvious now that you let Shere have her own voice in the film, but how did you realize she could come to narrate this?

We had a student at Harvard going through the papers and sending things to us and the writing was very powerful and visceral and very contemporaneous with with her life story, so we were finding passages [where] we would be interviewing Robert McGinnis, the illustrator, and building out a scene about how she was doing this nude modeling for him for James Bond posters. Then we would literally find typed-up text of her [in her papers], thinking about the modeling industry and her own participation in it from the perspective of somebody who’s having a feminist awakening because she’s in New York and she’s mingling with feminists, but it wouldn’t be a [published] essay she wrote. It was [more] like, “I’m tired, and it’s eight o’clock at night, and I’m just like typing my heart out,” but it jumped out immediately to us as something that would give us access to her inner life.

That was extremely important to us — to try to craft the film as to be as immersive and experiential as possible, and from her point of view, because it’s an exercise in taking a flattened caricature of a person, which was what the public was left with once the media was done with her and then trying to bring them back in all of their complexity and humanity. So the inner voice was really important, and we were just so fortunate to get Dakota Johnson to come on board and be the voice of Shere.

It seems like this couldn’t be coming out at a better time. What’s it been like engaging with audiences?

It’s really exciting and it’s been very moving to me. A woman who came to a screening recently said that she had gone to school to be an OB-GYN, and they had never talked about the clitoris, and had never shown anyone even a drawing of the anatomy of the clitoris in med school, and [I’ve had] older women telling me that they really didn’t know that basic information about female orgasm their whole life. Then younger women have said they didn’t know Shere Hite, but have already bought the books in the middle of the screening and want to know where she got her clothes, thrilled by the opportunity to have have her back and what she stood for. That’s what we wanted — to re-gift people this extraordinary legacy that hopefully could inspire us for the challenging times ahead.

Maybe the most profoundly moving screening I did was in Ohio before the vote last week when people were really devastated and really upset [that the abortion rights amendment to the state constitution might end up failing]. Many women came up to me after screenings and literally couldn’t talk to me. They were so upset because I think it gets at the core of the efforts that control female sexuality in a way that I think is unique and surprising to people and that conversation has not been kept up since Shere Hite’s book came out in a way that maybe it should have, so it gives people a way to tap into the pain of what’s happening to them now in a very visceral and emotional way. That’s been sobering to see alongside all the activated fierce responses, and it makes me hopeful that people might take away something from this that will help us get out in the streets and do what we have to do to make victories like what happened in Ohio.

“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” opens on November 17th in New York at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles at the AMC Burbank 16. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.

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