“Hi. How are you guys?”
Dakota Johnson has just Zoomed in, joining director Nicole Newnham for a conversation about their recent collaboration, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” a revelatory documentary about the sex researcher whose journey from independent researcher to media sensation to cultural pariah followed a dismally familiar American arc of titillation, celebrity, misogyny and weaponized forgetting.
Hite’s most famous work, “The Hite Report,” was published in 1976, the result of surveying thousands of women about the most intimate — and hitherto unreported — aspects of their sex lives, from how they masturbated to agonizing self-doubt and loneliness. While doing publicity for the book, Hite, who died in 2020 at age 77, was greeted with a combination of 1970s-era open-mindedness and leering fascination. When she dared to challenge the notion of the vaginal orgasm — insisting that clitoral stimulation was far more effective in bringing women pleasure — she was alternately lionized, shamed and ultimately marginalized.
As Johnson arrives on Zoom, though, she wants to talk not about Hite, but about sex with a capital S — specifically, the Museum of Sex in Miami, where she just spent 20 hours on a whirlwind tour. A preview of an exhibit called “Superfunland” featured a riff on the B-movie classic “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman,” complete with what Johnson calls a “vagina [that] glows like Kryptonite” and “a bouncy castle made of boobs.”
Johnson was at the museum as an investor and co-creative director of the sexual well-being company Maude, a sponsor of the forthcoming exhibit “Modern Sex: 100 Years of Design and Decency,” which traces the invention and marketing of a century’s worth of sexual health products — including an original copy of “The Hite Report.”
“The exhibit is really beautiful,” Johnson tells Newnham, “and it’s kind of subversive. You think you’re looking at the history of sex devices and advertising, but then you leave going, ‘Well, I guess we’ve come far, but have we actually come very far?’”
That’s the precise question raised by “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” which Newnham conceived after reading a Hite obituary titled “Shere Hite: She explained how women orgasm — and was hated for it.”
“I kind of fell off my chair,” recalls Newnham, who co-directed 2020’s “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” “I was simultaneously feeling outraged by that headline and taking a trip back in time, to when I was 12 and I read ‘The Hite Report’ on my mom’s bedside chest.” The book, she says, invited her into a world of “women talking openly about their sexuality in a way that we just weren’t, otherwise. Or at least I wasn’t otherwise.” It became “this treasure chest that I carried with me for the rest of my life.”
When Newnham read Hite’s obituary, she says, “it took me down this whole rabbit hole of wondering how did she do the work? Who was she? Who was that impossibly glamorous person in the picture? How did she create herself? And what was the nature of the backlash against her?” (After its remaining theatrical runs, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” will be available for rental and on demand Jan. 9.)
Newnham says she approached Johnson to provide Hite’s voice in the film “because of her amazingness as an actor.” But, she adds, addressing Johnson, “you have a quality about you that reminds me of Shere — strength and unabashed femininity, and the way you’ve navigated your public presence in regards to sexuality and all of the prickly, tough things that that brings up in a patriarchy.” (“Thanks,” Johnson says softly.)
What Newnham didn’t know then was that Johnson had already considered doing a Hite project through her production company, TeaTime Pictures. “To discover that you already loved Shere, and she was already a figure that you wanted to celebrate and elevate, you can’t even begin to imagine how thrilled I was,” Newnham recalls. “Because it meant you could really go deep into it and bring out something that was beyond my capacity to even really imagine in the role.”
Hite was an unapologetically theatrical figure, a self-dramatizer who dressed in romantic, costume-like ensembles and made the most of her Pre-Raphaelite looks. In “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” Johnson doesn’t attempt a vocal impersonation of Hite. She delivers a performance that’s far more interior, intimate and vulnerable.
“Before we recorded it, I felt like what was missing was how she spoke to herself,” Johnson explains. “And that felt like an entirely different person to know. I feel like I’ve experienced little tastes of being shut down publicly, or being talked about negatively publicly. And I can imagine that the outward voice that you hear from her is very different from the inward voice that she has for herself.”
One of the most striking things about “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” is how Hite’s beauty and embrace of glamour operated in her life, making her both an irresistible figure and someone who was consistently underestimated as an intellect and academic. Her looks were simultaneously her currency and her greatest liability.
