Making the Grades
In the fall of 1953, a frigid and traditional New England school for young women gets a jolt of warm Californian mind-set. Hired as the new art history teacher, Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is anything but conformist. Wearing thick, bulky sweaters and pants, even her appearance stands out among the proper "skirt and blouse" faculty.
Arriving at her first day of classes, she is overwhelmed by the thoroughness with which her students have prepared. Well-versed with all the paintings, the upper crust students quickly put Katherine in her place. However, it doesn't take long for the teacher to realize that while these girls know their works of art, they are better at regurgitating information than thinking for themselves. Taking training in the finer points of matrimony and homemaking as well as physics and English, most of the young women in her class are only biding their time until they can snag a good marriage proposal.
Throwing out the class syllabus, Katherine decides to challenge her students to form their own opinions about what is and isn't art along with considering their options in life. But her Bohemian approach smacks up against the richly steeped traditions of the college and community.
Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), a scathing student editor for the campus paper is already in the throughs of final wedding plans. She isn't about to let a single woman call into question her decision to marry. Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) offhandedly comments about law school but is in fact nearly engaged as well. That detail doesn't stop Katherine from encouraging the gifted scholar to apply to Yale.
However, for Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who spends more time keeping men happy than studying, Katherine is a kind of example of progressive thinking--- a woman outside the staid conventions of Wellesley College. Even timid Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) is inspired by her teacher to assert herself among the other girls.
Unfortunately while Katherine's character is meant to inspire these undergraduates in an age when the feminist movement is gaining momentum, her actions may not motivate parents to turn their daughters over to her care. Willing to hop into bed with a known womanizer and unable to commit to a relationship, she and most of the other women in the film portray poor role models if not extremes on the feminine pendulum. A homosexual teacher (Juliet Stevenson) causes a scandal on campus when she begins handing out contraceptives. A heartbroken marriage and homemaking instructor (Marcia Gay Harden) wiles away her evenings in front of the TV after she is deserted by her boyfriend. Even the accomplished, female head administrator proves to be so stymied in cultural mores that she is unable to embrace progress..
Combine that failing with the frequent use of profanities and cigarettes, and this little slice of upper society life may leave us believing that the 50's were merely an era when women pasted on a smile an elusive, ambiguous kind of Mona Lisa Smile.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Mona Lisa Smile.
This movie and others like it (Far From Heaven, The Hours) depict the 1950s as a time when many women were unhappy. Do you think that was reflective of all women? Over the last 50 years, choices for women have expanded. Have these increased opportunities made the women of today any happier?
How did Katherines dress reflect her attitude toward the more formal mores of the college?