At the beginning of the film, Misbehaviour, Sally Alexander (played by Keira Knightley) is applying to study history at University College, London (UCL). We see her walk into a large wood-panelled interview room where six middle-aged white men are waiting for her, seated in a row behind a long table. The camera pans back so we can see them giving her a mark out of ten as she settles on the lone chair in front of them.
They patronise and subtly ridicule her in that particular way beloved by establishment men that can make you want to curl up and die. But Sally holds her own. She argues and articulates her reality and she gets offered a place – her seat at the table, as one of the more plebeian women she meets later describes it.
Not long after the year portrayed in the film, I also had an interview to study at a London University college. An interview straight out of the same playbook. But unlike Sally, I was crushed. The arrogance and subtle ridicule was too close to all I had breathed and bathed in since I was born. Because that was my lawyer father’s playbook. And my mother was unable to show me how to resist or even survive it because she had also been crushed. In the brief moment in which she’d tried to rebel, my upstanding father had had her sectioned and ensured they only let her out when total submission was reestablished.
That was the world I grew up in. A world whose parameters and possibilities were defined by men in their own interests.
Every year on one particular Saturday evening more or less everyone in the UK sat down to watch the Miss World finals on BBC One (one of the only three UK TV channels that existed at the time). Millions of us sat there and watched it as if it were normal to judge human beings on their looks and obsequiousness – provided they were female of course. And as if it were normal for creepy male presenters to patronise and subtly ridicule them as if they were a lesser species – which of course they were in practical terms – or else how would this be possible?
And of course the annual Miss World telefest was not just a bit of fun and light entertainment. On the contrary, it was deadly serious. It justified and emboldened not just the men like my father, but all men. It showed them that women are indeed lesser creatures, closer to cattle than to them, the real human beings. And it showed men that they had permission, impunity even, to treat women like that – as if they are cattle.
The impact for little girls growing up in this culture cannot be over-emphasised. How can you hope for something different, when this is valorised as the norm? When you never hear anyone questioning it? How in these circumstances would it be possible to even imagine that you could be capable of more than pandering to men and their vast egos?
In the film, Sally sees this clearly and consciously wants a different kind of world for her daughter (who’s about seven) and she gets involved with a group of feminists – women’s libbers as they were known at the time. At first she’s reluctant to join in with their direct action – she thinks she’ll be able to change the world from within – from the seat she’s wangled at the table.
But then we see her, the only woman, in her UCL tutorial being overlooked and dismissed by the male tutor, while the male students practically snigger. Suddenly it’s clear – her seat at the table demands that she acquiesce to their sniggering worldview. This is not a seat that will enable her to change the world. It’s more like a high chair, she later tells Jo Robinson (played by Jessie Buckley) one of the other women in the group.
Sally gets more deeply involved with the group, and with new enthusiasm. It’s not enough to stand outside the Miss World final protesting she says – they must be inside where the TV cameras are. But how? They must buy tickets and wear evening gowns so they’ll blend in with the crowds.
There’s a joyful moment as the women laugh and fool around while trying on dresses for the big night. This cuts straight to the Miss World contestants laughing and dancing in their hotel bar. It’s a brilliant portrayal of the delight and freedom women sometimes experience when they are free from the inhibiting intrusion of male eyes.
We had earlier seen an anti-Apartheid protestor warn Eric Morley (played by Rhys Ifans) that having a white Miss South Africa when 80% of the population was black would be condoning Apartheid. Morley’s response? He dials up a black girl to come too – so there’s a white ‘Miss South Africa’ and a black ‘Miss Africa South.’
Pearl Jansen (‘Miss Africa South,’ played by Loreece Harrison) tells Jennifer Hosten (the very first ‘Miss Grenada,’ played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that before she got on the plane she was warned by the security police that if she spoke about the reality of the Apartheid regime, they’d stop her returning. The political Marjorie Johansson (‘Miss Sweden,’ played by Clara Rosager) had already made the point that there had never been a black winner.
The big day comes. The women’s libbers take their seats in the auditorium and suffer through the early part of the show, their rage building as the line of swimsuit-clad contestants are told to turn their backs to the audience – so the judges can assess their buttocks.
But it was Bob Hope’s (played by Greg Kinnear) misogynistic jokes that trigger the women to stand and raise their voices, shake rattles, let off stink bombs, throw projectiles full of flour, and unfurl banners, with such brilliant slogans as:
“We’re not beautiful
We’re not ugly
All of this takes place in front of the hundreds of millions of TV viewers worldwide. Sally makes a dash for the stage, her water pistol directed at the obnoxious Bob Hope. But the police have arrived and they tackle her to the ground and arrest her, along with many of the others.
