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Mona Lisa Smile Essay

Popular culture often opens the window into the cultural norms of our society, its perceptions, and discourses. It portrays how the social mores of the society shape family, social life, and gender roles. It also acts as a medium of dissemination to teach about one’s self-identity.

Popular culture therefore, shapes the way an individual or group thinks, often observed in popular cultural movements like the Beat, the Hip Hop, the Dadaists, and many more.

Films, in line with other popular cultural media, have helped in presenting various socio-cultural aspects of life. There are many movies dealing with girl power and 1960s post-feminist “second wave feminism” (Tally, 2008, p. 107). Many films have tried to explore the realms of gender roles and the breaking of the prevalent societal discourse regarding the role of women.

One such movie, reviewed and discussed in this paper, is Mona Lisa Smile (2003). This movie is a more explicit confrontation with portrayal of young women struggling against their traditional roles that opens up a cultural space between the second wave feminists and the post feminist daughters who only wanted to be homemakers (Frieden, 1997; Tally, 2008). This paper explores the themes, symbols, and cultural space portrayed by the film Mona Lisa Smile.

Mona Lisa Smile is a film about Katherine Watson (played by Julia Roberts) a graduate from UCLA accepts a job offer as an art teacher from Wellesley College in the 1950s. Watson brings in liberal feminist ideas into the college and among girls in class, especially Betty Warren (Khristen Dunst), Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), and Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The plot of the movie spins around these characters and the way Watson eventually helps them see the meaning of her liberalist ideals and find their own identity.

In her very first class, Watson encounters a class-full of bright young women who are intelligent but their intelligence is marred by their conventional and traditional discourse and knowledge. A free-spirited Watson who “wanted to make a difference,” tried to change the way women looked at traditional gender roles and their career options in a conservative school like Wellesley.

The movie shows that the idea of schooling at the time was to make the women adept with domestic ideologies. Therefore, young women were taught to be educated in the right way, think in the right was in order to achieve their role in the marriage market.

Watson is described as a woman “lived by her own definition and would not compromise that” (Newell, 2003) initially faces a lot of challenge from a group of conservative management body as well as student named Betty who was brought up to believe that all women would want is to get married and be a homemaker. However, inside was a boiling spirit that wanted to reject the prevalent norms and teachings about gender role.

The movie wanted to show the way women believed in their lives in the 1950s through a series of video footage available in the movie’s DVD showing women in the fifties, statistics comparing women taking full time employment after graduation of then and the present time and how many claimed they were virgins. The gender roles have changed since then, but for what, that was due to the first of wave of feminists in the fifties in the US who believed that these social barriers of women being only homemakers had to be broken down.

The movie depicts an era that was before the sexual revolution and what women faced in the era. Watson plays against the conventional norms of womanhood in the 1950s, as she was still unmarried in her 30s. This is not acceptable and almost a taboo for many of the students in her class but she remains herself and tries to shatter the glass ceiling.

Through her lectures on art history, Watson tries to help the students break the barrier of methodical and text oriented understanding. She believes that the young women in Wellesley were smart, confident, and were capable of doing much more than just be homemakers.

She defines the new more out of the box thinking for the girls in her class through the new way of teaching the art course that she outlines the course as “What is art? What makes it is good or bad? And who decides?” the ethos of the day was teaching through textbooks and a good student was expected to know the textbook thoroughly.

In a way this was intended to help young women become exemplary mothers who could spell out the course while educating their children or appear educated and cultured as their designated role of being wives to the elite male club.

Watson comes from the Bohemian west culture and wants to “make a difference”. However, the conservative alumni body of the college holds down her aspirations to bring change. They try to restrict Watson’s potential as a teacher and a feminist liberal by defining the course outline when she is invited to join back the following year.

The conservative society tried to subdue the force of change embodied in Watson, but Watson decides to leave in search of new walls to break. Nevertheless, she leaves the imprint of her ideas and believes in the lives of the three other main characters, her students, as they learn to see beyond their discoursed and traditional roles, they see themselves.

Mona Lisa Smile is a tale of the way women’s lives were shaped in 1950s in America, their limited existence within the barricaded walls of “home” and “marriage”. The movie examines how male hegemonic discourse shaped young women’s attitudes and their choices and expectations after graduation from college.

This is shown through Joan and Betty and how they tackle their personal problem in eventually finding themselves. The movie above all demonstrates how popular culture helps to depict reality and brings out the social, structural changes that changed the women’s world in the 1950s. It raises the question of women’s place and even though the setting is sixty years back, it holds relevance for present time as the question of women’s space is still relevant.


Frieden, B. (1997). Feminine Mystique. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Newell, M. (Director). (2003). Mona Lisa Smile [Motion Picture].

Tally, M. (2008). Representation of Girls and Young Women in Films as Entry Point to Studying Girl Culture. In C. Mitchell, & J. Reid-Walsh, Girl Culture: Studying girl culture : a readers’ guide (pp. 107-115). New York: ABC-CLIO.

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