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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.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Betty and Spencer, as it turns out he's a cheater and emotionally distant. Betty's parents are implied to have a cold marriage, while Giselle's eventually divorced.
  • 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.
  • Bridezilla: Played with. It's actually Betty's mother, not Betty herself, who obsesses over every detail of her wedding and happily browbeats everyone into pulling it off her way.
  • 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.
  • Brotherhood of Funny Hats: The "Adam's Ribs" secret society, where the girls wear brightly colored beanies with "AR" in big white letters on the front. Note that this group averts many tropes common to Secret Societies: Meetings take place at 5 p.m. and its members speak openly about its existence in the hallway and on the quad.
  • Bury Your Gays: Amanda's long-term girlfriend dies offscreen before the film's plot starts.
  • The Cameo: Tori Amos as the wedding singer.
  • Career Versus Man: Betty, more than any other character, believes this is a zero-sum proposition. She mocks Katherine for never having been married and fears Joan will destroy her prospects of marriage by going to law school.
  • Character Development: Betty Warren starts out as a sort-of Academic Alpha Bitch in her finishing school who firmly believes in the expectations for women of the 50’s, and sniffs at the more liberal and feminist views of others. She even writes an article critiquing Katherine for trying to encourage her class to be independent and stating that women are destined to Stay in the Kitchen and become mothers. However, after a lifetime of following the rules, Betty finds her husband is cheating on her, and many of her friends who have gone against her traditional values are much happier. Betty regrets how she treated Katherine and changes her own views, choosing to divorce her husband and have a career and life of her own, the very lifestyle that she openly opposed through most of the film.
  • 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.
  • Compliment Backfire: Nancy compliments Connie's skills in domestic economy saying that she reminds her of herself at her age. Given that Connie struggles with finding a significant other, she's not flattered at all.
  • 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.
  • Cover Drop: The official movie poster pictured here is almost identical to a shot of the girls examining a Jackson Pollock painting. The biggest difference is that Betty (Kirsten Dunst) was not actually present in that scene.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Giselle and Amanda.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Both Betty and Katherine.
  • Elegant Classical Musician: Connie is a gifted cello player, which gives out her truer passionate nature.
  • 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.
  • Exiled to the Couch: Katherine's boyfriend, Paul, is most displeased at being forced to sleep on the couch due to Nancy's house rules.
  • Extracurricular Enthusiast: In addition to being a straight-A student, Joan is "president of the Poetry Society, captain of the debate team, co-captain of the tennis club, [and] founder of the Horticulture League."
  • The '50s: The story takes place in the early years of the decade, which suffer an heavy influence from post World War II policies.
  • Freudian Excuse: Betty accuses Giselle of having an Electra Complex.
    • Rather ironically, Giselle herself uses an Electra Complex as an excuse for her developing a taste for older men. Somewhat lampshaded by Giselle herself since she states she cannot blame her.
  • 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 comforts her.
  • Gender Flip: Of Dead Poets Society, according to some reviewers.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: It's implied that Betty's reason to belittling and sabotaging Connie's relationship with Charlie is that she's jealous since Spencer actually doesn't love her.
  • Handsome Lech: You'll never see Bill Dunbar without a chick on his side.
  • Happily Married: Joan and Tommy. Averted with Betty and Spencer; she is certainly happily married at first, but this breaks down in short order.
  • 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.
  • Housewife: Betty writes an article for the Wellesley paper exhorting her fellow students to accept "the roles they were born to fill," claiming they have an "obligation" to be homemakers.
  • 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.
  • Informed Judaism: Giselle's last name is Levy, but her Jewishness is not relevant to the plot outside being brought up by racist Mrs Warren who disapproves Betty's friendship with her.
  • 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.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Gisele may be a bit snarky, and she has a tendency to go after married men, but she still cares very deeply for her friends, and supports Katherine's ideas through and through. Plus, in the end she even helps Betty get back on her feet, when the latter's husband cheats on her, and she has no place else to go.
  • Lessons in Sophistication: Nancy's evening course in how to be a proper housewife is a non-royal, non-aristocratic version.
  • 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.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Betty believes her cousin Charlie is cheating on his fiancée, Deb, with Connie. As it turns out, he and Deb broke up before he met Connie and their relationship was completely innocent the whole time.
  • 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.
  • My Own Private "I Do": Joan and Tommy elope quietly, since the prospect of a big wedding terrifies him.
  • Oedipus Complex: Giselle's father left his family, and it's implied that is the reason why she seeks sleeping mostly with older men.
  • Principles Zealot: Katherine's feminism vs. Betty, Mrs. Warren, and Dr. Carr's traditionalism.
  • 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 Electra 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.
  • Red Scare: Downplayed—the only direct reference to Communism is Nancy's jocular (or thoughtless) assumption that Lucille Ball might be a Communist—but in this very restrictive and conservative environment, it's not uncommon to throw around McCarthyist-style accusations of subversion. Amanda Armstrong is basically fired for the deemed-"subversive" act of providing contraceptive pills, and in a climate like this, it's only a matter of time before someone as liberal and bohemian as Katherine, with her unorthodox teaching methods and focus on abstract and modern art, gets accused of subversion too. (Ironically American modern art was itself weaponised by the CIA itself as anti-Communist propaganda to counter Soviet social-realist art.)
  • Rich Bitch: Mrs. Warren and her daughter Betty. Betty gets better, though.
  • Rituals and Ceremonies:
    • The matriculation ceremony at the beginning of Wellesley's fall term:
      Joan: (raps on the door with a gavel)
      Dr. Carr: Who knocks at the door of learning?
      Joan: I am every woman!
      Dr. Carr: What do you seek?
      Joan: To awaken my spirit through hard work and to dedicate my life to knowledge.
      Dr. Carr: Then you are welcome. All women who seek to follow you may enter here. I now declare the academic year begun.
    • The hoop rolling. This is Truth in Television as Wellesley students still do this, although it is no longer said that the winner will be the first to marry. In fact, according to one Wellesley alum, it is now said that the winner will be the first in the class to become a CEO!
  • 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.
  • Smoking Is Glamorous: The Camel ad that Connie reads implies that a woman must achieve certain milestones in order to be worthy of their product.
    When your courses are set
    And a dreamboat you've met
    Have a real cigarette
    Have a Camel!
  • 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..."
  • Teacher/Student Romance: 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • True Art: A debate throughout the movie, with the traditionalists believing true art is perfectly straightforward and needs to earn the word "art" by "the right people," and Katherine believing the definition of true art should be expanded to include expressionism and other abstract schools.
  • 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 Cooldown 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.