With the first UK women’s liberation conference taking place at Oxford University in 1970, feminists plot to disrupt the final of that year’s Miss World contest – while for the pageant’s Black contestants, success could mean opportunities that won’t get any other way.
I came out of Misbehaviour wanting to flour bomb Bob Hope while wearing a tiara, which sounds like very 21st century feminism.
It’s a film that’s often funny, often fabulous, and generally somewhat overfilled. Though there’s also something rather earnest about it, a feeling that we should all learn something, like the women in the film. (The men it features, not so much. The one “nice guy” is already nice and does childcare without complaint. The rest – Miss World founder Eric Morley, Hope, venerable TV interviewer Robin Day etc – are all sexist pigs.)
Looking at how race, class and age affect women’s choices within feminism, Misbehaviour casts its perfectly-made up eye over beauty pageants: from their objectification of women, while also pitting them against each other, to the opportunities they give women who feel excluded by feminism, to racism in prevailing beauty standards. (It’s only in 2020 that the Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss America titles are all held by Black women.)
The title is a great pun on the contestants’ labels, but also shows how horrified the responses are to a little bad behaviour by women. Step outside that kitchen, ladies, and all hell breaks loose. The well-documented protest at the 1970 Miss World finals in London made headlines around the world, those flour bombs, water pistols, banners and sloganeering so unlike what was expected of women.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s I’d heard the event was disrupted by feminists, but not that 1970’s Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, was the first Black woman to be crowned Miss World.
Jennifer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in London with 49 other contestants, is taking part in a spectacle that even 50 years ago was looking creaky, though its viewing figures were still huge. More people watched the final than the Moon landings, or the World Cup.
Its founder Eric Morley (an increasingly hysterical Rhys Ifans) is accosted by Peter Hain, anti-apartheid campaigner and later Labour cabinet minister, warning that the event will be picketed because only white women are chosen as South Africa’s representatives; Morley hurriedly arranges for a Black contestant, Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), with the title “Miss Africa South”.
Meanwhile the women’s liberation movement has the first of its UK conferences. It’s here that organiser Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) first meets the raucous Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley, deservedly everywhere at the moment), who lives in a commune and spray-paints messages over sexist advertising posters.
With feminist groups springing up everywhere, they start campaigning against Miss World because of its objectification of its contestants. And objectifying it is: there’s a particularly unpleasant point during the final when the “girls” are on stage in swimsuits, and have to turn and stand with their backs to the audience so they can be admired. Drawn out and uncomfortable, it contrasts with the earlier cheery, Miss UK final, which while just as objectifying has the air of a seedy holiday camp about it, with cheap decorations and an audience of about 25.
The feminists are at pains to point out that it’s the event they are criticising not the women taking part; though it doesn’t feel like that to Jennifer, who knows what a win would mean to little girls watching who look like her.
Miss Sweden, Maj Johansson (Clara Rossager), is favourite to take the crown but complains about intrusive photographers; Jennifer points out she doesn’t have that problem.
Sally is middle class but with university not an option at 18, she’s had to apply as a mature student. Divorced with a daughter, her panel interview is dotted with a succession of sexist remarks and assumptions.
She clashes with Jo, whose feminist activism is blunter than Sally’s. “One big fat celebration of oppression”, Jo calls Miss World. Meanwhile Sally holds her own on TV, arguing their case against news heavyweight Robin Day.
The feminist meetings are a hoot. “Isn’t arson a bit male anyway” says one young woman when they discuss Page 3 and whether they should attack the newspaper behind it.
A film that critiques our ideas of beauty is always going to be conflicted on how to present that beauty. I loved the shots of the contestants’ feet – ’60s block-heeled shoes and white boots – rather than their faces and bodies as the finalists get of the bus at Miss World HQ for the first time. (Then it’s time for chaperones and a “statutory padding check”.)
And director Philippa Lowthorpe gives that romcom fave, the “trying on of multiple outfits for an event” trope, a twist as the women search for clothes that will help them blend in with the audience at the Miss World finals. Rifling at speed through the commune wardrobes, Jo and her friends, usually in dungarees and home knits, end up resplendent in a mishmash of what constitutes “posh”.
Sally’s class can take her places with ease where others struggle, whether it’s Jo and her friends, working class women, fitting in with the Royal Albert Hall crowd, or Jennifer and Pearl in the contest itself.
Lowthorpe doesn’t hold back from showing feminism’s multiple effects on women: not just Jennifer, whose even more limited choices aren’t really understood by Sally, but also Sally’s mother Evelyn (Phyllis Logan). She absolutely feels Sally’s rejection of her life in her daughter’s adoration of her father and her father’s adventures, all made possible because of Evelyn being at home.
This is the 1970s, and there wasn’t an outfit I didn’t covet, yes even the frumpiest of the national dress costumes. Julia Morley (an excellent Keeley Hawes, positioning her character as very much the brains behind the operation) and Eric live in a world of polished wood and satin sheets; the contestants’ hotel rooms are all single beds and minimal (rather than minimalist) furniture as they practise walking with books on their heads and worry about messing up their big chance.
It’s a top notch cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw is terrific as the thoughtful, measured Jennifer, always having to suppress her feelings, whether faced with Eric Morley or the flour-throwing feminists. Knightley is as impressive as always (I sometimes feel her ubiquity and talent lead me to take her for granted as an actress).
And Greg Kinnear is a gleefully smirking Bob Hope, all retro chauvinism and self-regard.
A delicious Lesley Manville plays his angry wife Delores, still raging at his past Miss World-related infidelities and determined to keep him on a leash this time. She isn’t in many scenes but when she is she sizzles with anger and, later, schadenfreude.
Watch the Misbehaviour trailer now: