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Mona Lisa’s Smile and Ambition

April 25th, 2004 · 2 Comments

Captives can be coerced into choices they’d never make in freedom. And so last Sunday on my way home from Boston, as a prisoner/passenger of United Airlines, I decided to watch the in-flight film.

During my travels I had already watched the movie Paycheck three times without sound. It was three times enough for me to realize I didn’t want to watch it once with the sound. (maybe I’ll consider reading the story though!) Headphoneless and happy I was.

But on the way home I eventually succumbed to temptation after much perseverance. Both of my flights were delayed and I had exhausted my stack of reading material. When the movie Mona Lisa’s Smile was offered, I decided this time to plug into the sound and see what it was. Anything to take my mind off of the delays and dilemma of wondering whether I’d still make the 11:15 ferry (answer:no).

I am not a Julia Roberts fan. This is a problem. I’m not keen on Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles or any of the other actresses. I was only watching the film to pass the time. That’s similiar to eating airplane food because you’re starving…

And I think of the entire time of the film, I only enjoyed thirty seconds of it. Maybe thirty seconds. The interlude where the girls are sledding down a hill. That was nice. The rest of the movie I didn’t like. For multiple reasons.

The major theme of the movie is New Professor challenges Womens College in 1950’s. It takes place at Wellesley and the big goal of girls’ lives is a wedding. Married students even skip classes while they are setting up house (the skills of reading while vacuuming and ironing are demonstrated!) Meanwhile art history Professor Julia Roberts tries to convince her students to get accepted to law school or get an apartment in New York rather than get a man. Of course she herself has her own woes in her love life. Everyone in the movie is miserable. The geeky couple seem to fare the best of all the pairs. But nearly everyone has some breakdown moment over a man or two….nevermind the vacuum cleaner 😉 …of course it wraps up with a sentimental ending/feeling of “we all love each other” /”I can’t believe it’s over”.

I’ve already described my opinion on these issues in previous posts. Let me say that I thought I’d find Caitlin Flanagan in the list of credits for the script. Actually I tuned out after the first roll of names so perhaps she was in the credits! This movie depicted her view of life: unhappy housewifes, mindless marriages, and a strict line between homemaking and working women….but all dressed in 1950’s style East Coast fashions.

Coming home I read misbehaving.net’s post on Do women lack ambition? and it only reminded me of the film.

In addition, for a woman’s ambition to thrive, both the development of expertise and the recognition of accomplishments outside of the family are required.

What if my ambition is to have a family? What if my ambition is to be a wife? What if I want to pour all I have into what I have at home? Is that wrong? Is that not being ambitious? I think I can have plenty of ambition thriving “inside” the family. Okay, I haven’t read the article from which this sentence is quoted, but the quote itself stimulated a response.

Then again, what if I want to go to grad school and be a wife? Am I alllowed to be married and to use my mind? In the film, women were given two options: iron your husband’s shirts or become a spinster professor. Both married women and single women seemed miserable. There was one “good girl” who eloped after getting accepted to law school, and even though she didn’t seem to complain about her marriage, it was hard to approve of her decision, given that the protagonist of the film disagreed with her.

Was this the way colleges, especially women’s colleges, were in the 1950’s? I’d appreciate hearing from others who have had any experience at such colleges or opinions on the movie….

When the film ended, I didn’t know what the point of Mona Lisa’s Smile was. Sure, there were the overt references, playing on the art history theme, that facial expression doesn’t indicate happiness. The pretense of perfection. The art of apppearances. But what was I supposed to take home with me? That Julia Roberts makes a good pouty professor?

What I found myself thinking as the credits were rolling was: “I’m glad I’m alive now. Who would have wanted to be a woman back then? They were so miserable.”

But then again, perhaps someone 50 years from now will make a movie about women today and say the same things.

Tags: marriage

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 enoch choi // Apr 26, 2004 at 2:55 pm

    in parallel with the spirit of Jay’s satire, i think it is absolutely not wrong for you to pour your energy into your home. How wonderful! True feminism empowers a woman to follow her heart’s desires. That you are able to is wonderful.

  • 2 Katherine // Apr 28, 2004 at 4:49 pm

    Rock on, intentionally devoted and cherished homemaker-wife-mothers! I attended a women’s college and only ever aspired to be a wife and mother. I stand by my choice 11 years after graduation, shocking as it may have been to some of my classmates. I think the stay-at-home mom is essential to a healthy culture (yes, I know some people can’t do it for various reasons). I got my B.A. and then my M.R.S. three weeks later and am very happy with both. 🙂