Scene It: Tori Amos in Mona Lisa Smile

Soon after Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile‘s theatrical release, my friend Jamie compared me to Julia Roberts’ protagonist Katherine Watson, a firebrand Wellesley art history professor who demands that her female students see themselves as more than just potential wives and mothers. The film takes place in 1953 and the main character is a career feminist. In late 2003, I was a college junior coming into my own as a feminist and debating whether to pursue a career in the academy. It was a flattering comparison, an affirmation of what Jamie saw in me. But I was weary of the comparison. For one, I was circumspect about the film’s politics. How was feminism being defined, or was it even considered at all? How might Mona Lisa Smile reaffirm formative texts like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and suggest that equity should only be achieved for upwardly mobile, college-educated, straight white women?

Tori Amos, jazz singer

These concerns were magnified on Oprah when Julia Roberts, accompanied by many of the film’s younger cast members, asked why women should choose between families and career when they can have both. Certain kinds of women, Julia. Usually women who are born into at least some kind of privilege. Many women, including single mothers, mothers seeking higher education, women working multiple jobs, disabled women, queer women, and working class women, might not consider the roles of motherhood, wifehood, and professional fulfillment simply as a matter of choice. Julia Roberts was speaking from a place of excessive privilege. Thus, speaking for multiple groups of women who occupy a panoply of privileged and marginalized positions as one monolith who can simply choose family and career registered to me as smug and clueless. It was almost as disingenuous as the scene in Erin Brockovich where a firegrand legal assistant informs a family that they will be getting part of a settlement from a lawsuit against PG&E. The family receives around a million dollars. According to the titular heroine, this is apparently more than her clients’ children and children’s children will ever need. Roberts, the actress who delivered those lines, reportedly collected a $12 million paycheck and was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood at the time.   

I finally watched Mona Lisa Smile over the weekend. I was in the middle of grading and putting together delivery and listening exercises for the public speaking course I’m teaching this year. Earlier that day, I conducted a music history workshop for Ladies Rock Camp in Madison and continue to struggle with how to reconcile to issues related to age, gender, and racial disparities between campers and subject matter. I always try to assert a feminist identity as an instructor. I believe in putting theory into practice. If teaching is in fact a performance, it is important to model certain kinds of behavior for your students. I’m instructing 26 students this semester. All but two are freshmen, six of them are male, and two of them are black girls. The delivery exercise involves reading pop songs and poems in certain styles, and I spent a lot of time determining what material I’d use. They can choose from the riot grrrl manifesto, a Gossip song, a Langston Hughes poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and Taylor Swift lyrics, among others. The listening exercises will incorporate speeches from Mean Girls, Rushmore, and Wattstax. My hope is to embed a certain politic without calling attention to it. At least not yet. I intend to drop the “f” bomb during the persuasive unit.

Theoretically, this is a part-time job. I am also in course work and on two editorial boards. I am also involved with undertakings related to my school work, including some writing opportunities and a collaborative event I’m in the process of putting together. Friends require attention, as well as sleep, doctors’ appointments, haircuts, and regimented social time. All of these moments present opportunities to reinvest in my politics in both small gestures and larger projects. A discussion of Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon in my film score class requires addressing the filmic and cultural functions of Audrey Hepburn and her character’s relationship to music in some way, and may require a post since class discussion focused almost entirely on formal elements without any real effort on my part to reroute the conversation. These aren’t complaints. These are responsibilities. 

Sister/lovers with Julia Stiles; image courtesy of

I didn’t hate Mona Lisa Smile as I thought I might. It’s a good “gateway” movie for folks who are receptive to mainstream feminist ideology, even if the f-word isn’t used explicitly. Given that Kirsten Dunst was dating Jake Gyllenhaal at the time but cut her hair to look exactly like then-BFF Maggie, I wonder what queer dimensions we might find in certain friendships within and outside of the film. I’m also curious about how marriage is challenged as an institution in the film, alongside sexist, condescending perceptions against housewifery and motherhood. I’m also interested in the ways in which the film sought to hail an audience and contemporize the period in some way. Tori Amos’ musical cameo is one such example. Yet at the same time, I’m bothered by the song selection. Amos appears as a jazz singer performs “You Belong to Me.” Originally written by Pee Wee King, Chilton Price, and Redd Stewart from the perspective of woman missing her lover while he is stationed overseas during World War II, the pop standard ultimately became about a wayward traveler devoted to his or her partner, regardless of how exotic locales might create distance. Listening to Amos deliver the line “See the marketplace in old Algiers” during a WASPy wedding reception in a film that takes place a year before the launch of the Algierian War bothers me.  

I wonder how the film could possibly feed into the project of historicizing women’s rights and social progress, something that has been taken up in efforts as diffuse as the American Girl book series, HBO’s recent documentary on Gloria Steinem, and the documentary on the women’s rights movement included in the second season DVD for Mad Men. Yet at the same time, I’m troubled that we, once again, focus on social progress through the eyes and experiences of privileged white women. I have yet to watch Pan Am or The Playboy Club, but I’m concerned that I will see this circulate once again. As a feminist who works with Girls Rock Camp and at a university with predominantly white students who live in a city that supports establishments with “color-blind” dress codes, I worry that these efforts are insufficient even if we consider the function of strategic marginalizationMona Lisa Smile foregrounds white female privilege, not only focusing its attention on Wellesley MRS degree seekers, but by placing its young ensemble in an art history class. Such intellectual pursuits were, and to a certain extent remain, analogous to finishing school. Though the field of art history continues to be reinvigorated with scholarly assertions informed by feminist and queer ideologies, that type of education is often employed at dinner parties. Just ask Betty Draper. But I’m more interested in what Sheila, Carla, and my students have to say about a Jackson Pollack painting.

One comment

  1. Andygrrrl

    Been ages since I’ve seen this, but I did watch it on tv just for the chance to see Tori Amos (and also because of my crush on Maggie Gyllenhaal). I mostly found it boring, because as a midwestern mixed-class dyke, it’s incredibly alienating. Also I’m not a fan of Julia Roberts. But I did find a certain queer resonance with Gyllenhaal’s character, simply because she’s explicitly marked as a Sexual Other. I’d need to watch it again because my memory of it is fuzzy now, but I thought they did something interesting with her role as The Jewish Slut. IIRC, they didn’t punish her or make her apologize for it.

    I also think it’s significant that Julia Roberts’ character doesn’t emphasize women artists in her class (again, IIRC); it’s mostly a class on how You Too Can Have an Opinion on Jackson Pollack and Not Just to Impress Your Husband’s Boss!

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