Pulling text from Hite’s writings, the surveys that informed her famous work, newscasts, and interviews with friends and former flames, Newnham constructs a fascinating portrait of an ambitious woman. She was smart and pretty, someone who modeled in sexist ads of the day and critiqued their shallowness. She created a glamorous self-image that threatened the Patriarchy yet caught their attention. Ultimately, she paid a heavy price for findings like how few women actually felt satisfied with their male partners, the rampant infidelity among married couples, and how few people at the time understood women’s sexual organs at all.
Hite’s insightful words guide the documentary from one part of her life to the next. Some come from the many media appearances she made during the heyday of her publishing career when TV hosts invited her to scandalize their viewers. Much of the film’s narration is based on Hite’s writings and performed by Dakota Johnson, who loosely matches Hite’s naturally breathy voice, giving us a sense of the person behind the persona she presented in public interviews. Her eventual disappearance only makes sense in this painful context: her detailed feelings about her background and how the increased scrutiny from moral majority types and chauvinists wore on her spirit. When she starts to defend herself, some in the documentary wish she hadn’t fought back against sexist critics, but her righteous anger feels so controlled in comparison to the blatant attacks on her character and her work. In essence, she was slut shamed out of history, and we are forced to reckon with that loss.
Newnham (“Crip Camp”) lucked out on a subject who made numerous television appearances and often posed for photographer friends, leaving behind a large visual archive. Newnham and editor Eileen Meyer creatively use these elements to tell Hite’s story and the women of her time. They bring in other footage of the era to illustrate the world of Hite’s survey responders: mothers holding babies, preparing dinner, or preparing to pose for a family portrait. They’re old home movies, zoomed in to keep the identities anonymous, just like with the responders. There are also historic scenes from events like NOW conferences and Florida’s homophobic panic against gay rights led by Anita Bryant and her fundamentalist ilk. As the early feminist movement explained, the personal was political, and these larger cultural moments are also a vital part of Hite’s story.
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