“I identify,” Johnson says with a laugh.
When asked to say more, she responds, “I don’t know how to say more.”
Then she says a lot more.
Hite “knew how to use herself and her body,” Johnson says, but it came out of a spirit of inquiry that she instinctively shares. “I understand that I could use my body and my face and my voice — or whatever — as a tool for my work,” she says. “But even when I was 23 and I auditioned for the part in ‘Fifty Shades [of Grey],’ I was so curious about it. I was just like, ‘What an interesting dynamic between two young people.’ That was really what I was focused on, was this sexual dynamic, this power dynamic, how deep love kind of shifts and shapes those things.”
It isn’t lost on Johnson, 34, that she’s part of a storied lineage deeply entwined with Hollywood’s constricting and contradictory attitudes toward sexuality: Her grandmother, Tippi Hedren, has spoken about the predation she suffered at the hands of director Alfred Hitchcock, and her mother, Melanie Griffith, was at one point a similar muse for Brian De Palma. Johnson was directed by a woman — Sam Taylor-Johnson — for her breakout role in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” about a young woman exploring a sadomasochistic relationship with a wealthy bachelor. Since then, she says, her work keeps gravitating toward dynamics around sex, relationships, power and self-knowledge.
“I’m starting to feel now like this is part of my life’s work,” the actress says. “Sexual wellness, awareness, female sexuality, women’s rights, women’s reproductive rights. This is part of [the] work in my life that I’m here to do.
“I grew up being told that my body was sacred and beautiful and special and to be protected and to be cared for,” Johnson adds. “I think it’s so important to be able to talk about sex and our bodies and sexuality and gender freely, without fear, without any kind of stigma. And still also keep ourselves sacred and hold ourselves in our bodies in high regard and keep ourselves precious. And maybe that’s a form of self-love.”
Still, Johnson is aware that the discourse is still taking place within a social context that might not be so enlightened. Seen through one lens, a bouncy castle made of boobs is playful and bracingly forthright; through another, it’s part of a long, dubious habit of reducing women to their fetishized parts.
Although her publicist jumps in to say she has to go, Johnson insists on staying to grapple with the question. “I understand the idea of how a booby bouncy castle is objectifying women,” she says. “But it’s also really beautiful. And it’s like an incredible little world that was made. So you can look at it so many different ways.” She hesitates. “I can see how what I’m saying is going to become like some kind of clickbait nightmare for me, but … I guess I think there’s a way for both things to exist.”
Newnham jumps in. “I think that’s partly how we are trained to rush to judgment around sexuality in a way that’s really painful,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important that [Hite] was out there on talk shows saying words like ‘clitoral stimulation’ — not to be profane, but just to not keep that painfully hidden. That was one of the most striking things to me, was the fact that those conversations were happening in the ’70s on the nightly news, and they’re not happening anywhere now.”
Johnson, for one, would like to change that.
“It just kind of keeps unfolding and unfolding and unfolding, this journey of understanding sexuality and relationships between people,” she says, adding that at one point, when she was at the Museum of Sex, she found herself asking, “What am I doing here?” She answers her own question: “Maybe it’s because I have a sense of curiosity coupled with a bravery around it. I don’t feel ashamed or scared to ask questions or understand more. So I’m starting to come to terms with that.”
As for the question Johnson raised earlier, about whether we’ve come that far, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” raises it without resolving it.
“I think it’s a question for people who watch it,” Johnson says. “It’s just: ‘Here are the facts. Here’s a story. What do you think?’ Because I think we have come a long way. And I think we also haven’t, in a lot of ways. Just like I’m sitting here going, ‘How am I going to be taken down for what I’m saying in this interview?’”
She laughs, but the trepidation is real. And understandable. Still, if women keep allowing fear and ambivalence and self-protection to censor the truth, where’s the progress in that?
“Let’s absolve ourselves,” Johnson says brightly. “The three of us on this Zoom. Let’s absolve ourselves of that today. We can let that go.”
“That would be great,” Newnham says.
“And if anybody’s going to take the heat, it’s going to be me.” And with that, Dakota Johnson has left the meeting.