Philippa Lowthorpe’s 2020 film Misbehaviour narrates the true story of the 1970 Miss World competition, monumental for its first crowning of a black competitor, as well as the feminist protests it provoked. Led by an entirely female production team, the film manages to create a light-hearted, comical narrative, whilst still addressing the gravity of the more serious issues that are brought to light. Perhaps what is most shocking when watching the film is that a lot of the issues raised are still incredibly pertinent in today’s society, fifty years on.
The story is told mainly through the characters of Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) and Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), two women who share a common aim, despite going about it in very distinct ways. Jo is an anarchist figure, spraying ‘Down with penis envy!” on an Oxford college notice board, and placing a banana peel on the head of a male bust at the women’s conference (something that did actually happen). Sally, however, is approaching the issues in a more calculated manner, planning to change the system by infiltrating it first. They believe the Miss World pageant epitomises the cause they are fighting to change, valuing women on their physical image, and their protests culminate in a highly farcical scene which sees bags of flour being thrown onto the stage, and water pistols being sprayed at Bob Hope, that year’s host. Although caricatural, this is what actually happened, as the women were keen to highlight that they were not violent, but just wanted change.
The most obvious issue the film tackles is that of beauty contests, naturally a highly controversial topic due to the value they place on women’s physical beauty. The film is resplendent with shots of the 58 contestants, clad in swimming costumes and sashes proudly bearing their country, beaming out to the audience. An almost amusing scene is the bathing suit component of the pageant, whereby the women parade down the stage as their bust-waist-hip measurements are read aloud. They are then asked to stand in a line and turn around, as the camera slowly pans along the intimate image of their derrières, for want of a better word. This was laughable until, having undergone extensive research of the ins-and-outs of the real contest, I realised that this was plain fact, not fiction.
In March 2020, when the film was planned to be released, the BBC also released a documentary on the events entitled ‘Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam’. Presumedly it was released to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the pageant, as well as to aid those who, like me, like to check up how accurate these ‘based on a true story’ films are. I wouldn’t say I was shocked to see how painstakingly accurate Lowthorpe’s depiction of these events were, but it did add a new dimension to the film. I could now recognise it not as a fictional narrative, but rather as, albeit somewhat dramatized, historical fact. Something that the documentary is keen to point out, and I think is well illustrated throughout the film, is the idea that the protestors were not against the women themselves, but rather the institution to which they were subjected. Whilst real footage of protestors shouting, ‘Shame on you all! You’re degrading yourselves!’ at the contestants as their bus pulled up to the Royal Albert Hall does not seem suggestive of this belief, the film is keen to portray the contestants as sympathetic characters, with depth and their own beliefs. In a scene where Miss Sweden (Clare Rosager), the apparent favourite to win for that year, is frustrated with the system, she storms out of the practise room to have a smoke, where she is joined by Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). After complaining about the ‘bullshit’ she is sick of enduring, Mbatha-Raw responds with, ‘You are a very lucky person if you think this is being treated badly.’ This leads on to another problem which the film addresses, albeit not in as much detail – racism, and coverage of ethnic minorities in media.
Despite the countless problems that beauty pageants themselves present, something that cannot be denied is how momentous the 1970 Miss World competition was for its crowning of Miss Grenada. Similarly, second place was awarded to Miss Africa South, putting women of colour on a pedestal they had not previously been exposed to, gaining recognition in a way they never had done before. Even I felt an odd sense of pride when the winners were announced, despite being completely opposed to the pageant itself. Following her arrest, Sally (Knightley) goes to the bathroom, where she bumps into the recently crowned Miss Grenada. After affirming that ‘It’s not you we’re really angry at’, Mbatha-Raw sternly looks at Knightley, explaining ‘You know, there will be little girls watching tonight who’ll see themselves differently because I won. Who might just start to believe that you don’t have to be white to have a place in the world.’, a line which I found to be staggeringly poignant in today’s society too. Only 16 of the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 having an underrepresented female as the lead or co-lead. Whilst acting as an improvement on the 11 in 2018, this figure is still staggeringly low. Knightley’s response, ‘I’m glad. I really hope the world opens up for them, and for you. But making us compete with each other over the way we look, doesn’t that make the world narrower for us all in the end?’, is another example of the film highlighting social issues from fifty years ago that still hold pertinence for us today, where women are still pitted against each other based on their looks, something which has not been aided by the development of social media.
What stands out in Misbehaviour is just how pertinent the themes it tackles still are today – female objectification, representation of ethnic minorities, and female solidarity. Although the narrative of Miss Grenada is not the key focus of the film, and at times could be seen to be slightly swept to the side, it definitely does encourage us to consider why this is still a problem today, fifty years on. The overarching message is that women must work together if they want to be valued as equals to men, and need to stop pitting themselves against one another, even if this is what society dictates. Whilst I wouldn’t describe the film as disheartening, it does certainly shed light on the fact that very little progress has been made since then – perhaps it will inspire people to fight for the changes they want to see. As Jo says, ‘You get the world you deserve and if you don’t fight you deserve the world you fucking get.’ Up the revolution!