Mona Lisa Smile: Character Analyses (My Take)

by Amber Monroe

I’d like to take the time to consider three characters within the film Mona Lisa Smile. Through these characters, we will see most clearly which position the writers have taken, directly or indirectly, concerning the feminist’s war on traditional roles and a woman’s struggle to retain her identity with or without those roles.

 In a world that told them how to think, she showed them how to live.

Let’s first consider Katherine, our protagonist. Throughout the entire film, she contends with the theoretical adversaries of societal convention and antiquated values. Upon giving her first lecture, she discovers a classroom full of women who think whatever anyone tells them to think, be it a textbook or society—the latter deemed more destructive than the former, of course. Katherine’s remedy is to expose these societal conventions as absurd and degrading. She challenges her students through popular media advertisements to consider what future generations will think of what these women have made of themselves. She and her provocative philosophy are written in such a way as to convey that any amount of disagreement with her position is silly and bigoted. She denies through her own personal life that marriage, motherhood and home are honorable things to give your life to, and this is the bottom line of what she communicates to her students—traditional roles (or, more broadly, simply doing what someone else tells you to do) are not only restrictive, but also deny a woman her individual identity and personal fulfillment.

The functional antagonist—Katherine’s antithesis—is Betty Warren (Dunst), the student most piously given to the societal expectations associated with stereotypical 1950. She is depicted as an uptight, rigid and uncaring woman who measures the worth of her own womanhood by her ability to live up to popular expectations. Her uppity stance is represented in an editorial which she had written, in direct defiance of Katherine Watson, for the school newspaper:

While our mothers were called to the workforce for Lady Liberty, it is our duty—nay, obligation—to reclaim our place in the home, bearing the children that will carry our traditions into the future. One must pause to consider why Miss Katherine Watson, instructor in the art history department has decided to declare war on the holy sacrament of marriage. Her subversive and political teachings encourage our Wellesley girls to reject the roles they were born to fill. 

The fact that this is presented by the story’s antagonist communicates that these roles—and the pursuit of these roles—are the very things which keep women from reaching their full potential. Even the use of the term “traditions” here is laden with implications of antiquity.

I was admittedly disappointed with the oversimplification of the issue at hand. But, to be fair, one character was employed to serve as a sort of middle ground between the two opposing positions. In the midst of a black and white controversy, they threw in a splash of grey. Joan Brandwyn (Stiles), a balance between the two extremes, is an intelligent pre-law major at Wellesley. Katherine actively tries to persuade Joan to attend law school instead of abandoning her intellect to become a wife who mindlessly follows her husband wherever his own pursuits would take him (and, subsequently, her). When Katherine shows up at Joan’s door for a final persuasion, Joan boldly and impenitently replies:

Do you think I’ll wake up one morning and regret not being a lawyer?…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…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.

This is a great articulation of the limitations unwittingly placed upon women by the Feminist Movement at large (which this movie only deals with indirectly). In effect, Joan exposes the proponents of this movement and those who share in their ideology—Katherine in particular—as being just as legalistic and rigid in their views on true womanhood as that for which they accuse social conventions and religious institutions. A woman is still being defined by what she does and Katherine has failed to discern the essence, the bottom-line, of a woman’s value.


I respected Joan simply for the way she dealt with her own desires for fulfillment amidst the expectations of everyone around her—Katherine included.  I feel I should insert here that her reasons for concluding as she did may not be the same reasons for which I respect that conclusion. I don’t necessarily disagree with her reasons; I would simply take them a step further than she was able. This said, Joan did seem to recognize the intrinsic value of the home and her respectable—even ordained—place within it (though the film hardly comes anywhere near an admittance that roles are ordained). She puts Katherine firmly in her place, challenging her own prejudices, by insisting that strong intellect is not wasted on traditional roles, but is a necessary quality for lasting marriage and responsible motherhood. This is central to her character and this is where my wholehearted commendation lies.

The only thing lacking in her still laudable position is a true understanding of where the roles of wife, mother, and homemaker come from. Without this knowledge one cannot fully understand the full intrinsic worth of these roles. This insight cannot ultimately be derived from the film itself because the writers are operating under the assumption that these roles are, at their most basic, social constructs. This is where I take issue with the film.

Joan’s character essentially communicates that marriage, motherhood, and homemaking really are all fine and good so long as you’re doing it because you genuinely want it, because that is what will ultimately fulfill you, and not because anyone told you that you should be those things. Though this may be a legitimate life-lesson in principle, there is a big problem with its application to marriage and motherhood. The glitch lies in the belief that these roles really only become valuable once you ascribe value to them. There is nothing transcendent or intrinsically valuable about them by virtue of their origin. So, to be fair, the writers did try to leave room for the respectability of these roles as far as their own understanding would allow, but only as one option within the overall message that women simply need to be true to themselves in order to find fulfillment and identity.

Perhaps my take on the overall message of the film would be different had the specific context been different. The message itself is, I think, beneficial, however poorly the film was executed on the whole. But I can admit that I had a difficult time seeing past the (indirect) feminist attack on the roles of wife and mother. I could get into a more extensive rant about this. I could even get into a discussion of true Biblical womanhood which even transcends these roles, especially since I am single and trying to bring honor to the God who created me and made me a woman. But that’s for another article altogether…

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