Mona Lisa Smile

Mona lisa Smile is a 2003 movie directed by Mike Newell. Starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the movie greatly revolves around the perception of women in the society in the 1950s.

Julia Roberts plays the role of Katherine Ann Watson, who joins Wellesley, a conservative women’s college in 1953 to teach art history. She meets a group of some of the brightest young women who had already learnt everything in the syllabus by heart. So she takes up discussions on modern art and at the same time tries to guide some of her best students towards a life that has more to offer than the role of a 1950s housewife did. While some of her students (Julia Stiles as Joan Brandwyn) chose matrimony over a promising career as a lawyer and hence unacceptable by the then society, some others (Kirsten Dunst as Betty Warren) ditch their lives of being ideal housewives and go forth to pursue a career.

Katherine is a woman who can see much further than women in her generation could. She questioned the role of women in the society and urged the youth to break the norms that had been so firmly engraved into their minds by traditions and media. In the 1950s women were expected to marry young, leave college or any other pursuit of a career after marriage and spend their lives being perfect wives and exemplary mothers. It would be another couple of decades before women would question these roles and therefore Katherine was before her time. In spite of being misunderstood for her ideals she does not back down because all the women were not happy with their traditional role of housewives. Katherine felt that the bright women who were her students were among the last whose talents should be spent bending over the ironing board or the oven cooking meals.

Betty represents the major section of the women who agreed with the notion that a woman’s right place is in the home. She vehemently opposes Katherine’s ideals. But Betty’s own life proves her wrong when day after day she is stuck in home while her husband spends most of his time in New York for business and even has an affair. She realizes that good homemade food does not make romance last longer than bright lipstick (unlike an advertisement claimed). Her mother’s refusal to accept her decision for a separation drives the last nail into the coffin and she therefore leaves with Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is already an independent woman, to make something of her life.

The film reflects many aspects of women’s lives in the 50s. Though many women worked as teachers, professors, nurses or held clerical posts, somehow in the minds of the society at large, the role of women had not changed. They were still expected to conform to their age old roles of mothers, caregivers and housewives. And women like Betty Warren completely believed in this norm as a “role they were born to fill”. Katherine Watson on the other hand was bent on breaking this image and came to Wellesley with the notion that here she would find girls who are smart and ambitious enough to dare and break these roles. She was disappointed when she found that Joan, whom she thought to be the brightest among the girls, who got accepted to Yale Law School, chose a home over a career as a lawyer. But she also learnt that her ideals are not the only ones that exist. Some women do find real pleasure in leading a secured family life and that does not make them depthless and dumb.

Katherine’s ideals however did change lives and attitudes, especially of the likes of Betty Warren. In the end of the film, after having tirelessly criticized Katherine, Betty finally sees the world through her eyes and appreciates katherine’s efforts. She describes Katherine as one of the people who “seek truth beyond tradition; beyond definition; beyond the image.”



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