Ain’t Misbehaving?

It’s 1970 – the world is a changing. A couple of years earlier, female machinists walked out of Dagenham’s Ford plant demanding equal pay and instigated the Equal Pay Act (1970). Legalisation of the Pill and abortion gave women control over their fertility. In Oxford Sally Alexander and Sheila Rowbotham organised a women’s history conference; 500 attended including a disruptive group of night cleaners with leftist-leanings. British women were sick ‘n tired of the “patriarchy”. Misbehaviour (2020) is their story.

At the start of Misbehaviour (2020), Sally Alexander (Keira Knightly) competes with schoolboys for a place at University College London. (University College where a “stuffed” Jeremy Bentham resides today). Anyway, university departments (still) interview potential students. At Alexander’s interview, a board of males assess her potential based on looks, marital status and her ability to study while raising a child. Within a few moments, a raft of women’s issues is laid bare. To the groans of most of the audience.

Alexander isn’t given a seat at the table and becomes unwittingly drawn into the world of communes and leftist politics. She, Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), Sarah (Ruth Bentall) and others spurred to take action at the upcoming Miss World pageant.

What Misbehaviour does best is to capture the shocking scrutiny of the Miss World contestants. The humiliating body politics includes recording contestants’ body measurements, the emphasis on purity (what the…), and the turnaround that allows judges to assess “both” sides of a woman’s attractions. The slow camera pan along the female bottoms makes an excruciating point.

Furthermore, the casual sexism of men is just agonising. Founder of Miss World “family entertainment”, Eric Morley (gotta love Rhys Ifans) condescends to all females. Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear uncannily capturing Hope) is no-better-no-worse as the archetypal out-of-touch comedian. Hope is long past his use-by-date. Hope’s wife, Dolores (beautifully realised by Lesley Manville) shakes her head and raises her eyebrows so much it must have made Manville giddy.

There is much that is bewildering about the sexual politics of the time. I am still wondering why Miss World contestants were paraded on Hope’s stage in Vietnam—it’s not as if they were American women displayed to show the men who they were fighting to protect.

Misbehaviour explores racism to a lesser extent. For women of colour, the pageant (apparently) at least gave them a public platform. The personal updates at the end of the film are inspiring.

Don’t let the subject matter deter you from seeing Misbehaviour. Sure, feminism is serious, but it’s handled with a light British touch; think the Fully Monty, Calendar Girls, Pride. Spoiler Alert: the movie takes some liberties with the truth; the British Library has an excellent webpage complete with contemporary recollections from Jo Robinson and others ( Oh and don’t bother with Wikipedia, its entries are truly abysmal.

Oh, guess who “owned” the Miss Universe pageant until 2015? Yep, Donald Trump.

Opened 26 November. 106 minutes

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