Film / Mona Lisa Smile

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A 2003 drama directed by Mike Newell, starring Julia Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles.

In 1953, a 30-something grad student from UCLA named Katherine Watson (Roberts) accepts a teaching position at a liberal arts college for women in Massachusetts. Katherine's teaching style is unorthodox, as is her ardent feminism, and while she is welcomed by some of her students and colleagues, she also ruffles a lot of feathers — particularly those of the college president and the head of the alumnae association.

The film reads a lot like a gender-flipped Dead Poets Society.


This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Betty's mother. She forces her daughter into this marriage, even forcing her to do as she wants for the wedding, refuses to let her come home so that Betty will be unable to leave Spencer even when he abuses her and tries to pressure her to stay in the marriage so she won't damage family reputation. Betty eventually stands up to her by divorcing Spencer anyways and moving to New York.
  • Alpha Bitch: Betty is this until her Character Development.
  • Arranged Marriage: It is implied that the marriage of Betty and Spencer is this. It's clear Spencer does not love her as he never sleeps with Betty and spends his time in New York having an affair. Betty divorces him within a few months of the marriage and completely changes her tone about her traditional values.
  • Artistic License – History: When the film came out, Wellesley College alumnae were not happy about how their school was portrayed, insisting that while it was indeed typical at the time to get married after you graduated, the overall environment at the school was not as snobbish and politically conservative as in the film and they did not wear girdles to class or attend lessons on "poise and elocution".
  • Assimilation Academy: While the school provides young women with an education, it is portrayed as ultimately grooming them for the role of proper upper-class housewives.
  • Brainy Brunette: Both Katherine and Giselle, respectively.
  • Break the Haughty: Betty and her journey as a Stepford Wife after a lavish wedding ceremony and a Fairytale Wedding Dress only for her hubby to neglect her and eventually cheat on her. She later divorces him and moves on with her life.
  • Broken Aesop: Joan decides to get married rather than go to Yale and is happy to have done so. She tells Katherine that being a housewife doesn't mean that she doesn't have any depth or value. That's a fair point, although it might have worked better coming from a character other than Joan, a straight A student and Extracurricular Enthusiast who actually wanted to "have it both" and had been implied to repress the desire to continue her education in order to fit the conventional role of a stay-at-home wife. In this context her final decision seems more like conforming than anything else and her husband's jokes about how it was impossible for Joan to go to Yale because then the dinner wouldn't be at 5 don't make it any more comfortable.
  • Bury Your Gays: Amanda's long-term girlfriend dies offscreen before the film's plot starts.
  • The Cameo: Tori Amos as the wedding singer.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Betty's mother would grab and shove her when she wanted Betty to conform to her standards. When she tries this at graduation, Betty breaks free just before telling her she was divorcing Spencer, symbolizing her freedom from her mother and her mother's expectations.
  • Consummate Liar: Bill turns out to be one.
  • Cooldown Hug: Giselle gives one to Betty when she finds out that her husband cheats on her.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Giselle and Amanda.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Both Betty and Katherine.
  • Ethical Slut: While Giselle has affairs with older, often married men, she's the one who discovers Spencer is cheating on Betty and even helps make it right. Despite her liberal views, she is not a bad person.
  • The '50s:
  • Freudian Excuse : Betty accuses Giselle of having an Electra complex.
    • Rather ironically, Giselle herself as an Electra Complex as an excuse for her developing a taste for older men.
  • A Friend in Need: Giselle and Betty for most of the movie are at each other's throats until Giselle finds out that Spencer cheats on Betty. Not only doesn't she mock her, but she's the one who fixes her.
  • Handsome Lech: You'll never see Bill Dunbar without a chick on his side.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Betty spends the entire beginning of the film insisting women observe their place as wives and mothers, even publicly attacking Amanda Armstrong and Katherine Watson for not having the same standards. After her marriage fails, she changes her standards by divorcing her husband and renting an apartment with Giselle. She even was considering law school, something she was against when Joan was considering it.
  • High Concept: Has been referred to as a Gender Flip of Dead Poets Society by some reviewers.
  • Hot for Teacher: Giselle had an affair with Mr. Dunbar, and clearly she's still quite smitten. She has an affair with a married man who is said to be a psychoanalyst but it isn't stated whether or not he's a teacher.
