Philippa Lowthorpe’s recent film on the 1970 Miss World Pageant, Misbehaviour, has enjoyed the advantage of being released just before the lockdown, giving people no choice but to watch it from the comfort of their homes. But while undoubtedly watchable, the film’s approach to feminism and intersectionality notably erases contemporary feminist movements led by women of colour.
Two distinct events rendered this pageant, hosted by smarmily sexist actor Bob Hope, a landmark moment in UK feminist history: the disruption caused by a Women’s Liberation group in the audience, and the crowning of the first Black winner, symbolising the pageant’s increased diversity compared to earlier years. Accordingly, Misbehaviour has two plot strands. The main plot is centred on middle-class protestor Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), while the increasingly dominant sub-plot focuses on two Black contestants: eventual winner, ‘Miss Grenada’ Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and South African runner-up ‘Miss Africa South’ Pearl Janssen (Loreece Harrison). All the main characters are based on the real individuals involved in the events.
The interaction between these two plots is encompassed by a brief conversation between Sally and Jennifer towards the end of the film. Jennifer makes a powerful assertion in this scene: that her win will inspire young Black girls with a newfound self-confidence, an idea that rings true today when the importance for people of colour of seeing ‘oneself’ represented in popular culture whilst growing up is increasingly recognised. When Sally tries to explain to her why the pageant is inherently sexist, Jennifer declares, ‘I look forward to having your choices in life’. This satisfying exposure of Sally’s unmistakably privileged, patronising tone also seems to fit within current feminist discourse, which (in contrast to the second-wave feminism of the 1970s) emphasises the variety of women’s perspectives and according choices they make, as championed by Hosten herself in a promotional video for the film.
Jennifer’s story clearly holds an important historical significance to which Mbatha-Raw’s sensitive acting decidedly does justice. However, the implication that Black women’s limited choices mean they are more likely to participate in patriarchal institutions ignores the thousands that entirely rejected these institutions through their own feminist movements. Indeed, the most jarring element of the film’s discussions of race is that no other, non-contestant women of colour characters are depicted (at least not with speaking parts). During the launch of the Women’s Liberation movement meeting early in the film, the camera zooms in on a Black woman in the audience just as the speaker declares ‘we demand … contraception and abortion on demand’. Given this scene, viewers may expect a mention – however minimal – of the immense struggles women of colour faced around reproductive and sexual rights in this period, including being coerced into taking contraceptives such as Depo-Provera (which were distributed through the NHS) and the virginity tests that were done on Asian women on their arrival in the UK as migrants. But these mentions never come.
The viewer gradually becomes absorbed in the suspense over the results of the pageant and invested in Jennifer and Pearl’s success, even as the focus shifts away from the deeply entrenched sexism of the pageant and the urgency of dismantling patriarchal institutions. Black women are thereby cast solely as individuals fighting their corner within the inherently patriarchal and racist establishment structures which white feminists are protesting. This binary is particularly jarring in a film set in the 1970s, when women of colour activists in the UK were gaining increasing visibility through movements and organisations such as the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Grunwick strike. In the current political climate which has evolved since the film’s release, with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining global traction, the erasure of Black women’s activism – which challenges the racialised misogyny of patriarchal institutions – feels all the more inescapable. Acknowledgement of these movements – even in the closing scenes, which show subsequent, apparently exclusively white Women’s Liberation marches – would have avoided the deeply problematic conclusions around race and feminism resulting from the crude juxtaposition of the Black contestants and the white activists.
the erasure of Black women’s activism – which challenges the racialised misogyny of patriarchal institutions – feels all the more inescapable.
The wider context of the rampantly sexist pageant industry run by bigshot, middle-aged white men fades into the background as the viewer is drawn further into Jennifer’s story, rather than remaining evident within it. It would have been more effective to see how this sexism manifested in the attitudes of the pageant organisers towards Jennifer as a Black woman, despite her ultimate success. Unlike her white counterparts, Jennifer is neglected by the cameras and understandably wishes for more attention (when expected winner ‘Miss Sweden’ complains about the constant flash bulbs on her, Jennifer comments ‘not so many flash bulbs for me’), but the idea that she may also negatively experience such attention is never considered. This erases Black women’s widely-known specific experiences of sexualised misogyny.
The reintroduction of the feminist activists towards the end, along with scenes of Hope’s wife rejoicing at the pageant’s disruption and finally standing up to him, are a somewhat scrappy reminder that we are ‘meant’ to be angry at this framework, but by this point it is a little too late. We are already caught up in the euphoria of Jennifer’s win, and any such anger is not her domain, belonging exclusively to the white women.
Both aspects of the event could have been explored equally without resorting to crude polarisation, tempting as this may be to increase dramatic effect. The filmmakers evidently recognise the importance of acknowledging and exploring perspectives beyond those of white feminists. But a more nuanced examination of the role of race in contemporary feminism, incorporating insights of Black feminist thinking – and representations of Black feminist activism – would be needed to give a clear and effective message and be truly intersectional.
Ultimately, Misbehaviour succeeds in presenting two storylines with compelling and at least somewhat relatable characters. But its positioning of these storylines within a clear-cut racial binary, where feminist organising is exclusively white women’s domain, does UK Black feminist movements of the era a predictable disservice.
Featured image © Pathé UK/20th Century Fox
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