CultureCinema Mona Lisa Smile: A Fascinating Depiction of Performing Gender Codes

Mona Lisa Smile: A Fascinating Depiction of Performing Gender Codes

Mona Lisa Smile begs the Zizekian question- where is the ‘freedom of choice’?

Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden, John Slattery and Marian Seldes.

Director: Mike Newell

Genre: Drama

We all have one of those movies that we call our favorite, a life-changer that breaks and challenges the status quo of the contemporary in one way or the other. Mona Lisa Smile can definitely grab a place on that list. Although many themes could be interpreted from the film, one of the central themes seems to be the performance of gender-codes, which was the primary concern of feminists of the mid-twentieth century.

The plot surrounds the experience of newly joined ‘History of Art’ Professor Katherine Watson, who joins Wellesley College, an orthodox Women’s private liberal arts college. The journey that Katherine travels in her new job, is both intriguing and infuriating for her, and for us as audience.

We see how Katherine stumbles in her very first class when all the students seem to have memorized the textbook on the History of Art. She works a different syllabus with her students teaching them to how to admire and interpret art rather than plainly telling them what art is. She faces censure of the College President for adopting such ‘unconventional’ methods, something which was highlighted in great length in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’.

Nevertheless, the desires of the young undergraduates in the movie seem to be to get married to a ‘perfect’ man, and live the life of an expected and perfect housewife. I use both these words ‘expected’ and ‘perfect’ cautiously. The girls are ‘expected’ to get married soon after graduation, and what is surprising is that this expectation is not restricted only to the upper-class patriarchal élite white society, but also deeply ingrained in the desires of the girls themselves. It is this battle that Katherine takes up and wins, in what seems to be a complex social structure, begging the Zizekian question- where is the ‘freedom of choice’?

The girls are not only expected to become the chief housekeeper after graduation, but are supposed to learn how to be a ‘perfect’ housewife. There are separate courses taught on how to manage house-affairs, and the seriousness of this need is reflected in how classes are conducted via hypothetical situations such as organizing a dinner for your husband’s boss.

It was around the same time that Betty Friedan wrote her famous book titled The Feminine Mystique, which addresses this phenomenon quite captivatingly. There is a lot of thematic similarity between Mona Lisa Smile and the Feminine Mystique and both deal with the violent enforcing of desires, hegemonically fuelling the ‘choice’ of women. This subliminally enforced choice is brilliantly highlighted by both the movie and the book. While Friedan, writing in 1963, shows how the fright in women of that era would prevent them from questioning the monotonous normalcy of their life as a ‘housewife’, the movie, set in 1953, portrays this struggle through the character of Joan Brandwyn, a student of Katherine, who aspires to take up law after graduating Wellesley, but later decides to marry her lover Tommy instead.

Katherine persuades Joan very much to take law at Yale University, where Joan had applied, or even if she wanted to stay in Philadelphia with Tommy, to take up law in any of the 17 other law schools nearby. But Joan strongly asserts that this is what she wants, to be married, to have children, to take care of the children and manage her home. She contends the ideologies of Katherine that being a housewife is not degrading, rather important and required. It is in this regard that Friedan writes of how women were ‘trained’ to be ‘truly’ feminine who do not want careers, higher education or political rights, but rather devote their lives from ‘earliest girlhood’ to find a suitable husband and bear children. This is strangely the same word that Katherine uses ‘trained’. She says that if posterity were to study the state of women of that era, they would see that even Magna-cum-laude graduates of Wellesley and Rhodes Scholars did exactly what they were ‘trained’ to do.

Gender-codes have invariably become the only way of living, which makes the idea of gender so integral to human life that life seems to be impossible without the performance of gender-codes. The erring are often disregarded, and dispelled, as the ‘weirdos’ and are structurally outlawed and socially ostracized. Violence cannot, and ought not, be understood only in terms of physical violence, as sometimes violence enforced through structural mechanisms may be more ghastly than the former when we realize that an entire way of living of humanity can be based on gender-codes.

Unfortunately, this scenario has not been entirely transformed over half a century in India, although it may have improved. Many girls are still married off at a very young age, possibly after 12th grade or latest after graduation, and many such marriages take place against the ‘choice’ of the person (I have deliberately not taken into account the dilemma of early marriage, as that would constitute a discourse of its own). What was hegemonically imposed as a choice which led to a deep entrenchment to the social order half a century ago, is now blatantly imposed.

A typical bride-shopping visit to the natal home of the bride would entail questions such as “can your daughter cook?“, “can your daughter sing?” and many others to this effect, and in order to fix a good alliance, the woman needs to be well-equipped (or ‘trained’) in all of these tasks to perform her gendered task of ‘wife’ satisfactorily. Sexual division of labour and the devalued understanding of the work that the housewives carry out are rarely reflected in laws or in developmental policies. There will be no economic indicator that takes into account the work done by home makers, which in one way or the other has an important bearing in the economic growth of a country.

Notwithstanding, marriage seems to be understood as the goal of life for many women, and it is not uncommon to hear phrases such as ‘joh bhi karna ho, shaadi se pehle karna’ (Whatever you wish to do, make sure you do it before marriage). Wollstonecraft in her phenomenal A Vindication of the Rights of Women, highlights how wives are commonly perceived to be an extension of the husband making it a commodified unit, rather than two individuals. This is something that Betty Warren, another student of Katherine, advocates for vociferously throughout the movie, claiming that there is nothing more blissful than such a life. She eventually breaks-down in the end due to all the repressions and internal turmoil of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with her life as a housewife. It is also common to see many of our women struggle under similar repression, and sadly most of them accept it in the mystical idea of ‘fate’.

The question that the movie altogether puts across is whether marriage could be considered a goal of life, and if it is, also the end of life in one way?

Featured Image Credit: QuotesGram

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