  • Hot for Student: While Giselle is the only one openly mentioned to be part of Dunbar's affairs, it's heavily implied he has slept with other students as well.
  • Humans Are Flawed: Bill tries to play this card after Katherine finds out that he lied about being a war hero. He even goes as far as comparing his situation to Joan's. It doesn't work.
  • The Ingenue: Connie, and that's why Betty usually picks on her.
  • It's All About Me: Betty's mother concerning Betty's marriage to Spencer. She insisted that Betty be the perfect wife and refuses to take her back when her marriage goes south. After Spencer cheats on Betty, she tells Betty to try and make her marriage work for a year and not to tell anyone so that it doesn't damage her mother's reputation. Betty eventually tells her off and divorces Spencer anyways.
  • Love Martyr: Giselle knows full well what kind of a man Bill is, but can't get over him and would be willing to take him back if he was interested.
  • The Mourning After: Nancy gets drunk at Betty's wedding and reveals how much she mourns her boyfriend who died in World War II.
    • Actually subverted, as she gets drunker and admits he dumped her.
  • MRS Degree: Katherine complains that she thought she was educating the leaders of tomorrow, not their wives, as some her students are highly capable but have no personal ambition.
  • Oedipus Complex: Giselle's father left his family, and it's implied that is the reason why she seeks sleeps mostly with older men.
  • Racist Grandma: Or mother in this case. Betty's mother referred to Giselle as a racial slur for being Jewish.
  • Really Gets Around: Giselle has a quite lively love life, with an Oedipus Complex as her Freudian Excuse.
  • Real Women Don't Wear Dresses: Katherine's attitude borders on this till she gets a "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
  • Rich Bitch: Mrs. Warren and her daughter Betty. Betty gets better, though.
  • School Nurse: Amanda Armstrong, who is quite forward-thinking in discreetly supplying contraceptives to the students.
  • Seemingly Wholesome '50s Girl: The most prominent example is Giselle, a straight-A student by day, and a Femme Fatale by night.
  • Sexless Marriage: Betty and Spencer. Betty made the excuse before their marriage that it was because Spencer was too much of a gentleman but it turns out that he hates Betty and cheated on her the whole time. She later breaks down to Giselle over this, who comforts her.
  • Spiritual Successor: to Dead Poets Society.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: The generic expectation is that the college will prepare the girls for their future role as housewives and when it's not blatantly stated, it's strongly suggested.
  • Stepford Smiler: "Is Mona Lisa happy? Who cares? The important thing is that she smiles..."
  • Straw Feminist: The teacher crosses this line when being too aggressive.
  • Token Minority: Giselle is the only Jewish student we get to see, and it's implied that it's one of the causes of her being an outcast.
  • Troubled Abuser: Betty, after her husband starts cheating on her and even before. She tends to bully people who don't fit in the society as well as her, but is in turn treated similarly by her mother. It's also implied that even Mrs. Warren, a bitch as she is, had a miserable married life herself and that's the reason she's constantly pressuring her daughter into trying even harder to fit the ideal.
  • Victorious Loser: Katherine at the end of the movie. She lost her job, her romance with Bill went up in smoke, but she remained true to herself and her principles. As a bonus, her disappointment in Joan settling for life as a happy homemaker, is balanced by the knowledge that she helped Betty, who throughout most of the film had been her most inveterate and effective opponent and upholder of the social status quo, to muster the strength to build her own life in defiance of the rigid norms of the early 1950s.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Betty lashes out at Giselle after Giselle returns from sleeping with her new lover. Betty screams how hard it must be to pine from a man who hates her, Giselle knows Betty is upset about Spencer and gives her a Cool down hug, comforting her over her failing marriage.
  • White Anglo-Saxon Protestant: Most of the characters in the movie except for Giselle and a briefly-seen black student (a non-speaking part). Justified since the setting is an Ivy League in The '50s so a multiethnic university is almost unthinkable.
  • Wrong Name Outburst: Katherine calls Paul "Bill" revealing that she's not into him anymore.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: When Betty's marriage goes wrong, her mother doesn't want to take her back so that she can trap Betty into her marriage. She eventually calls her mother out on that and tells her she is renting an apartment in Greenwich village with Giselle, someone her mother can't stand.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Sadly Betty's husband doesn't turn out to be so reliable to her. Katherine to because she carried on a relationship with Bill while she was already in a relationship with Paul.

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