With the women’s libbers subdued and removed, the show goes on, and for the first time in its history black women take the first two positions as Jennifer Hosten is crowned Miss World, with Pearl Jansen in second place.
As the police escort Sally out through the bowels of the building she asks to go to the loo and there she encounters the newly crowned Jennifer Hosten. Jennifer recognises Sally from the TV interview she’d done a few days earlier and Sally sees Jennifer’s crown on the table.
Sally makes it clear that her objection has never been to the contestants, her objection is to the system that pits women against each other, and ascribes value to them solely on how they look. Jennifer replies that she must be a very lucky person if she thinks that this is being treated badly.
It’s a poignant moment as we realise that both women are fighting for a better world in the only way they know how and with choices constricted in a way that in this world where inequality is normalised, most of us are blind to. It’s Jennifer’s hope that her win will mean that little black girls will now see themselves the equal of white girls. It’s Sally’s hope that all girls will see themselves bigger than cattle who are judged by their looks, whose oppression is mass entertainment.
In both these things, they were successful – up to a point anyway. Jennifer later became Grenada’s High Commissioner to Canada and blazed a trail that other black girls and women follow. And for a while at least, Miss World was no longer seen as quite the innocent entertainment it had been previously. It became widely understood as something seedy and offensive, and it faded from primetime TV for many years.
But of course those with power – serious power – do not give it up simply because they lost an argument. They might concede a little ground – Miss World on primetime TV, for example – to soothe the opposition while devising new ways of controlling the narrative and shoring up their bastions of power. And of course this was no exception.
If young women would no longer be seduced by the carrot of aspiring to be fawning beauty queens, the swinging 60s with its gruesome entrepreneurs (epitomised by Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt) were busy developing the stick of threatening women with such epithets as ‘square’ and ‘frigid’ if they wouldn’t submit willingly to men’s insatiable thirst to sexually overpower them.
This provided cover for the development of a vast and powerful industry based on the sexual exploitation of primarily young women. An industry capable of generating wealth far beyond the imagination of even the loathesome Eric Morley. Women treated not only as cattle, but also as cash cows. An industry that was more brutally effective in granting men mastery and sovereignty over women and children (and by extension the Earth’s resources) than Miss World ever was. It’s also proved to be even more effective in grooming girls to be subservient to men too – as the sex industry haemorrhages into mainstream culture.
The sex industry is just as much part of the superstructure of the patriarchy and the neoliberal capitalist system with which it is bound as the post-war beauty pageants that in many ways it replaced.
The film illustrates how difficult it can be to fight a system that, on the surface at least, appears to benefit the individuals involved. In the TV interview, the presenter blustered that the contestants entered the competition of their own free will. And that was undoubtedly true on a superficial level – but of course Sally had no time to explain all the other complicated levels – that the very existence of the competition and its positioning as family entertainment grooms girls to yearn to be a beauty queen and all that represents; that the education system at the time channelled girls into women’s work – invariably low paid and low status – and that even girls who aimed for a seat at the men’s table often found that in practice they could not tolerate the put downs and dismissals that were the norm in that world and that the film shows so clearly.
And of course the argument that she chose it does not change the damage that beauty pageants do to women and girls as a distinct constituency and to society as a whole.
And the media can so easily portray the women objecting as mean bitches who are simply jealous of the contestants and the attention that they receive – as if they were objecting to the contestants themselves and their choices – while never explaining that so long as beauty pageants have free rein, the options that are available to women and girls will ultimately be reduced and constrained.
As campaigners against the sex industry, we face many of the same difficulties and manipulative argumentation and reporting. We are accused of hating ‘sex workers,’ of being ‘whorephobic’ and ‘SWERFs’ as if many members of the group are not themselves survivors of the sex industry. Our argument that the sex industry profoundly impacts all women is dismissed as the irrelevant concern of white middle-class feminism. Our campaign for high-quality services for women involved in prostitution, and our argument that women should have more and better options than between the sex trade and destitution, are ignored. The evidence we present of the harrowing damage that prostitution causes the women involved is rejected as misinformed and irrelevant.
Like the women’s libbers in the film, we are campaigning for a better future for women and girls. We believe the Nordic Model is an innovative and holistic solution to the hugely powerful sex industry and the damage it causes, and the awful reality that many women and girls simply do not have much of a choice at all.
The battle for women’s liberation is far from over and is more pressing now than it ever was.