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“Mona Lisa Smile” Movie Analysis Essay

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Updated: Jul 19th, 2022

Introduction

Mona Lisa Smile is a film based in New England in the 1950s. The movie title references the famous art by Leonardo Da Vinci called Mona Lisa. The film is a drama about a teacher who travels to teach students in New England in a school called Wellesley. Throughout the film, there are references to social issues that affect women being addressed. The director uses art to present the way women’s role in society had been viewed in the 50s in America. Society at that time was largely patriarchal and women were seen as helpers. The main character, Katherine Watson, finds it hard to believe that women could accept to drop their ambitions in favor of getting married. Mona Lisa Smile criticizes the traditional views about women role only being mothers and wives and concludes that women have the right to make their own choices.

Plot Summary

The setting of the movie is 1953, first in California than in New England where the school is based. Katherine applies for a job to teach art history at a school called Wellesley and is called for an interview. The school is prestigious and the students are well informed about traditional art history. Amanda, a nurse at the school for 21 years, tells Katherine that the students can be intimidating if they sense fear (Mona Lisa Smile 5:42-5:46). The teacher realized that she had to use different methods to teach the students. Katherine centered her art class on three questions: what is art? Is art good or bad? what criteria can be used to decide these questions?

Wellesley school was more interested in ensuring that students understood their role either as a husband or a wife. Girls were taught that the only grade that matters is the one a husband gives for the performance of a wife and mother. Ironically, the teacher who taught the ladies how to poise and elocute was insecure and lonely. Ultimately, the ladies realized what Katherine was teaching them and finally started making their own choices. In the end, Katherine is surprised by the impact she had on the women in her class.

Social Issue addressed by Mona Lisa Smile

The film addresses the issue of women’s role in society. In the 1950s many people believed that women’s position was as mothers and wives. Society at that time was patriarchal and the director of the movie wanted to illustrate how most the women were forced to stop their careers and get married (Fatmawati). In the first 20 minutes of the movie the director presented the way different characters think. One of the students, Betty, was wealthy and was interested in following her mother’s conservative views about life. Her mother was a board member in the Wellesley school and had always taught her daughter to work hard and then find a wealthy husband. The girls at the school are taught foreign languages for them to be ready to host perfect dinner parties for their beau boss. The ladies are also taught how to poise and speak correctly when hosting dinner parties. Therefore, the main aim is to prepare the women for marriage and the men for work and further education.

The role of women in our society has always generated interest from various areas. Currently, women’s rights have become more advanced with many organizations pushing for equality. The way women are viewed at home has also changed as compared to in the past. Katherine tried to help the girls avoid making the mistake of failing to pursue their dreams. She talked with Joan, a bright student who had always wanted to pursue law and become a high-profile lawyer. However, she is disappointed when she learned that Joan had secretly been married and moved to Philadelphia. What frustrates her more is that Joan had to stay at home while her husband went off to graduate school. This meant that Joan would lose precious time that would have been used to further her education. The girls became consumed by the traditions imposed on them when growing up which prevents them from questioning why they are forced to follow the traditions. Through Katherine, the ladies learn of a different way of living life which leaves a lasting impact on them.

The need to have free will when making decisions in life has always been at the center of the arguments to bring equality. Women should not exist as though they depend on other people to make decisions. The 1950s was a period where the conservative ideas about society, in general, had taken root. Some of the women who desired to live a different life got criticism from their families and were forced to adhere to the traditional societal ideals (Kyle 227). In the movie, an argument ensues when Giselle tells Betty how she admires the way Katherine encouraged students to be independent. Betty was of a different view as she believed more in the conservative ideals imposed by the school.

Examples of How the Social Issue is Addressed

One of the examples is when Katherine was getting to know the students and met Joan who was one of the smartest in the class. The meeting surprised Katherine because she realized that Joan intended to finish school and get married. When she asked Joan, what happens after getting married the student replied sarcastically “…then I will be married” (Mona Lisa Smile 30:41). This shows that for the student marriage was the main objective after school. Being smart did not provide Joan with the motivation to continue her studies because of the way she was brought up knowing that marriage was important. While addressing the need for women to make their own choices, the director also addressed the importance of education. This is because without education the students would not have been exposed to different viewpoints about life.

