Sunday, April 10, 2016

Mona Lisa Smile and Feminism


I know, I know... the movie Mona Lisa Smile is considered "old" by most people who are used to only seeking out the latest and greatest but it's only 13 years old. I've been watching (and re-watching) it over and over on Netflix. In fact, I think I've had it on my list since it first became available to stream. I couldn't quite figure out why I loved it so much -- other than it taking place during one of my favorite eras with all that lovely music and fashion -- until I watched it for the thousandth time (only a slight exaggeration) and I figured it out: it challenges the idea of what a feminist looks like. Oh, and if you didn't figure it out: spoilers ahead.

For those who haven't seen it, this is the gist of the movie: Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, an art history professor from California who goes to teach at the ultra-conservative Wellesley College in 1953. She causes quite a ruckus with her liberal views; she's an unmarried, 30 year-old who sees marriage as something that traps women and hinders them from reaching their full potential. She challenges her students' traditional views on art as well as, you guessed it, marriage. Most students like her except one who openly criticizes her for having affairs (including one with a male teacher at the college), being unmarried at 30, and being "subversive."

The film is as much about the teacher as it is about her students. Betty Warren (played by Kirsten Dunst) is the conservative poster girl and not the nicest gal in the bunch. She's the one who continuously clashes with Katherine Watson. She marries about halfway through the film and wants the same for her best friend, Joan Brandwyn. Joan (who is played by Julia Stiles) is an academic overachiever who is dating Tommy (played by Topher Grace), a Yale man. When Ms. Watson learns that she wouldn't mind going to Yale Law School (back when they only accepted a handful -- literally like 5-6 -- of women into the program), she encourages Joan to apply. Connie Baker (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a kind hearted gal who just wants to find love. Her best friend, Giselle Levy (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), is the experienced gal in the group, having affairs with married men. She finds Ms. Watson fascinating as she embodies the type of person she would like to be. Unsurprisingly, she (Giselle) and Betty often clash because Giselle represents everything Betty hates. Again, this is just the gist of it.

Now, you can look at the film, watch it, and go: "Why do you like this movie, Emmy? They're basically saying that being conservative and having a traditional outlook on life is bad." Yes, it looks that way. Betty ends up being challenged enough by Ms. Watson that she understands where she's coming from. She eventually divorces her cad of a husband and has plans to move into an apartment with Giselle in Greenwich Village after graduation. I can hear the "haha, the ultra-conservative failed! Traditionalism needs to get with the times! Let women do what they want; let them sleep around and not get married because x, y, z" comments. It would seem that way except for my favorite part of the movie: Joan redefines what it means to be a feminist.

I realized that I loved this movie because of what Joan did -- she stood up to Ms. Watson in her own way and helped me realize that feminism comes in different forms. See, Joan does end up getting into Yale Law. Betty is upset by this but Ms. Watson is thrilled... that is, until she finds out that Tommy has other plans. He plans for Joan to join him in Philadelphia since he will be going to Penn State for graduate school. Ms. Watson, fearing the worse for Joan, goes to Joan's house and to tell her she's found other law schools nearby. That's when Joan drops the bomb: she's eloped with Tommy. Ms. Watson turns to leave, disappointed by the development, but Joan stops her. This is my favorite part of the movie:

Joan Brandwyn: It was my choice, not to go. He would have supported it.
Katherine Watson: But you don't have to choose!
Joan Brandwyn: No, I have to. I want a home, I want a family! That's not something I'll sacrifice.
Katherine Watson: No one's asking you to sacrifice that, Joan. I just want you to understand that you can do both.
Joan Brandwyn: Do you think I'll wake up one morning and regret not being a lawyer?
Katherine Watson: Yes, I'm afraid that you will.
Joan Brandwyn: Not as much as I'd regret not having a family, not being there to raise them. I know exactly what I'm doing and it doesn't make me any less smart. This must seem terrible to you.
Katherine Watson: I didn't say that.
Joan Brandwyn: Sure you did. You always do. You stand in class and tell us to look beyond the image, but you don't. To you a housewife is someone who sold her soul for a center hall colonial. She has no depth, no intellect, no interests. You're the one who said I could do anything I wanted. This is what I want.

Boom. Mic drop. Point, Joan Brandwyn, err... Joan Donegal. I do a little fist pump in the air every time Joan give this speech. Because she's right. Let's say it was the acceptable norm in the 1950s but in the 2000s -- and especially in 2016 -- but it's looked at as being archaic.

As some of you longtime readers may know, I took a Women's Studies course as a freshman in college. The professor I had reminds me a lot of Katherine Watson, except that she was a lot more, um, liberal. That's the nicest way I can say that. She talked about pornography very openly. Every time she said something that she thought would shock me -- which was often -- she would apologize to me in class... but it honestly didn't feel sincere to me. It was very odd to me (at the time) that she would do that because I was, well, on the more liberal side of the political spectrum at the time. I was indifferent to a lot of things I now oppose. Still, it's curious that she saw a more conservative/traditional side to me than I thought I displayed at that time.

