Walk into a toy shop and most will have 'his' and 'hers' toys for kids, starting gender conditioning young. Among the pink-wrapped packages for girls, there will be a kitchen set with tiny utensils and a beauty set with pretend (or maybe not) make-up kits. It is drilled into little girls’ heads that beauty (and domesticity) is their preferred fate. Clothes for girls are usually bright and frilly, or miniature versions of sexy, grown-up outfits. Only the most enlightened or vigilant parent would be able to help a child escape this Barbie, Hello Kitty, Disney Princess universe created for girls.
In a scene from the film Misbehaviour, a young mother is annoyed when her pre-teen daughter pouts and flounces before a TV set that is broadcasting live the Miss World contest. The year is 1970, when the women’s liberation movement was still in its nascent stage and a beauty contest was considered 'family entertainment'. Never mind the off and on-screen humiliation the participants go through, including the cringe-making bit when the women, with practised vacuous smiles, sashaying in high heels for the swimsuit round, are asked to turn around, so that the judges, (mostly male), can examine their behinds.
Sadly, this horrible sexist 'entertainment’, in which women compete against each other on the basis of their looks and are judged for their physical perfection still exists—and more beauty pageants have been added to the list, mostly to keep the fashion and cosmetics industries thriving on female insecurity.
There have been token nods to inclusivity, with women of colour winning over the years, but the standards of beauty applied to the contestants are still overwhelmingly white,or rather, Eurocentric.
In 1968, a group of feminists and civil rights activists protested the Miss America beauty contest. A few of the protesters had also sneaked into the venue and unfurled a banner emblazoned with the words 'Women’s Liberation'.
It was, however, the 1970 protest against the Miss World pageant that got extensive media coverage around the globe and shone a bright spotlight on the term women’s liberation, which, of course, focused on the many more injustices suffered by women.
Misbehaviour (directed by Philippa Lowthorpe) is based on this true story, and, interestingly, most of the key characters are alive and appear at the end-- the protesters, as well as Jennifer Hosten (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), from Granada, the first black winner of the contest. In a scene with one of the leaders of the protest, Sally Alexander (played by Keira Knightley), Jennifer quietly points out that a black woman does not have as many opportunities as a white woman, and she sees the contest as a way forward for herself, as well as the women of her race. Jennifer did not become a broadcast journalist, which was her ambition, but went on to become a diplomat and development worker—career doors that might not have opened for her without the Miss World win.
The protests, as the women say, are not against the participants, but against the system that treats women as objects. Sue Finch, one of the protesters said in a piece by Joanna Moorhead in The Guardian, “Violence against women hasn’t changed, and, in a way, that’s what our protest was all about. If you treat women as objects, it’s easier to rape and kill them.”
The protesters bought tickets and entered the Royal Albert Hall with flour bombs, water pistols and rotting vegetables concealed in their handbags, meaning to hurl them on the stage when all the contests were standing together. But the tasteless, sexist remarks by the host, Bob Hope, made them change the plan and throw the missiles at him. They also threw pamphlets into the theatre and shouted, "We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry”. Since the event was watched by 100 million people worldwide, the protest got a lot of attention too.
Jenny Fortune, one the protesters recalled, “It was as if snow was falling … it was a wonderful moment. It felt as if we were taking control. It was life-changing – I knew that I was heading into a very different future”. Another leader, the angry anarchist Jo Robinson, said, “We all believed in revolution back then. We all believed the world could be changed, and we all believed we could do it.”
They could not halt the 'cattle shows' that these beauty contests were; to quote a line from the film, “The only other forum in which participants are weighed, measured and publicly examined before being assigned their value is a cattle market.” Miss World, the oldest beauty pageant created by Eric and Julia Morley in 1951, is still on, along with others like Miss Universe, Miss International and Miss Earth; not to mention each country, the states in them and even cities organising their own.
They may claim that they now judge the contestants by their brains too—the swimsuit and evening gown rounds have been dropped by some—but, of course, the winner is always a conventional beauty with a perfect figure by western standards. The motto of Miss World was 'Beauty with A Purpose'. Which just means that for the year that the winner holds the crown, she lends her presence to a few chosen charities and fundraising events. Indian winners (Aishwarya Rai, Diana Hayden, Yukta Mookhey, Priyanka Chopra, Manushi Chhillar) have invariably gravitated towards movies with varying degrees of success. Have they made a difference to the world? Debatable.
But the women’s movement did initiate changes in laws, welfare for women, education that made it possible for females to become doctors, engineers, pilots, bankers, managers, writers, artists, educators.
As Sally Alexander said, “I do think, though, that the women’s liberation movement was important, and if people don’t know where equality and equal pay came from, then they should know. There’s still a great deal to do, and so many young women today are active, and in a different way.”
A 2020 BBC Two documentary, Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam, also takes a look at that historic night. Helen Berryman, director of the film said in an interview with Jonathan Wright for historyextra.com. “I think it was effective because, as activist Sue Finch says in the film, it would be the first time that lots of people would even be aware of women’s liberation. There had been rumblings in the papers, but this was a big moment. You can tell by the fact that the first women’s liberation movement march, which happened in March 1971, was much better attended than they expected. The protest was a catalyst for more people to be aware of the cause and to get behind it. It is hard to quantify the impact, but the fact we’re talking about it today shows how important it was.”
A title card at the end of Misbehaviour read, "Attempts to bring down the patriarchy remain ongoing." And so many battles remain to be fought.
The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.