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The 2003 romance movie, “Mona Lisa Smile,” directed by Mike Newell, portrays a recent UCLA graduate female art history professor named Katherine Watson. She is hired at the prestigious all-female Wellesley College, in 1953 to teach an art history class to a classroom full of hardworking and demanding young girls, determined to make her feel unwelcome. The girls who attend Wellesley are from some of the most wealthy, influential, and upper-class families in Massachusetts. Despite all the hardships and judgmental comments she receives from the students and some of the faculty she is determined to confront the outdated ideals of society and the institution she workes in, Katherine inspires her traditional students to think for themselves and choose a different path than the one society expects them to take. She inspires them to be more than a man’s wife, to be independent women who are not afraid to challenge the norms. This movie effectively portrays liberal feminism, the fight for self-determination, and gender roles in the year 1953-1954.
One feminist theory is liberal feminism, it focuses on women’s ability to maintain their equality through their own actions and choices. Liberal feminism emphasis is on making the legal and political rights of women equal to men. They argue that society holds the false belief that women are, by nature, less capable than men, physically and intellectually. They believe that old traditions that tell women to be subordinate are blocking women’s success in the world (Ros Hague). They strive for sexual equality via political and legal reform.
How it works
In the movie “Mona Lisa Smile,” Katherine Watson is a liberal feminist, very open minded and in her own words she explains that ” [She] came to Wellesley because [she] wanted to make a difference”. She is a UCLA graduate from California and it seems like in that time period Massachusetts was less open to new ideas, and very much set into very old traditional ways. She is an educated woman who thinks for herself and refuses to conform to the same ideas the society holds for women at her time. She is a 30-year-old, unmarried, progressive, art history teacher from Oakland California and according to the school board, she lacks the “appropriate” family background, breeding, and education. She is a liberal feminist and her ideas and ways are challenged by her students and the staff. Her teaching techniques are very modern and she cares what her students think, she encourages them to think and choose for themselves instead of recycling someone else’s words. Her students learn to look at art from another perspective and to voice their opinions on each piece. Also, she provides her students with opportunities, reminding them to aim higher than just marriage, she encourages one of her students to apply to Yale law school and to continue her education. She is not taken seriously as a professor and the school board doesn’t like her ways, they believe that women don’t need education because they’ll ultimately be housewives and the only reason the girls are in that college is to learn good manners as females to be able to please their husbands and be more desirable for marriage. The school doesn’t expect the women to graduate and transfer to a university. Katherine Watson teaches her students to be bold and try to have both a husband and the right education. She teaches them to challenge the social norms in their society to think outside the box and not to depend on a man to help them build a future.
Another feminist theory is the fight for self-determination, which means people need to know who they are, what they stand for and what they want. Women are individuals and should be able to decide whom they want to be. In 1953 women were viewed as objects without selves. Their relationships and statues and most of all their husbands decided who they are and how they should act. They were not individuals they were defined by others. To be able to define who you are as a person is empowering and women back then had to fight to be able to choose who they are as individuals. The most empowering relationships are mutual, recognizing and building on the diverse contributions and needs of participants in ways that seek to minimize inequalities over time (Sara Lamberti). The reason some of us are self-determining is that we are in interpersonal and social structural relationships that empower us. Independence and productivity also express the standpoint of the privileged. The standpoint of women allows all of us to talk more about how we connect with one another’s developing selves within communities.