Anyway, I considered myself a feminist at the time (circa 2004-2005; a year or two after Mona Lisa Smile was released). I was all for equality in terms of women having the same opportunities as men in things such as the workplace. Still, I acknowledged that there were things that men could do that women couldn't, and vice versa. This was like a year or two before my reversion, many years before I first heard of Theology of the Body. I didn't drink all the Women's Studies Kool-aid given to us in that course but I could see validity to certain points made.

Fast-forward over a decade later. At 30 -- and as someone who identifies herself as a more "traditional" Catholic -- I'm obviously at a different place in my life. I'm no longer that apathetic (nominally Catholic in name only) 19-20 year-old freshman (side note: I took a break between HS and college to work while my father battled colon cancer for the first time) who wasn't sure she wanted more than a child or two, if any. I obviously don't identify myself as a liberal nor am I registered Democrat any longer. Still, I think of myself as a feminist in the Joan Brandwyn sense.

Reverting to the faith definitely shaped how I view femininity and feminism in general. I'm obviously pro-life, which is not a "typical feminist" idea. I'm excited about the prospect of marriage and children some day. I think that women who stay at home with their children don't differ that much from working mothers -- the only difference is what kind of work they do during the day; both demanding yet rewarding regardless of where their time is spent. I have a preference for myself but don't judge or disagree with anyone else who chooses to go down the other career/small-v vocation path. I see the beauty in being a woman, something I never did when I was considered myself a "feminist" a decade ago.

I'm grateful for the opportunities I've gotten "despite" being a woman. I've gotten a great (and extensive) education. I've studied a number of subjects in depth. I've been able to fulfill a lifelong dream of being published as an author. I've been able to do my dream job (writing) only to find out that it was incompatible with where I was in my life at the time. I still enjoy shocking men when they see me working on my car (I picked up a thing or two from my father... and YouTube tutorials, lol) or doing something that is traditionally associated with men. What can I say? My parents raised a fiercely independent woman who likes to do things for myself when I'm able. I'm grateful for the opportunities I've gotten to be selfish and choose my path (with guidance from God).

I've chosen this path of Biblical Theology because it seems to be the path that God wants me to take. The path is becoming clearer as I make progress down it (and it looks like I may have one or two new, life-changing projects coming up later this year). I've chosen to wait for that man that God has in store for me despite the offers to, ahem, experience the world more. I've chosen to hand everything over to God -- my vocations (as a future mother, wife, and whatever career path He's leading me towards), my ambitions, my hopes, my dreams, my health, everything -- since I know He will do better for me than I can ever do for myself. I'm prepared to either be a working mother or a stay-at-home mother; to balance marriage, family, and work. Finally, I've chosen to embrace the beauty that comes with being a woman -- all the ups and downs -- and help other women see that same beauty in themselves. If you ask me, that's what a feminist is really about.

And that's it for my long, rambling post on everything I took out of the movie. Since I'm cutting Netflix this week, I should really get myself the movie so I can watch it as many times as my heart desires. ;)

Alright, I'm going to try to enjoy the rest of my weekend. Perhaps I'll bake a cake and watch some more Netflix since studying has been impossible this weekend thanks to my loud neighbors and terrible concentration. :D

I hope y'all have a lovely rest of weekend. :D

As always, thanks for reading and God Bless! :D

4 comments:

AnneMarie said...

I've never seen this movie, but I think this is a really cool reflection on it! I think it's awesome that you pull out the fact that feminism has different forms from this movie, and hopefully more people will be able to grasp this concept. Some of my friends (and one of my professors) in college really helped me to see that feminism isn't some nasty, dirty, man-hating ideology (which, sadly, many Catholics-especially ones deemed as more "traditional" see it as). As my professor pointed out, there isn't just one feminism, there isn't a feminist pope, and there's not one specific feminist viewpoint that each feminist has to subscribe to. It's more of a collection of movements, as people try to work together and recognize the beauty and dignity of women. It's so neat that this movie touches on a different face of feminism than the "stereotypical" image!

Emmy Cecilia said...

I think you may like the movie, AnneMarie. I mean, there's some stuff in it that I fast forward through but, overall, the acting is solid and there are many layers in the storyline.

Feminism comes in all shapes and sizes, just like women. ;) And, yes, unfortunately I think many people (really, society as a whole) sees feminism in the man-hating, bra burning, abortion-supporting sense. It seems like an "us vs them" thing which I dislike.

Kiera Kurak said...

I will have to give this movie a revisit. I think that while feminism may have been started as something for women to be valued, its definitely gotten out of hand in its ideals, at least in the worldly portrayed sense. Its funny because I did get the highest form of education and I did have every opportunity to do great things in the world's eyes and I like Joan chose to be at home. I've taken a lot of flack for doing so, and its been a struggle at times in my head. But my heart remains with my kids at home. I've come to realize that it wasn't until I decided to exercise my motherhood in my femininity that I had any real challenges by the world's standards. But on top of that, I have also only found that I am only understood to be fully as a woman within the bounds of the Catholic Church, and that's one for the Church for sure.

Lauren said...

I picked this up recently (flea market I believe) and was just thinking I should watch it this weekend! I had to skim over this for now to avoid spoilers (even though I have seen the movie before...) but I will be back soon to reread!