Back in 1970, members of the Women’s Liberation Movement pelted the stage of the Miss World competition with flour bombs and heckled host Bob Hope. If this is news to you as it was to me, the actual video of the protest is something to behold. Fifty years later, as fights against the patriarchy still rage, director Philippa Lowthorpe is taking a look back at that landmark protest.
Misbehaviour tells the story of several key figures involved in the Miss World pageant as well as leaders of the 1970 demonstration. Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) studies history while raising her daughter as a single parent. She regularly encounters sexist attitudes at her university but believes her presence there will provide opportunities to make a positive difference. She meets Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) at a womens meeting and is intrigued by her more radical style of feminism. Jo does not believe you can work within the system, preferring direct action and confrontation as the way to effect real change.
The story of Sally, Jo, and their fellow protestors is contrasted by the actions within the Miss World competition. Comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) agrees to host, much to the chagrin of his wife Dolores (Lesley Manville). It turns out old Bob had a romantic fling with a previous Miss World winner. Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) represents Grenada as the country’s first contestant sent to compete at Miss World. She befriends Miss Africa South, Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), one of two contestants sent by South Africa. (The white contestant was given the Miss South Africa designation.) Requiring South Africa to send a second contestant was Miss World’s lukewarm response to criticisms it was condoning South Africa’s racist Apartheid system. It is worth noting that up until the 1970 competition, a black contestant had never won Miss World.
The film fully embraces the ’70s, infusing it with an inherent sense of fun. Earth tones, straight hair, and cigarettes are practically their own characters. While the overt sexism on display can be appalling – pageant founder Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) literally says the contestants must be “untouched” – the presentation manages to leave you both offended and amused. Even knowing many of the things that are said would not fly today, there is more than a little discomfort in finding the rampant misogyny funny. The film does nothing to condone it, but I am not sure we should be ready to laugh at it. We have come a long way, but we have not come that far.
Critiques of feminism often point to the lack of intersectionality. Misbehaviour shines best when it showcases this struggle. Early in the film, Jo confronts Sally about her plans to work with her “seat at the table” at university. Sally struggles continually to align her own convictions with family and personal goals. Later in the film, she makes it clear that her group of protestors takes no fault with the contestants in Miss World. Her accidental meeting with Miss Grenada shows that the women competing do not feel the same way. You cannot attack the pageant for its sexism without the contestants feeling some of the sting.
While most of the casting is superb, Kinnear provides a distractingly bad turn as Bob Hope. It would be challenging for anyone to take on a character so well known, but all of the nasal prosthetics in the world could not sell him as the 67-year-old (in 1970) comedian. The time the film devotes to Hope could have been easily trimmed down to just his appearance on stage during the competition.
Misbehaviour‘s overly ambitious storytelling creates the film’s primary weakness. Interesting characters abound, but only Knightley’s Sally has a satisfyingly fleshed out arc. The rest serve as compelling reminders of the stories still left to tell. It is particularly disappointing that the film chooses to highlight two black contestants, Jennifer and Pearl, without giving us a fulfilling narrative about either.
The film manages to slightly redeem those flaws in the closing when we get a “where are we now” update on the main characters. Even the credits were delightful, filled with real photos from the 1970s. While Misbehaviour does have its faults, this fascinating slice of history is definitely worth your time.
Misbehaviour is in select theaters and on VOD on September 25, 2020.
In 1970, the Miss World competition took place in London, hosted by US comedy legend, Bob Hope. At the time, Miss World was the most-watched TV show on the planet with over 100 million viewers. Claiming that beauty competitions demeaned women, the newly formed Women’s Liberation Movement achieved overnight fame by invading the stage and disrupting the live broadcast of the competition. Not only that, when the show resumed, the result caused uproar: the winner was not the Swedish favourite but Miss Grenada, the first black woman to be crowned Miss World. In a matter of hours, a global audience had witnessed the patriarchy driven from the stage and the Western ideal of beauty turned on its head.