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Misbehaviour: how far have we really come since 1970s sexism? | Film

As well as commemorating the feminist disruption of Miss World 1970, the new movie Misbehaviour does a great job of highlighting the sexism of that era – a time when Bob Hope’s jokes were considered funny, women demanding equal pay even funnier, and Miss World’s standards of “beauty” were strictly policed. Those standards loosened enough to let a woman of colour win that year but, still, it is easy to see what the protesters were rebelling against. Harder to assess is how far we’ve come.

Well beyond the 1970s, the movie industry didn’t have a problem with beauty pageants. It often treated them as an extension of the casting process – for women, at least. Some made it to the top: Sophia Loren, Cybill Shepherd, Sharon Stone, Eva Longoria, not to mention Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot (Miss Israel, 2004), and her predecessor Lynda Carter (Miss World USA, 1972). But many more winners were fed from one dodgy, male-run institution into another, only to be installed in “eye candy” roles.

James Bond movies are notorious for this. Miss World 1969, for example, was Austria’s Eva Reuber-Staier who, as well as touring Vietnam with Bob Hope (that’s a reward?), had bit parts in The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy. Denise Perrier (Miss World 1953), had the privilege of being strangled with her bikini top by Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever, and Mary Stävin (Miss World 1977) got to snog Roger Moore in a submarine. Three of Bond’s leading ladies were also Miss World veterans: Claudine Auger, Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry.

As a tiny counterbalance, Sean Connery’s replacement as Bond was George Lazenby, a former model who certainly wasn’t hired on the basis of his acting. The scale is not comparable, but there are similar situations for male specimens too: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career was built on his Mr Universe titles, just as Dwayne Johnson’s began in the wrestling ring. Beauty has always been a commodity in the movies, and Hollywood plucks out pretty faces wherever it can find them: chorus lines, sports fields, adverts. You could say the movies have been a mechanism for class mobility, with beauty the golden ticket.

Is today any better? For women especially, it is at least easier to have a movie career on the strength of “being good at acting”, rather than subjecting yourself to the cattle market. Definitions of beauty have also expanded, in terms of race, age, body type, you name it. On the other hand, current standards of movie-grade beauty are arguably even less achievable than those of the 1970s, often requiring a combination of punishing gym time and cosmetic procedures. Cinema has never been great at “inner beauty”; it’s far better suited to the superficial kind.

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