Summary: The 2003 film Mona Lisa Smile depicts Wellesley College, a women-only Massachusetts school, in the 1950s. The film is centered on the classroom of Katherine Ann Watson (Julia Roberts), a socially progressive art history instructor. In the film, the tensions between the traditional ideology of a woman’s role in society as a domestic homemaker and the new idea of an educated, autonomous woman are constantly present in Watson’s classroom. Watson strongly encourages her students to be independent women, seeing their potential to be more than subservient accessories to a man’s household. Watson’s advocacy for an uncompromising lifestyle is met with criticism and resentment from conservative students, who argue that it challenges "the roles you were born to fill." This tension reflects the common misperception of gender as a biological, rather than social, construct, and prompts Watson to use a powerful and emotionally-charged slide show critiquing depictions of women in a variety of 1950s advertisements. Like modern day advertisements found elsewhere on this site (e.g. here, here, and here; see documentary of women in advertising here), this clip offers an example of gender socialization and a means to think about how gender inequality is reproduced through media and ideology. When paired with these other clips, it also begs the question of how much has really changed since the 1950s? Students can be encouraged to think about how women both continue to be depicted in traditional gender roles in today's media culture but with an ever greater degree of sexual objectification.
Submitted By: Caitlin Orr, Nina Carr, and Paul Dean