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It's the age-old question that working moms have been asked for years: How do you balance your career and motherhood? There's no one right answer, but while actress and mom of two Keira Knightley, for one, admits to HelloGiggles that "the guilt is absolutely constant" when she's away from her kids, she'd prefer to focus on a different question: Why don't we ask men the same thing?
"Why do we not engage men in that conversation?" Knightley asks, speaking over the phone in September to discuss her new film, Misbehaviour (out on VOD now). "Why do we not expect a working man to be looking after their children as much as their partner is? Why do we assume that they don’t feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children as well?"
The belief that women should prioritize their kids while men prioritize their careers is an archaic one, to say the least. But despite its patriarchal roots, Knightley thinks that women still contribute to part of the problem when they praise men for showing up as parents in ways that moms are expected to all the time. "It's really rare to see a guy at a children's [daycare], and if he is, people say, ‘Ooh what a lovely dad. Look at him looking after his own children,'" Knightley notes. "You would never say that to a woman."
"We really need to start asking men about what their role within the childcare situation is, how much of that they take on, and expect them to take on that responsibility," she continues. "We expect women to take on that responsibility, and yet for some reason, we give men a free pass."
These sexist standards are fully demonstrated in Misbehaviour. Set in 1970 London, the British dramedy tells the true story of how the newly-formed Women's Liberation Movement invaded the stage at the Miss World competition, successfully disrupting the most-watched live television broadcast at the time. Knightley plays Sally Alexander, a single mother and college student who joins her fellow feminists in protesting the competition and society at large. The movie may take place 50 years ago, but the actress says that the women's slogans—"We're not beautiful. We're not ugly. We're angry"—continue to ring true and still need to be heard today.
"It means, 'I’m allowed to be more than my face. I’m allowed to be more than my body or this very thin definition of beauty. I’m allowed to feel. I’m allowed to speak,'" Knightley explains. "We’re still living in a world where the only profession where women are paid more than men is modeling."
"As much we’re entitled to say that our voices are important, the workplace tells us that the way we look is still more important than what we have to say."
Over her years in Hollywood, Knightley says she hasn't experienced sexism as "overt" as that shown in Misbehaviour, but she has often been "the only woman in the room." "Most of the powerful positions are held by men on film sets," she explains. "I do think that my voice has been heard, but you can’t hide that fact that you are the only woman at the table."
Luckily, the atmosphere while filming Misbehaviour was a different story. The film, which also stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lesley Manville, and Jessie Buckley, was directed by Philippa Lowthorpe and produced by a predominately female team; Knightley recalls the rare on-set experience as "an absolutely gorgeous time." Together, the team helped build a timely movie that, as the actress notes, deals with causes and issues not much different from political movements happening today.
"When I read the script I thought, ‘Wow—it's extraordinary that this is set in 1970, yet it feels utterly relevant and utterly part of the conversation that we still seem to be having about feminism and that intersection with racism today,'" Knightley says.
While the 1970 Miss World competition saw protesters for the first time, it also saw the first Black woman get crowned: Jennifer Hosten, aka Miss Grenada (Mbatha-Raw). The "crux of the story", according to Knightley, is a scene in which Sally and Jennifer meet in a bathroom and discuss what they're each fighting for. For her own character, it's the rejection of the idea that women's value comes from their bodies; for Miss Grenada, it's the representation of all races in the media. But at the end of the day, it's clear both women are working toward the same goal: equality.
"We only see the world through our own eyes and we only live through our own experience," Knightley says. "I’ve had to really embrace the fact that I have no frame of reference for lots of people’s experiences, so the only way that I can be helpful to as many women as possible is if I listen to their different experiences."
Just like how these OG feminists used the Miss World competition to get their message across to the widest range of people possible, Knightley believes we all need to continue fighting for our voices to be heard.
"You have to keep speaking, protesting, and perhaps you have to keep doing civil disobedience in order to make the most amount of people aware of the cause and aware of your point of view," she says. "Quite often, I think we all feel like we’re just a very small part in the world—and of course we are—but together, collectively, I think people can do great things. You may be one person, but maybe you can join one other person and do something really amazing."