04.09.2020 in Sociology

Gender Studies: Mona Lisa Smile


Despite feminism has been on the international arena for more than a century, gender roles are largely inflexible and to a large extent mass media participate in reinforcing and prolonging gender stereotypes. According to glossy magazines, women are still obliged to be beautiful while men must be breadwinners. According to TV commercials, women are still highly objectified and sexualized. Films already show working women but they are often too independent to have family and promiscuous to have a steady life partner. Women already can work and have family but the experience of combining both occupations are hardly ever referred to in mass media. Women’s happiness and self-fulfillment are tightly connected to their ability to find a man and establish steady relationship. However, many decades of feminism has done at least some of its work and now mass media have changed the way it used to reflect women. In the 1990s, mass media began showing women in the position of authority and in workplaces rather than only in domestic environments. Furthermore, in contrast to the previously passive roles of sexualized objects, now women are portrayed more active in their sexual endeavors and men became as much sexualized as women. However, even if young and successful women are represented in mass media nowadays, older and minority women are still underrepresented and women’s roles are still largely stereotyped. For example, in TV commercials men are still associated with cars and alcohol while women are associated with beauty and domesticity. Even though there are some changes in the way women are portrayed, the ideology of patriarchy cannot be easily subverted because it is engrained in culture and economy. In Critical readings: Media and gender, Cynthia Carter and Linda Steiner say, “[A] logic within capitalism demands that femininity be defined and continually re-defined in ways that are financially profitable”. It means that the identities of housewives, mothers, and domestic goddesses require certain goods and merchandize and if women refuse to invest into their beauty or get loans to buy new electric appliances they somewhat harm advertisers and industries.  

Main Premise

Mona Lisa Smile features a female art teacher, Katherine Watson, and her female students at Wellesley College. The film is set in the 1950s when some freedom that women got during the war was taken back and they again had to confine to the roles of housewives and mothers rather than professionals. The protagonist Katherine is a young professor of art who is unmarried and is able to lead the life of mind the way she believes is right. She attempts to convey the same idea to her students. However, not all students agree to accept new, liberal ideas about women’s freedom from domestic duties. Especially the teaching staff are not happy with such a line of conduct but, as Kathrine is a good teacher, they agree to prolong her contract but on their, more strict conditions. The film features primarily females as the main characters and several males as secondary characters. Women get the most attention in the film and their worries and troubles occupy all the portion of the plot and screen time. 

Type of assignment
Academic level
Total price:

However, despite having a very limited range of male characters, there is a vivid gender difference between males and females in the film. Male characters are busy and important; they are all engaged in professional activities and are breadwinners. Women are expected to find a good husband and start a family despite holding a degree. Men are perceived higher than women; they are their ultimate judges and higher authority. In the episode at the etiquette lesson, the teacher says, “You all may be here for and easy ‘A’, but the grade that matters the most is the one he gives you”. Gender difference is obvious in the way men and women are allowed romantic relationships. Bill Dunbar, the Italian teacher at Wellesley, is notorious for his affairs with students but he is never reproached on this matter but when Katherine is offered to continue teaching at the college she is warned not to have any relationships with the staff other than professional hinting at her affair with Bill. In the episode of a quarrel, Betty calls Giselle a ‘slut’ while other male characters are never reproached for their shenanigans with girls. 

Character Roles

Kathrine arrives to the pool of highly stereotypical female characters. At Wellesley, female students are hard-working in studies but as soon as they land a prospective husband they do not believe they need much of an education. A husband, children, and a house full of consumer goods are what the girls dream of. When Joan tells Betty that she was accepted to Yale Law School, Betty angrily retorts, “You are this close to get everything you ever wanted and this close to lose it all” implying that if Joan goes to school she will not be able to do both studying and having the family. Thus, one part of the female characters are rather stereotypical representing the old patriarchal values. Meanwhile, there are other female characters who saw that there is more to life than domesticity. Katherine has been engaged but decided against marrying. Her students can hardly comprehend how a woman can freely reject marriage. They center their fulfillment on man and marriage. Katherine’s views are supported by Giselle Levy who also feels that family is not the only niche where women can realize themselves. She lives a rather liberated lifestyle having an affair with the Italian teacher Bill and her psychoanalyst, who is a married man many years her senior. Another unorthodox female character is Amanda Armstrong who worked as a nurse on the campus but was fired for distributing contraceptive pills among female students thus promoting a frivolous lifestyle. 

Whereas the girls mostly enjoy their stereotypical roles, they eventually begin to feel that there is more to it. Even Betty, who is very opinionated and very much against Katherine and all her values, eventually realizes that woman cannot place all her value on man. Her husband began an affair as soon as they got married. Betty was very supportive of patriarchy and of the established rules but she saw that women are vulnerable when they get into a total dependency from men and at the end of the film she decides to file for divorce and enter Yale Law School. Meanwhile, Joan, who was accepted to Yale Law School, chooses to become a housewife and elopes with her fiancé to get married and go live to another city where her husband will have a job. Thus, some girls accept what patriarchy has for them, while others reject it and follow their own path. For example, Katherine completely defies the common gender stereotypes of our culture: she is unmarried, has affairs, has strong opinions which differ from the majority of her circle, and does not believe that women must choose between a family and a career. While many of her contemporaries perceive her as a negative role model, she is represented as positive and many of her students believe she is a positive influence.

Communications and Power

The most indicative are relationships between Betty and her new husband Spencer. As a male, Spencer has power in their union and Betty respects it and conforms. She hotly protects patriarchal values and even when her situation is unsatisfactory Betty bears with it for some time without saying a word. When Spencer leaves a party to allegedly go on a business trip Betty does not reproach him. When he leaves her alone on many a night, Betty suffers silently. However, when she decides to sleep over at her parents’ her mother does not allow her thus supporting the confines of patriarchy. Even though Spencer was not vocally disrespectful and the viewer did not witness any bickering or fighting, such relationships are not full of love and affection and Betty felt betrayed and upset.

Sexism, Patriarchy, Androcentrism, Feminism, and Intersectionality

Mona Lisa Smile addresses androcentrism still largely presented in motion pictures and other mass media. The film portrays the androcentric academic environment where women’s desires were not taken into consideration. Derived from the Greek work ‘andros’ meaning ‘man’, androcentrism is the phenomenon when everything is oriented on and shown from the men’s point of view. The film contrasts the androcentrism prevailing in Hollywood with the cast 90% consisting of women. In other regards, the film reflects the epoch it portrays and students study predominantly male artists. Despite having education and holding degrees, many women still centered their lives around marriage and a husband.

Furthermore, the film shows that this way patriarchy is prevailing. The ideology of patriarchy holds it that men are superior to women and due to their physiological and psychological characteristics they are worthier of positions of authority and power, whereas women should mind house and home. The film shows that in many cases women are the guards for other women who want to break free and get out of the confines of patriarchy. Betty’s mother arranged a life similar to her own and in time of need she refused to help her advising to suck up and bear it. 


Mona Lisa Smile represents different female roles and it is a good contrast to compare them. For a child or an individual who has never heard of feminism or has troubles realizing that the problems of feminism are real, the film is a good stepping stone. It shows how the life used to be in not so distant past and it is refreshing to know how much time it takes to change the system and social institutions. However, the film obviously does not give the complete comprehension of gender and how the problems of gender can be solved. Masculinity is shown one-dimensional, as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, but any way this definition has been developed and requires an in-depth analysis. The topic of this research was more or less familiar to me but I find it interesting to observe the way it could have actually been. It gives a perspective and helps understand the material of the course better.

Related essays