Mona Lisa Smile
Mona Lisa Smile is a drama about Katherine Watson (played by Julia Roberts), a teacher who encourages her female students to pursue their own interests and not to bow to the social expectations of women. A single sentence summary for this movie, the kind of summary that scrolls across the screen on cable, might be, “A progressive young teacher challenges her students to reject repressive gender stereotypes and think for themselves in 1950s America.” Mona Lisa Smile aspires to present a feminist message of empowerment for women, a radical concept for the 1950s and a message that still bears repeating today. The writers apparently wanted to promote feminist ideals of free choice and greater opportunities for women, both of which would make an excellent topic for a movie. Unfortunately, the script and everything else about this movie is not nearly as nontraditional as the point of view it hopes to represent. Instead of following its own path, as Katherine Watson would have encouraged her students to do, Mona Lisa Smile is full of the worst kind of movie clichés, stereotypes, and predictable chick flick plot lines.
Some writers or directors will at least try to mask their cliché plot lines with superficial decorations that at least make the audience believe that they are about to see something unique and different, even if the movie really is just a retelling of a familiar story. This makes the audience think and ultimately makes the movie more interesting. This is not the case with Mona Lisa Smile. Julia Roberts, the non-traditional teacher, is, of course, dressed in what would be considered non-traditional clothing in the 1950s. These wardrobe choices are intended to show that Katherine Watson is a feminist and an independent woman who does not conform to even the most petty of societal demands. For a movie that talks about dramatic social change, this is hardly innovative film making. Wardrobe is often used to make political statements or to emphasize some particular aspect of a character. In Mona Lisa Smile, however, these wardrobe choices are so obvious that they are almost an insult to the audience’s intelligence.
It is as if the director is saying, “You, audience, are too stupid to realize that Julia Roberts’ character is a progressive feminist who refuses to conform. We will help you by dressing her this way”, instead of letting the character speak for herself and allowing the audience to get to know her and her feminist perspectives. This is a stereotyped view of feminism. Hillary Clinton’s business suit wardrobe notwithstanding, you can wear a skirt and still be a feminist.
The movie also shows the philosophical contrasts that were happening in the 1950s, many of which are still happening today. Katherine leaves her job in progressive and enlightened California to take a teaching position in the apparently unenlightened state of Massachusetts, where women go to college not to obtain a degree, but to meet the right kind of man and eventually to get married. Wellesley College is not portrayed as what we would think of as a woman’s college today. Most colleges today encourage their female students to reach their full potential. Wellesley, in the 1950s, is a finishing school. It is not as concerned with turning out female students who might qualify to go on to Harvard as it is dedicated to providing proper wives for the men who are allowed to attend Harvard. The fact that the women’s college has a predominately male administration speaks volumes. Like all institutions, Wellesley is highly motivated to maintain the status quo. The purpose of Wellesley College, as portrayed in this movie, is not to promote feminism, but to prevent feminism and other social upheaval from occurring. It is certainly not designed to promote dramatic social change.
To be fair, there were probably a lot of women at Wellesley and other schools who were pursuing an “Mrs. degree” in the early 1950s. However, although Mona Lisa Smile is set in the 1950s, Mona Lisa Smile is more than a biopic or a history lesson. Presumably, the writers and director wanted to convey the same message of empowerment to young women today. This purpose, of course, assumes that women in the 2000s are somehow still not empowered and that the majority of women go to college only to find a husband or to prepare to be a proper wife. While this may still be true for some women, it is probably not true for the type of woman who would want to watch Mona Lisa Smile (unless she was required to watch it for a class) and is certainly not true for the type of woman who would enjoy this movie. In other words, Mona Lisa Smile is preaching to those who are already converted. Ultimately, the purpose of the movie is not about changing anyone’s opinion as much as it is about affirming what feminists already believe about themselves.
Katherine is also contrasted against Betty, the character who represents traditional women’s roles in the 1950s, and, by extension, non-empowered (read: non-feminist) women today. Betty, of course, is trapped in a loveless marriage which her personal beliefs and the social pressures of her world will not allow her to leave. Not-so-subliminal message to women: “Marriage is bad, being single is good.” While romantic love is apparently OK, marriage creates an insurmountable conflict between obligation and the achievement of personal goals. Betty represents the clash between repressive traditional views towards relationships and the more liberating ideas that are represented by Julia Roberts’ character. Betty tries to confirm her beliefs by lashing out at the others and by persuading her friends to follow in her footsteps. This kind of self-confirmation is common human behavior and is even more common in movies that focus on conflict. When the views of an individual or an institution are challenged, the person or institution will naturally respond by trying to prove to themselves and others that their view is correct.
Although the movie makes Betty look stubborn and narrow minded, Katherine is actually just as narrow minded as Betty when she is challenged about women who choose marriage and who might choose not to work outside of the home. Katherine does not consider these to be fulfilling roles for a modern young woman because they are not roles she would choose for herself. Therefore, she has no choice but to challenge them. Because she is the teacher and because Julia Roberts is the star, rejecting Betty’s values is portrayed as a lesson in personal growth. The movie misses an excellent opportunity to address one of the major internal conflicts of feminism that women must face: Do feminists want us to be the type of women we want to be, or do you want us to be only the type of women they want us to be? Women should be free to choose whether they want to be lawyers, or doctors, or models, or housewives without fear of being criticized for their decision. Freedom of choice should mean the freedom to select from all possible options, not just from a select list of options that are approved by women who view themselves as progressive feminists.
The movie also uses art to show the social conflicts of the time. One would think that art teachers would be more liberal than most. After all, art is about creativity and innovation. Yet the young art teacher faces serious challenges when she teaches her students about abstract art. The school administrators and students protest the introduction of these paintings and insist that she teach about traditional works from traditional artists. Like traditional art, traditional cultural values are clearly defined and safe. Michelangelo’s David can only be interpreted one way. Abstract art, on the other hand, is less clearly defined and is more subject to personal interpretation. Pieces by Sidney Pollack are more chaotic than pieces by Monet. Social progress is also often undefined and is subject to interpretation. Social change is almost by definition chaotic, as struggles occur between institutions who want change and those who seek to preserve the status quo. Change also produces internal chaos. Although most women agree that feminism is good, not all feminists agree on the goals or even the definition of feminism.
Finally, and most importantly, are the conflicts that exist within Katherine. Katherine preaches against marriage and other relationships that might require a woman to sacrifice any personal power or control over her life. However, a major plot line in the movie is about Katherine’s quest to have a man in her life. This contradiction sends a very confusing and potentially damaging message to women. Mona Lisa Smile encourages women to be independent, but then tells them that they will be miserable unless they find a man. In other words, you can be a feminist, but you still need a man to be complete. It is ironic that a movie that is presented as a message in feminist empowerment would ultimately convey such an anti-feminist implication.
Like many movies, Mona Lisa Smile is entertaining and even inspiring if you are willing to set aside its inconsistencies and do not mind chick flick movie clichés. Feminism still has an important message for society today. Although there are more independent women today than there were in the 1950s, women still earn less than men, are still controlled by male-dominated institutions, and are still trapped in bad relationships for all of the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, movies like Mona Lisa Smile, with its mixed message and predictable plot line, do not inspire the women who are in these situations to overcome these obstacles. Ultimately, this Mona Lisa is smiling only for her own entertainment.