September 20, 2004
Mona Lisa Smile.
So I got talked into watching Mona Lisa Smile this weekend, and I'm going to subject you to my half-cocked review;) An Amazon.com reviewer called it Dead Poets Society for girls. That's not true at all, and I don't say that because Dead Poets Society was a much better film or because I am male and went to thirteen years of private schooling before college and thereby could always relate to it. In Dead Poets Society, John Keating (pun intended, I'm sure) encourages his students to think for themselves, to make their lives extraordinary, to live deliberately, etc. His message has a meaning that transcends the specificity of, say, 1950s Wellesley, where Mona Lisa Smile is set. John Keating's message is no less relevant now that it was in the 1950s, when it was set, or in 1989, when it was released. He encouraged his students to "follow their own way," and they all did, all through different means, with varying degrees of success. In Mona Lisa Smile, on the other hand, Miss Watson just wants the young women she teaches to reject their culturally prescribed roles uncritically. There is a scene where she berates an honor student who gets married and opts out of law school in order to follow her husband to his graduate school. The student has to tell Miss Watson that this is what she wants, that she really thought about it, that she is not settling for anything. There is another scene where Miss Watson's love interest tells her that she is not at Wellesley to change anything for the better or to encourage young women to think for themselves. She's there to get them to think her way. And he's totally right. I'm not going to set myself up for nasty email (!) by pretending that I really know anything about feminism, despite my four years at a girls' college, where I was good friends with very nice and very good feminists. But there is certainly something wrong with closed-mindedly rejecting something and single-mindedly doing the opposite and then calling that freedom. One is then still under the control of what one is rejecting. That seems simple and obvious enough. In the end, I didn't like Miss Watson the character at all. What she decides to do at the end of the film undercuts all of the good she manages to do up until that point. "Okay, I touched four or five people's lives. That's enough. I'm outty 5000." Right. She should have been more like John Keating. They had to kick him out.