By Neha Kirpal
In 1970, five women were prosecuted for disrupting the Miss World contest in London. The only time in the world that such an incident occurred, the protest made front-page news, putting the women’s liberation movement on the map. Three months later, the first women’s liberation march took place in London.
Recently released British historical drama, Misbehaviour, is based on this true story and inspired by real events. The film’s stunning female cast is backed by an incredibly talented female crew led by director Philippa Lowthorpe.
It is 1970, and Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) is divorced with a daughter and lives with a partner who takes care of childcare. When she applies to study history at the University College in London, an all-male panel interviews her and judges her for her life choices.
When she does get through the course, she faces gender-based discrimination—struggling to make her arguments heard in a class full of male students and told that women’s issues are considered minority issues when she suggests looking at the Industrial Revolution from the women’s perspective for her dissertation.
Amidst this environment, the finalists of the Miss World beauty pageant are being announced—a kind of “cattle market” in which women are valued and often exploited on the basis of their marital status, the curves on their bodies, their charm, grace and long legs.
In the UK alone, 27 million people watch the competition, which calls itself a “family entertainment show.” Its popularity makes little girls look up to the winners for inspiration, and several women feel insecure as they idolize the seemingly perfect beauties—comparing their own appearances with these culturally imposed physical standards.
Further, American-British comedian Bob Hope, who hosts the show, makes sexist jokes about ‘women’s feelings’ and the angry ‘libbers’.
Needless to say, the 1970s was the peak in terms of the women’s liberation movement gathering steam, igniting the public imagination with fresh, impassioned ideas. Several women’s conferences campaigning for equal pay, control over one’s bodies, contraception and abortion on demand, and ending patriarchy were underway during this time.
Sally encounters a group of rebellious women who actively circulate messages of gender equality through slogans, leaflets and graffiti on campus. She attends their meeting, and they decide to protest against the sexual objectification of women at the Miss World beauty pageant.
The film brings out an interesting time in history, recreating 1970s England perfectly well, complete with its beliefs and fashions. It reminds us once again of what is possibly one of the most exciting decades to have been alive in.
It also gives us a peek into the lives of the contestants—many of whom are young girls sitting in an airplane and stepping out their countries for the first time—who feel conflicted and begin to question their own participation in the contest. Fifty years down the line, while things may have marginally improved, many battles are still being fought and the debate to “smash the patriarchy” rages on.
The film also throws light on racism that is an intrinsic part of the international contest—evident in the fact that it has seldom been won by black women, who rarely get as many flashbulbs and media attention as their white counterparts.
Through this, it also highlights the politics behind beauty contests. Many believe that winners are often chosen by market interests of the beauty cosmetics companies who decide to promote models from a certain country in a given year.
For instance, think back at the year 2000 when it was not merely a coincidence that all three—Miss Universe, Miss World and Miss Asia-Pacific—were chosen from India, but possibly a larger marketing strategy to promote India in the fashion and beauty world.