The story of Katherine Ann Watson, a feminist teacher who studied at UCLA graduate school and in 1953 left her boyfriend behind in Los Angeles, California to teach at Wellesley College, a conservative women's private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, United States.
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The all-star film, Mona Lisa Smile, basically portrays women caged in a world defined by customs and traditions. The story unfolds in the fall of 1953. Katherine Watson (Roberts), a teacher in art history, travels from California to England to teach in Wellesley College which is said to have the brightest girls in the country. It was not only Katherine’s desire to impart artistic knowledge to her students but also to make the best out of them. She tried to break down the walls of stereotypes and traditions by encouraging and teaching her students to go beyond their limits and to be who they want to be instead of being succumbed by their society of who they should be. Along Katherine’s journey come trials and circumstances that will shape her relationship with her students. Mona Lisa Smile is ‘a story of women struggling to define themselves in a world that has already defined them.’ ()
The movie is primarily focused on the gender roles (roles that are socially constructed) of a woman. This shows how the society in 1953 gives biases and terms on how a woman should act. Just as illustrated in the movie, Watson was encouraging her students to break free from the norms of their world in belief that such biases that surrounds them refrains them from acting who they desire to be. This desire in her heart was shown when she suggested to Joan Brandwyn (Stiles), one of her students, to get a degree of law in Yale University but unfortunately, Brandwyn did not take the chance. She chose to be a housewife. This shows that some women embrace what society labels to them.
Still, some women accept this just because they are expected to. Betty Warren (Dunst), another of Watson’s students, is the daughter of one of the members of the alumnae association and is the editor of the college newspaper. After marrying the man her parents have arranged for her, she thought she would be happy because being a housewife of a prominent man seems to be the trend in their days. But by the finale of the movie she ended up divorcing her husband, not minding how people would think about her. Giselle Levy (Gyllenhall), another of Watson’s students, was seen as a sex object to her professor, Bill Dunbar (West). Dunbar and Levy were said to have slept with each other before. But after taking the innocence of the damsel, Dunbar turned out leaving her and informing her that they shouldn’t see each other anymore. Levy insisted herself that what she had with Dunbar was just a “fling” relationship even though she was already in love with the man.
Before I end, I would like to put some of the lines of Watson’s letter to Warren. ‘Dear Betty, I came to Wellesley because I wanted to make a difference. But to change for others is to lie to yourself.’ () This opens the door for anyone, even men, to act the things they want to do in spite of how others will think about them. If a woman wants to work, then she should work. If a man’s passion is in cooking, then he should cook. We are not who we are because of what society dictates but we are who we are because of what we believe in.