I happened to watch Misbehaviour, a movie I stumbled upon by luck, on the eve of the 2021 Miss Universe pageant, which took some of the buoyancy out of this gentle and lightly humorous look at the real-life protests surrounding the 1970 Miss World competition and the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement in England. We’ve come so far, and yet here we are. Still, it’s refreshing to see a movie try so diligently to express the perspectives of women grappling with the patriarchy, even though I did sometimes wish for a little more grit and depth.
Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) is a divorced mother applying to a history program as a mature student. She sits straight-backed in a row of pimply young men, waiting her turn for an interview. Inside the interview room, she sits before a panel of men who slyly compare ratings on her looks and question what her husband will think of her returning to school and how she’ll manage childcare. Ah, yes. A tale as old as time. It should be a crime. At the very leeeeeeaaaaaast. (Sung to the tune of “Beauty and the Beast.”)
Elsewhere, Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), the founder of the Miss World pageant, is busily telling reporters all about the ideal measurements for a participant—34-24-36, in case you were wondering—and how she must be pure of heart and vagina (I’m paraphrasing), while his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes) unsuccessfully tries to refocus the conversation on the scholarship and empowerment aspects of the event. At one point she gives him a purely Keeley Hawes disgusted look, which never fails to make me swoon. (You’ll be astonished to learn that a lot of the behind-the-scenes finessing is done by Julia rather than Eric, though it’s he who gets all of the credit. A real shocker, I know.) The movie does a nice job of cutting back and forth between these two events, highlighting the similarities between Sally’s and the contestants’ situations of needing the approval of a panel of men in order to advance in their vocations.
Soon after her interview, Sally attends a women’s conference where she runs into Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), a counterculture activist who lives in a commune and conveys her message via red spray-painted slogans on billboards. Jo and Sally share a passion for women’s rights and undermining the patriarchy, but starkly diverge on how to do it. They both clap enthusiastically when a speaker says, “We have to ask ourselves, if there were no patriarchy how would I dress? Or work? Or think? How would I have sex? And who would I have sex with?” (The women rise to their feet clapping and cheering, while Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” plays over the scene. Is that a little on the nose? Yes. Did it also make me a little verklempt? I decline to answer.) But, Sally would very much like a seat at the table with the men, and hopes to change things from the inside. Growing up, she admired her father and wanted the freedom to emulate his work and adventuresome spirit. Jo, on the other hand, wants to blow up the table and build an entirely new one with women at the head of it. The ferocity of their initial clashes feels somewhat forced, but perhaps it’s just to really highlight how it’s their shared desire to protest the sexist, misogynistic objectification personified by the Miss World pageant—which is hosted by Bob Hope and packaged as family friendly entertainment—that draws them together and unites them behind a common slogan of “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry” and fighting the power.
While Sally’s progressive boyfriend supports her efforts to return to school and dismantle the patriarchy, her mother, who is all coiffed hair, pearls, and bourgeois, is aghast. She worries that Sally is emasculating her boyfriend by asking him to cook, clean, and care for Sally’s daughter. (My eyes they are arollin’.) She insists that Sally would be happier if only she stopped whining about the patriarchy and accepted the existing world order. Most of her complaints about Sally’s burgeoning feminism are crafted to give more credence to Sally’s arguments and allow space for her to share her feminist theory, but there is a moment later in the movie that hints at some of the more problematic elements of a one-size-fits-all second wave feminism. In a heated argument Sally explains to her mother that she always idolized her father because she didn’t want to end up stifled in her mother’s “poky little domestic world.” Oof. I struggled a lot with Sally’s often holier than thou, bougie attitude in much of the movie, but in this moment I really, really wanted to pull her out of the screen, sit her down, and have a little chat. Because, look, it’s so important that women are able to attain the same levels of education and career as men, but, BUT, it’s equally important we work to get domestic labor—including childcare, cleaning, cooking, and all that—the respect it so deserves. I mean, RAISING ACTUAL CHILDREN WHO GROW UP TO BECOME ACTUAL ADULTS? How the fuck did we get to a place where anyone could brush that off as unimportant? Oh, right, we live in a patriarchy. My mistake. My point is that women shouldn’t be forced into domestic labor, but they also shouldn’t be forced to poo-poo it as silliness in order to succeed. Anyway, my much shorter point was that I appreciated the movie respectfully incorporating this perspective.
