A Feminist Literary Criticism On The Movie "Mona Lisa Smile"

Feminist criticism is the literary analysis that arises and develops from the viewpoint and perspective of feminist theory. This type of literary criticism is concerned with the ways in which the female gender is defined, more specifically how women’s role in every aspect of life is displayed in cultural productions such as literature and movies. This essay will provide an analysis of the movie “Mona Lisa Smile” (2003) directed by Mike Newell, based on feminist theory, by examining the way female and male characters are defined, and deconstructing the ways in which women are described throughout the film. Firstly, I will illustrate the stereotypes that women were dealing with and the patriarchy that is represented in the movie. Secondly, I will analyze the female characters and what they display, and finally the analysis of male characters and what they bring to the story.




The story depicts American society in the 1950s, a period in which women were to become nothing but good wives and mothers no matter what their true tendencies were. These challenges that women were facing are presented through the lead character, Katherine Watson, a liberal-minded professor from California, who earns a job in the art history department at an all-girl college, called Wellesley. The movie perfectly depicts that this assumption that women wanted to be married was more than an assumption, but also an expectation of women in that time period. This expectation carried into everything the girls were taught. At Wellesley, girls are expected to marry Harvard boys and become housewives, their educations amounting to nothing more than something to pass the time before marriage and children. The society, and their families were telling these young women that they belong in the home, and taking care of children and doing the house chores are their only responsibilities. Women were not expected to have desires outside of being a housewife, even when they had the intelligence and talent to become something much more significant. On the other hand, even though men also wanted to get married, there was no pressure on them coming from the society. They continued their education and followed their desires leading to a good job. “Mona Lisa Smile” shows the debate and challenges women were going through during that period of time. All characters face this debate in some way throughout the movie, some choosing to stay in the home, while others question it.


Katherine comes to Wellesley and challenges this idea that women are merely housewives, and by that she changes the lives and ideas of her students, by daring them to think for themselves and explore outside of their traditional views. Her character is displayed and represented as a progressive and forward-thinking woman trying to raise awareness on the capabilities of women. Katherine is the one in this film that really shows the girls that they can have other propensities and desires, and helps them, or more likely pushes them in the direction of those ambitions. Her character portrays the perfect image of an independent, strong woman in an environment filled with images of perfect housewives. Nancy and Amanda are two other staff members at Wellesley, that are Katherine’s housemates. Nancy is the poise and etiquette teacher, who believes in the role that society has given her, and thinks that women must learn how to be good housewives. “You all may be here for an easy ‘A’, but the grade that matters the most is the one he gives you,” is what she tells the girls during one of her lessons on how to treat their husbands. Amanda on the other hand, a former graduate of Wellesley and the school’s nurse, gets fired from her job because she gives contraception to the girls. The norm of the society felt that a woman who had engaged in premarital sex, would not be sought as pure, or worthy of a strong intelligent man. Betty, the student that caused Amanda’s expulsion by revealing in a school newspaper editorial that the free-thinking faculty member was supplying contraceptives to the students, is one of the characters who has also been completely brainwashed by the society, especially her mother. She does not give Katherine a chance to open her mind and educate her. Although despite her efforts to discredit Katherine as well, other students including her friends Giselle, Joan, and Connie, grew increasingly to admire Katherine and place her as their mentor. Katherine constantly encourages these young women to look beyond the picture that their society depicts as respectful women, and wants them to believe they can have both a family and a career. Joan is one of the students that has the potential to become a very successful woman. After discovering her talents, Katherine supports and encourages her to apply to Yale law school, where she succeeds in getting admission, but she ultimately declines the offer in order to play the traditional role of housewife. Giselle is a loose and liberal Jewish student who has an active affair with Bill Dunbar one of the teachers at the school and is not ashamed of her actions even when people like Betty disrespect her. She is one who rejects conventional morality and refuses to hide what she thinks and does. Whereas Connie is a shy student lacking confidence and worried that no man will love her. As a viewer you can observe the pressure Connie feels about getting married, coming from the society and people around her. ironically, by the end of the movie, Betty is the one who was most inspired by Katherine, as she finds out her husband is cheating on her, and her mother wants her to accept the situation to maintain her appearance as it was. She finally opens her eyes and believes her true value as a woman.


The men in the movie are represented with typical characteristics of the male gender back in the 1950s. They went to school, got good jobs, and handled all the financial aspects of life for their family. There is no question on their masculinity, or that they are deviating from the role society has given them. All the men in the movie are either going to school and looking for a wife, or engaged or married. The only man that is not looking for a wife or married is the Italian professor, Bill Dunbar. But even though Bill is not married or looking for a wife, he is still represented as a masculine man by the fact that he was in the war and in the fact that he has affairs with his students. His character shows the fact that the students are not the only ones touched by Katherine’s feminine power. He lies about his experiences of fighting in Italy during the war, and when Katherine finds out he has not even been to Europe before, he claims he felt weak in front of her perfection and felt the need to lie in order to grab her attention. Displaying a more open-minded male character, Paul Moore, Katherine's lover from California, shows up unannounced during the Christmas holidays, immediately presents Katherine with an engagement ring. This is, in fact, one of the important events in the movie, because even though she is offered the respectability which people at Wellesley longed for and which she knew would make her more acceptable there, she declines it. The reason seems to be the fact that her mottos to encourage her students have made her even more committed to pursuing real development of her individuality.


Overall, “Mona Lisa Smile” realistically and beautifully depicts the process of social development, with regard to the transition of American women. Katherine leads her students to aspire for freedom to think for themselves and act according to their own values rather than merely conform to a traditional role. A feminist literary critic resists traditional assumptions, and actively supports including women's knowledge in literature and other cultural productions, and valuing women's experiences. Thus, by having a feminist point of view I observed the patriarchal attitudes in this movie. I personally believe we can all use a Ms.Katherine Watson every now and then, to remind us to look beyond the roles and labels that our society has given us.

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