It was 50 years ago this November that London’s Royal Albert Hall became the center of the struggle for women’s rights. That evening, Jennifer Hosten of Grenada became the first black woman to be crowned Miss World, comedian Bob Hope told some sexist jokes and a group of feminist activists staged a dramatic flour-bombing protest.
It’s taken the past five decades for the flour dust to settle enough to make sense of it, but now we have Misbehaviour, a movie that turns “intersectional feminism” – the 1989 coinage of feminist scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw – into moving entertainment. Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, it tells the intertwined stories of the women who took part in Miss World 1970 and those who protested against it.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays the thoughtful and driven Hosten, while Keira Knightley is Sally Alexander, a mature student and single mother who joins forces with the more radical Jo Robinson, played by Jessie Buckley, who fizzes with anarchic energy. Sally and Jo’s first interaction – at the inaugural Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) conference – lays bare their differences. When Sally intervenes to stop Jo defacing the busts of some austere-looking patriarchs, Jo asks defiantly: “So you don’t want to bring down the male establishment? You just want a seat at the table?” An irritated Sally retorts, “Well, if I’m in it, it won’t be the male establishment anymore, will it?” And with the benefit of another half-century’s hindsight, women in the cinema may find themselves wondering whether that would be the case.
Historical drama is supposed to invite present-day comparisons, but rarely does a movie feel quite as relevant as Misbehaviour. Alongside the Miss World plot, it details the many ‘minor’ indignations that women endure daily: a boss making suggestive comments, women’s history being dismissed as a niche interest, or a wife who puts up with her husband’s infidelity because she can’t afford to leave him.
One thing that has undoubtedly changed is the beauty pageant itself. It was Eric Morley (played as comic relief by Rhys Ifans) and his wife, Julia Morley (a dignified Keeley Hawes), who transformed the event from a 1950s British seaside whimsy into a big-money extravaganza with an international audience of millions. Those who dismiss beauty contests as trivial might consider that the current US President built his profile – and arguably attitude to women – as owner of the US equivalent, Miss Universe, from 1996 to 2015.
Perhaps more significant is how the industry’s understanding and appreciation of beauty has changed. Before Jennifer Hosten was crowned Miss World, no woman of color had won either that title or Miss Universe. Since 1970, women of color have won multiple times. The standards set still demand slim physiques, however. The beauty industry may have shifted, but not wholly.
What does all this matter, when the pageant ‘cattle market’ is so demeaning to women, regardless of race? That’s the stance taken in the film by Sally and the rest of the (mainly white, mainly middle-class) protestors. The beauty of Mbatha-Raw’s performance is how movingly it conveys both a different perspective and the wider relevance of Hosten’s personal ambition. In a bathroom confrontation, it’s she who gets the last word: “Well, Sally, all I can say is, I look forward to having your choices in life.”
Back in 1970, Sally’s choices included switching off the TV to prevent her young daughter from being exposed to the “degrading and sexist” Miss World. In 2020, the ubiquity of images of female physical perfection on social media has removed that option. But social media has also brought the fight into the mainstream. While Jo and Sally’s rows took place behind the commune doors, now ‘reform vs. revolution’ is hashed out in full view online.
At a time when intersectionality is frequently misunderstood and thrown around almost as an insult, Misbehaviour offers inspiration. It seems each generation argues with the last about what it means to be a woman, because – thanks to our collective efforts – what it means is still changing. But when women acknowledge their differing perspectives, it can make our union even stronger. And for those outside the movement, the message is even simpler: if feminists are such a bunch of kill-joys, how come Misbehaviour is so much fun?