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Review: 'Misbehaviour' Examines Intersectionality of Sexism and Racism

by Megan Kearns
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Sep 28, 2020
Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley in 'Misbehaviour'
Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley in 'Misbehaviour'  

Beauty pageants crystallize society's objectification of women as if worth only exists in beauty. The 1970 Miss World competition was a seminal moment for the U.K. women's rights movement. Feminist activists protested, garnering international media attention. Simultaneously, it was the first time a Black woman won the pageant.

These events converge in "Misbehaviour," the British comedy-drama directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, written by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe and starring Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Jessie Buckley. Set in 1970, it tells the story of feminist activists protesting Miss World and the pageant contestants. Most of the characters are based on real-life people. It's an entertaining film, albeit uneven, featuring good performances, telling a surprisingly nuanced story about the intersection of sexism and racism.

Sally (Knightley) is a determined college student and single mother. She wants to work in academia to foster change. She debates feminism with her mother, who disbelieves sexism is an issue. Sally's daughter mimics the pageant's television ad. Sally organizes a women's liberation conference. A keynote speaker says women are "trained to be pleasing rather than powerful." She talks "revolution," demanding equal pay, child care, contraception, and abortion.

At the conference, Sally meets Jo (Buckley), a rabble-rouser who vandalizes billboards into feminist statements. They clash, challenging each other's paradigm. Jo invites Sally to join her feminist group, where Sally finds community. In a debate, Sally wonders why women must "earn" a "place in the world" through their looks. She compares pageants to "a cattle market."

"Misbehaviour" is an entertaining film about feminist history and sexist beauty pageants

Contrasted with protest scenes, we see contestants' perspectives, many of whom see the pageant as a financial or career opportunity. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Jennifer Hosten, a.k.a. Miss Grenada. An all-time outstanding actress, she elevates every scene. Jennifer dreams of a broadcasting career. Jennifer and Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), the first Black woman contestant from South Africa, talk about their countries and apartheid, or rather Pearl says she can't discuss it — authorities warned she couldn't return if she did.

The best scene belongs to Jennifer and Sally as they debate the pageant in a restroom. Sally denounces its sexism; Jennifer discusses racism and the power of representation. For Black women in a white supremacist society, representation inspires and helps dismantle racism and a white beauty standard. Jennifer also calls out Sally's white privilege. As the camera cuts back and forth, neither is the same frame with the other until the scene's last frame, visually underscoring both are right.

The film makes some missteps. Greg Kinnear's Bob Hope is a superfluous subplot. The film wastes Lesley Manville's talent. Near the end, a character reveals she's pregnant. Based on fact, in the film it feels like a feeble plot device forcing character development to engender likability. It's also a missed opportunity to discuss abortion. While we see women of color at meetings and rallies, white women are the only activists with speaking roles. It's disappointing in a film telling a feminist story addressing racism and sexism. Sadly, there also aren't any queer characters.

"Misbehaviour" deftly shows the insidious pervasiveness of sexism and how women navigate patriarchy: Some revolt, some work within societal confines, and some internalize sexism. Repeatedly, scenes indicate how — no matter the environment or profession — women are forever judged on looks. Too often, films about feminist movements focus on straight white women, so I'm glad we see Black women characters. But I wish it included queer characters and more women of color. It features a wonderful cast and captures a vital historical moment.

Fifty years after the events in "Misbehaviour," we may think we've come far. While strides have certainly been made, we still have so far to go.

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