Keira Knightley talks Misbehaviour, social media bullying and modern-day feminism

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Keira Knightley knows all too well how complicated feminism can be…

This reviewer holds her hands up and admits that she went into her Misbehaviour screening with a lot of assumptions. I believed that the film would paint the Women’s Lib protestors as the film’s infallible heroes. That the Miss World contestants would be ditzy, vague, 80% bitchy. That Mr and Mrs Morley, in charge of the competition, would be absolute assholes.

I was wrong. 

Yes, this film tells the story about the Women’s Liberation movement’s protests of the 1970 Miss World competition. And, yes, it has a feminist agenda. However, Misbehaviour – directed by Call The Midwife and The Crown’s Philippa Lowthorpe – is anything but dry. 

Starring Keira Knightley, Keeley Hawes, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Suki Waterhouse, Jessie Buckley and Greg Kinnear (among others), it’s actually an incredibly charming and funny film which, yeah, just so happens to be about feminism.

Watch the Misbehaviour trailer for yourself below:

What Misbehaviour does, and does so cleverly, is explore the nuance of debate. It doesn’t side with one particular type of woman or branch of feminism, and it allows for well over 50 shades of grey.

Case in point? Well, the Miss World contestants – particularly Jennifer Hosten (Mbatha-Raw) and Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) – are smart, capable women with their own political agendas. The Morleys, sure, are bogged down with hip and bust measurements, but they do truly care about the women taking part in their event. Sally Alexander (Knightley)’s take on feminist activism is entirely different to that of Jo Robinson (Buckley) and her commune. 

Even Sally’s mother, so against her daughter’s work with the Women’s Lib movement, reminds us that nothing is ever truly as simple as it seems.

When I sit down to chat with Knightley about her new film, I hesitantly inform her that I 100% judged Misbehaviour by its cover – or poster, as it were. She isn’t surprised.

“You go into this film thinking that it’s going to have one very particular point of view,” she tells me. “But the fact that it’s actually two very well-rounded points of view, and shows the complexities of this debate, is, I think, really important. Because it feels like a really interesting part of the conversation [we are having about feminism] today.”

Knightley’s correct, of course: back in the 70s, we couldn’t agree whether the Miss World competition was anti-feminist or not. Nowadays, we have the same debates about Instagram, Love Island, even make-up

Misbehaviour tells the story about the Women’s Liberation movement’s protests of the 1970 Miss World competition
Misbehaviour tells the story about the Women’s Liberation movement’s protests of the 1970 Miss World competition

“Progress is very slow,” Knightley says, when I point this out, “and I think that what’s extroardinary about the feminist movement is how nuanced and how complicated it still is and always was.

“There are many different points of view and many different ways forward, and we have to listen to each other, of course. We are very bad at listening to one another as a human species in general, you know, but we do have to attempt to do that. Keep having conversations.”

Of course, one of the easiest places to start conversations is social media (“It has definitely created movements,” says Knightley, although she admits these haven’t always been positive). I can’t help but wonder, though, if Instagram, Twitter and other social media outlets have taken on the role of the modern-day beauty pageant?

Knightley agrees, particularly in terms of the ‘likes’.

“I think we’ve all read a million articles about how social media is impacting young girls’ mental health. I’m not sure how we combat that. I think it’s difficult because the idea of beauty is so narrow, and we’ve always set completely impossible beauty standards for ourselves that nobody can actually live up to. I think that is still going on today, probably as much as it was 50 years ago.

“Fortunately, diversity has come into play much more than it did when this film was set. [Misbehaviour is about] the first time a woman of colour won Miss World, and how important that was. I think we are very fortunate in the fact that our view of beauty isn’t so very white. There is more diversity, but it is, I think, still very narrow.”

Misbehaviour sees Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) come face-to-face with Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley)
Misbehaviour sees Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) come face-to-face with Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley)

With the climate change movement very much at the forefront of people’s minds, I find myself asking Knightley if she believes protest and disruption (in the style of Extinction Rebellion) is the best way to force progress.

“Do you change the world by becoming a part of the system and making change from within, or taking direct action from the outside?” she muses, reflecting on her own character’s journey in Misbehaviour.

“When you think about any of the great changes we’ve had, particularly in the 20th Century, whether it’s Indian Independence or the Civil Rights Movement, that was done through mass peaceful protest.

“I suspect that the climate movement will be the next one, and I think it will again take mass peaceful protest to bring change. But it will only work if people are engaged with the conversation.”

So how do we ensure that people are engaged? Well, Knightley – much like Misbehaviour’s Sally – insists that we can’t move forward without the support of the press.

“The media definitely has a role to play in protest,” she says. “It has tremendous power in shaping people’s opinions about the world.”

With that in mind, a note from me: make time to see Misbehaviour this month. Not just because it’s a brilliant film (it is), but because it’s guaranteed to shift your perspectives and give you some serious food for thought, too.

 Misbehaviour will be in UK cinemas from 13 March 2020.

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Images: 20th Century Studios/Getty

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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