In the movie “Mona Lisa Smile,” Katherine Watson fights for her rights as a female professor. She knows who they are as an individual and doesn’t let the men in her life define her. For example, when is She makes it boyfriend Paul from California comes to visit her and place a ring on Katherine’s finger. Technically he didn’t even purpose he just assumed that Katherine would like to marry him since they’ve been dating. Katherine doesn’t give him a clear answer at first but it is obvious from her facial expression and lack of enthusiasm that she is not happy with this big change. Later on that night she does however expressed her shock and asks Paul for some time. In a society where marriage is the most important thing for women, she decides to stay single rather than marry a man she is not in love with. She knows who she is and is determined to choose her own path. Another example is when she reminds her student that they are individuals and they should be able to stay individuals even in marriage. One of her students has a great chance of getting into a law school but she has never considered applying because she is raised in a society where she is told marriage is what defines a woman. Katherine asks her student about her ideas about life after college and she responded, “After I graduate, I’m getting married,” Katherine again asks her to clarify, “And then?,” to which the student replies, “And then I’ll be married.” The student is incapable of seeing herself as an individual with a purpose. She thinks marriage will be the thing that defines her as a woman. The last example would be when one of Katherine’s married students named Betty, who is very unhappy in her marriage, finally decides to file for divorce and leave her cheating husband, she was told by her mother to stay for another year and try to repair her marriage and at first she allowed her mother and husband to push her around and tell her how she should act and what she needs to say or do, but after spending a year in Katherine’s classroom she learns to fight for herself and to choose her own path. She decides to file for divorce and continues to fight for who she is as a woman.
Additionally, gender roles is another feminist theory, it is “a social role encompassing a range of behaviors and attitudes that are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for people based on their actual or perceived sex”(Tarsha E. Bluiett ). According to the lecture note “sexuality,” women were viewed as solely for the pleasure of men and their purpose in the marriage was a reproduction.”Women were not given autonomy for protection or agency over sexuality creating many negative consequences: unwanted pregnancy, STD’s and unwanted sexual relations”(notes). One example from the movie is the character Giselle Levy, a loose and liberal Jewish student who has an active affair with multiple people and one of her professors. People call her “Whore” but there is also a male professor in the school who is known for sleeping with his students but he is seen as handsome and desirable instead of being called loose. Society judges women and men differently and holds them to different standards. These Sexual Double standards are a tool to control women’s sexuality. These standards are binary and they define a good and bad woman. It is seen as okay and acceptable for men to date multiple women before they settle down and get married but it is dimmed unacceptable behavior for a woman to date too many men or sleep with them before marriage.
Another example from the movie is one of the school teachers named Nancy Abbey is a teacher of etiquette, she teaches her students manor to help prepare them for marriage. She teaches girls how to act appropriately, how to sit and talk in a feminine way and in one of the scenes Giselle Levy makes fun of Nancy’s lecture and she scolds the girls, she says, “In a few years from now your sole responsibility will be taking care of your husband and children you may all be here for an easy A but the grade that matters the most is the one he gives you, not me.” It is made obvious to the girls from very early ages that they should be the ones to take care of their husbands and they are supposed to stay at home, cook, clean and take care of the kids while men are out in the world working and making money. Nancy is teaching them how to be “good wives” but there is no such class for men. Another example from the movie is when Betty’s husband cheats on her but she still lives with him and tries to be a good wife, her mom asks her to be accommodating and take better care of her husband in the future. Her mom asks Betty to stay married because if she gets a divorce and lives an alone people will look at her differently because good women will get married and stay with their husbands no matter what but the ones who get divorced and move in an apartment alone are seen as loose women.
In conclusion, the movie “Mona Lisa Smile,” portrays the life of women in 1953 and how they were expected to act. In the past women were seen as objects, their sole purpose was to get married and be good wives to their husbands no matter what. Women weren’t even allowed to go to college until 1853, because society expects women to be submissive and subordinate. Men think they are allowed to think and make decisions for women. It was a common belief that women are less than men in every way. This movie is set in a patriarchial time period where marriage was the best thing a girl could ever ask for. Girls were being trained their whole life not to think for themselves by their teachers and the TV ads. After spending a semester learning about women’s studies I think I definitely viewed this movie differently because I was able to spot most of the cultural issues we discussed over the course of this semester. It was very frustrating watching other women tell those girls to act appropriately so they could find good husbands, it was sad to see the struggles women had to go through to get the same human rights that men already had. I think I understood and appreciated this movie more because I was knowledgeable on the issues that were being portrayed, I got the message as a woman and it makes me want to be more assertive in my own life.
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