On the other side of the protest line are the Miss World contestants, the most interesting of whom are Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Miss Africa South, Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison). Unlike Miss Sweden (the odds-on favorite), who chafes at having to be accompanied by a chaperone and wishes for fewer flash bulbs in her face, Jennifer and Pearl—the only two Black women in the pageant, who are largely ignored by reporters and organizers alike—see the competition as a chance for representation and personal advancement. (The rest of the contestants don’t really have speaking parts, and it’s certainly interesting and somewhat troubling that they literally do not have a voice in this film.) Jennifer tells Miss Sweden that there is “no point swimming against the tide. One must rise with it.” Pearl Jansen certainly sees the wisdom in Jennifer’s words as she was plucked from a factory floor to fill a newly created spot for a Black contestant from South Africa to combat a growing chorus claiming the pageant is supporting the Apartheid movement. Her cooperation and success will have a great and lasting impact on her and her entire family. I am glad that their perspective was included, but I do wish that the filmmakers had spent more time with them. Pearl, especially, comes across as a wide-eyed ingenue, thrilled to just be included, only once hinting at the more complex and darker sides of her personal history.
The mostly white protesters (and competition participants), of course, are unaware of their own advantage and privilege. At one point Sally says that “the only other forum in which participants are weighed, measured, and publicly examined before assigning their value is the cattle trade.” And, while this is a good and fair point, I couldn’t help raising my hand and pointing out that this was also kind the key element of the slave trade. I’m not comparing Miss World to a slave trade at all, I’m more pointing out Sally’s lack of reference. You know? And, while the protesters repeatedly avow that their issue is not with the contestants, but the institution itself, they also move forward with their plans without considering how their protest will impact the women invested in the competition. There’s a scene when the busload of contestants drives past a crowd of shouting protesters and the women in the bus look confused and frightened. How would things have changed if they had tried to speak with the contestants before the protest? And isn’t this always the sticky part of trying to be a voice for those whom we consider voiceless? That are rarely voiceless if we just give them a chance to speak and take the time to listen. Toward the end of the movie, there is a meeting between Sally and Jennifer, which feels somewhat contrived, where they discuss their disparate viewpoints, but what if that had happened beforehand? These aren’t criticisms of the movie, mind you, but of the actual real-life people. And it’s a credit to the movie that they take the time to point out the importance of intersectionality in a feminist movement. I just wish there had been better balance between the time spent with each group.
I suppose I should also talk about the men in the movie. Ugh. If I must. But wait. Let’s talk about their wives first. Leslie Manville is grossly underused as Bob Hope’s wife. A lot of her time is spent knocking back cocktails and reminding Bob Hope about how the last time he hosted the Miss World pageant he brought home the winner. She’s fully aware of his dalliances and penchant for young women, but we don’t really get a sense of who she is beyond annoyed with his wandering penis. I did enjoy her reaction shots when the protesters heckle Bob Hope off the stage and pelt him with flour bombs. And, of course, Keeley Hawes is Keeley Hawes, so watching her competently cover for her husband’s constant short-sightedness is lovely, if frustrating. Though she too is underused.
So, the men. The thing is that Eric Morley, the pageant’s founder, and Bob Hope, who flies in to host the finals, are mostly played for laughs, and I can’t decide how I feel about this. Do I like that Eric Morley is a swanning, blustering buffoon who needs his wife to step in to secure Bob Hope and a more diverse panel of judges? I don’t hate it. But do I worry that by making his and Bob Hope’s rampant misogyny seem almost camp that they run the risk of defanging what appears to have been some extremely predatory behavior on the parts of both men? Absolutely.
I mean, when you think about a man deciding to start an entire pageant for young, unwed, virgin women, which requires they have their body measurements publicly announced and their asses publicly admired by some 22 million people? It’s pretty gross. And that then women feel like participating in such an event is their best chance to show young girls what representation and winning look like while advancing their own chances of a better career? It’s infuriating. And while I think that the movie could have delved deeper into events, it did an extremely excellent job of showing all the myriad ways in which women are fucked over by the patriarchy and how they are each trying the best they can to unfuck their situation and the situation of others in their community. And that, my friends, is worth watching.