Chris Sullivan reviews a new take on the 1970 Miss World pageant and explores the debate about sex and race which it exposed.
Considering the parade of reality television shows such as Naked Attraction, Wife Swap, Take Me Out and Love Island that exploit people’s physical appearances, it’s hard to remember that there was a time when people stood up, vigorously protested and caused an almighty hullabaloo against sexual objectification.
Misbehaviour focuses on the 1970 Miss World competition, run by husband and wife team Eric and Julia Morley (played by Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes). Every year, 20 million viewers in the UK and 100 million worldwide would gather around their television sets and watch as almost every country in the world fielded its own ‘most beautiful’ girl who, having won a bevy of beauty pageants, was paraded about like a prize heifer – in swimsuit and evening gown – and carefully considered.
The 1970 event got off to a sticky start after the compère, the London-born comedian Bob Hope (played by Greg Kinnear) – who was famously right-wing, a supporter of the Vietnam War and a close friend of Richard Nixon – opened by saying: “I don’t want you to think I’m a dirty old man because I never give women a second thought. My first thought covers everything.”
Then, bang, off it went. A women’s liberation activist sounded her football rattle that cued other angry, well-dressed furious feminists (who had been tactically placed among the audience) to jump into battle and throw flour and stink bombs at Hope, shouting “we’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry”.
Lest we forget, this was on live television.
The leaders of the protestors – Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) and Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) – skirt either side of the feminist diaspora. The former is a middle-class single mum and an intellectual Oxford graduate, the latter a sexually liberated activist hippy who lives in a squat and can’t recall or doesn’t care who fathered her baby. They put their heads together and come up with this cunning stunt that made front-page headlines all over the world and, in one foul swoop, planted the concept of female emancipation in the mind of every woman in the Western world.
But, if only it was that simple.
The fly in the ointment was that the winner of the 1970 title was none other than Jennifer Hosten of Jamaica – the first black woman to win the title and on whose memoir the film is based – while the second place prize went to another black woman, Pearl Jansen of Africa South.
Hosten didn’t see her victory or the contest as in any way degrading. She saw the accolade as a triumph for racial equality at a time when the black power narrative was in the news. The UK’s Race Relations Act had only been passed five years before and the Sexual Discrimination Act wasn’t passed until five years later. The shadow of discrimination loomed large on that fateful evening in November 1970.
For the white Brit feminists, it was about the objectification of women. For Hosten, it was purely about being recognised as a human being.
Initially, she was 25:1 at the bookies to win the competition. “It was such an eye-opener, seeing the way the media only saw beauty by European standards,” Hosten said. “It was supposed to be Miss World – people of different races and different cultures. Most of us were written off before we even started. It made me want to win.”
Fifty years on, how much have things changed? It wasn’t until September 2018 that Rihanna became the first black woman to grace the cover of British Vogue, MPs such as Dianne Abbott continue to receive vile racist abuse. We still live in a racist and sexist society in which women get paid less than men and have fewer opportunities.
As for ‘objectification’ – the root of the feminists’ grievance against the 1970 Miss World – today the commodification of women (and men) is rife. Many reality television shows treat contestants with an indignity that makes Miss World look almost politically correct. Love Island pairs so-called beautiful people together in isolation like lab rats; Wife Swap involves reviewing another’s partner like one would a new bicycle. In Naked Attraction, a fully dressed person chooses a date from a selection of naked men or women. “Nicely hung” and “fine lab” are some of the phrases oft used.
I consider these programmes rather sad and, like Miss World, desperate and depressing. But, sex still sells and most people don’t care.
Misbehaviour almost gets its right, but suffers from being too British in the same way that The Full Monty, Calendar Girls and Quartet were. It’s a rather self-satisfied genre that should be called ‘films you can take your mum to’ – and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.
‘Misbehaviour’ is in cinemas on 13 March.