Another instance happened when Katherine was teaching the students using her new model of teaching. A student questioned why married students were allowed to miss classes which forced Katherine to be strict with Joan. The missing class due to being married appeared a normal thing because of the conservative nature of the school. Joan threatened the teacher since she knew her mother was on the board and she would not be expelled. For Katherine, this situation presented an opportunity to ask for more support from the top management. However, she was told that change happens slowly which infuriated her. The director wanted to show the effects of early marriages on women’s ability to make better choices.

The other instance is when Betty got married but after some time the marriage fell apart. When she went to her mother for help, she was told to go back to her husband. Her mother did not want to listen to what she was saying instead she wanted her to go back immediately. This part illustrates the traditional views that were held by most of the older women and men. The position of women had greatly been diminished to that of a submissive person that has no free will (Fatmawati). In showing how Betty got shunned by her mother the director wanted to illustrate how hard it was for women to get support even from their families.

The lack of support that Betty experienced may affect the way a person perceives a situation. She was lucky to have a teacher who encouraged women to be independent. As a teacher, Katherine provided the girls with the ability to rediscover themselves. They were able to understand the importance of education in their life. Katherine wanted to raise women who would go and become the leaders of tomorrow. Her quest to change the way the school viewed women’s position in society was remarkable as it helped change other people’s life. Two of the girls applied for a law degree at Yale University and succeeded which shows that they were bright. Therefore, Katherine showed how important a teacher is in the life of students.

Analysis of Key Moments

During the opening address by the head of the school, the students are told that soon one of their major roles will be to take care of their husbands and children. The address was to welcome the students to the school and tell them what the school expects of them. The speech was also a message to the girls about what society expects of them. The school reinforced these ideals by teaching students how to act when hosting parties for their husbands’ friends. Katherine is infuriated by the message provided to the students as it is against what she believes in. The idea that women should only perform the roles of wives and mothers was demeaning. This is because the students were smart enough to venture into enterprising courses that would be fulfilling. Some of the students, for example, Betty and Giselle, had a dream to enroll at Yale University.

Another key moment is when Katherine convinced Joan to apply to Yale University because of her interest in law school. She had already enrolled in pre-law which made the teacher aware of her interest. After the conversation with the teacher, Joan applied to Yale University and was accepted. However, she changed her mind and decided to get married to her fiancée, Tom Donegal. When the teacher got wind of the news, she became frustrated and angry that Joan had made that choice. Joan told the teacher that being a wife did not make her any less intelligent. Parents’ influence on children is strong because students follow what they learn and see (Morin 165). The decision to become a wife conformed to what the school wanted but was against what their teacher taught them. For the teacher, it was better to continue studies and venture into careers that they prefer. This part also indicates the role of the teacher in shaping the decisions of the students in a positive way (Kupfer 95). However, some of the students are influenced by their parents to adopt more conservative ideals that limit their independence.

When the school invited Katherine to continue teaching the school, it indicates how popular her class had become. It also showed the school had realized the importance of educating students to make informed choices and not putting limitations on their development. Betty, who had also chosen to get married, found Katherine as the only one who cared to listen and help her when her marriage got rocky. Eventually, she decides to divorce her husband and move to Yale university to start a law degree. She had decided to live a life of her own without worrying about what society thought. This was an indicator of how the influence of a teacher can help change the way people think and act. The teacher was able to have a profound influence on the students.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Mona Lisa Smile focuses on how women were viewed in society during the 1950s. The film portrays the Wellesley school as a conservative place where the women are taught how to be mothers and wives. They learn the right way to speak and pose at dinner parties. The main character, Katherine, tries to change this culture by teaching the students that there is a possibility of being independent by pursuing a career. Several of the students had an interest in going for further studies. Joan wanted to be a lawyer but chooses to get married instead. The action by Joan and Betty made Katherine angry because she thought they were serious about enrolling in further studies. In the end, the students realized the importance of education and their role as women in society. They learned that women can also make their own choices without conforming to what society tells them.

References

Fatmawati, Septi. Feminity of the 1950s on the movie Mona Lisa smile. Diss. Universitas Negeri Malang, 2018.

Kupfer, Joseph H. “Classroom Creativity: Pedagogical Adaptability in Film.” Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice 20.1 (2020): 94-98

Kyle, Killian. “Mona Lisa Smile, Wit, and Teacher’s Pet: Three Depictions of Female Academics.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 29.4 (2017): 226-228.

Mona Lisa Smile. Directed by Mike Newell, performance by Julia Roberts, music by Rachel Portman, Sony Pictures, 2003

Morin, Céline. “Nuclear families and radical feminism in 2000’s American TV series.” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics 15.2 (2019): 163-174.

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