The year is 1970 and early stirrings of the Women’s Liberation Movement are coming to life in Britain. Women from different classes and backgrounds are starting to form organisations to combat sexism in a variety of ways; from hosting consciousness raising groups and meetings, to direct action that range from postering feminist art and spray-painting billboards with pro-feminist messages. However, the movement still sits on the fringes of broader society and has yet managed to reach any kind of mainstream attention.
Misbehaviour features the story of History student and divorced mother of a young girl, Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), who is looking for “a seat at the table” in her stuffy university classes dominated by men. They speak over her and question whether her focus on women is going to pigeon hole her into only looking at the plight of minorities on the world stage. By chance she meets the irrepressible commune dwelling activist Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) who favours a more aggressive stance against the patriarchy which includes her illegally defacing sexist advertising and creating visible protests to push forward her feminist beliefs.
1970 is also the time when the Miss World Competition is at a zenith of popularity. The 1969 televised special managed to capture a larger audience than both the moon landing and the soccer World Cup. Billed as “family entertainment” the competition rests under the guidance of creator Eric Morely (a hilariously smarmy Rhys Ifans) and his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes). The competition is shown to be at its heart a place for beautiful women with similar measurements (32-24-32 inches approximately) to show themselves in a variety of clothing and poses, particularly important being the swimsuit modelling. Although Julia tries to impress that the competition is also interested in the minds of the beauty queens, Eric makes it clear that the pageant is about what’s shown and is very much about sexualising the competitors.
Whilst watching television one night with her mother (Phyllis Logan), partner Gareth, and young daughter Abi, Sally sees a news segment on the Miss World contest. Distressed at how immediately her young daughter starts to mimic the contestants she rails against the sexism that treats women like cattle to be judged on how they best please the male gaze. Her concerns also encompass how women are made to compete with each other on the basis of how they look, something she views as hindering the ability of women to reach any form of equality with men.
During a meeting at the communal living space that Jo shares with many likeminded women Sally brings up how appalled she is with the competition. Although the relatively bourgeois Sally is the only person to own a television and think mainstream media is an essential tool to promote the message of feminism, the collective starts creating posters calling out the Miss World pageant for its sexism and plastering them on the doors of the head office of the competition. The mainstream media picks up on the protest, and Sally becomes a spokesperson for the women objecting to the pageant and plans begin to form to disrupt the pageant’s televised event.
Interspersed with the energetic events unfolding in the women’s movement is the story of the 1970 pageant. Miss World is coming under fire for more than being a sexist institution. There are also claims of racism, especially from anti-Apartheid activists who question why only a white South African woman is chosen to compete. This leads the canny Eric Morely to insist that a black woman also be sent along, filling the role of “Miss Africa South” and thus Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) is flown to London for the competition. 1970 was also the first year that Caribbean nation Grenada sent a representative to compete in Jenny Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The stories of Pearl and Jenny are poignant reminders that women of colour are facing a two-fold struggle against racism and sexism. The pageant is something that can quite literally change their lives as well as give young black girls the opportunity to see themselves represented as beautiful and on a global platform. Their hopes and aspirations are seen as valid, with director Philippa Lowthorpe presenting the pageant as a positive step for many of the competitors. For the supposed competition favourite Miss Sweden (Clara Rosager), the process is a bore and at times beneath her contempt, yet for Miss Grenada and Miss Africa South it is something that is hopeful.
Greg Kinnear playing Hollywood superstar Bob Hope (with more than a little assistance with nasal prosthetics) represents perhaps the most egregious example of the pageant as sexist spectacle. Not only did womaniser Hope decide to bring back the winner of the 1961 pageant to Hollywood to launch her (unsuccessful) acting career, during the period he was also travelling to do shows for the troops in Vietnam with the annual winner of the competition. Hardly a poster boy for progressive politics, it is Hope’s sexist repartee during the television broadcast that finally tips the protesting women into action.
Misbehaviour is a clever and lively recreation of the true events of the 1970 Miss World pageant. Although the tone of the film is light and at times comedic (watch for a fabulous Lesley Manville in a small role as the exasperated Mrs Hope) it nonetheless manages to give an authentic voice to the burgeoning Women’s Movement that would soon become a world changing political force. By disrupting the pageant the activists managed to put women’s liberation on the front page of major newspapers and into the mainstream media. Just months after the events of Miss World 1970 the first Women’s Liberation march occurred in London with thousands of attendees.
Phillipa Lowthorpe has brought together a talented cast and crew to create a film that satisfies in an energetic and at times affecting manner. Kiera Knightley works especially well when she’s paired with Jessie Buckley. The two actors both providing first-rate performances as the committed activists. However, in many ways, the film belongs to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose turn as Miss Grenada combines a hopefulness twinned with the realisation that her opportunities are hard won. The real-life Jenny Hosten moved from being a beauty queen to becoming an international diplomat for Grenada – effectively proving that she too was committed to going beyond the antiquated gender roles available for women during the period.
Misbehaviour should find a wide and appreciative audience as it makes its politics clear but never preachy. Fifty years down the track women are still fighting for gender equality and watching this clever and succinct period film reminds us of the pioneers who took risks and made big splashes in their attempts to bring down the patriarchy. Less a call to arms than a reminder of the work done and still to do, Misbehaviour stands as fine and timely entertainment.
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