The movie is about a 1950s art teacher who wants to change the world one student at a time. Its message? Marriage is one of the least desirable choices a young woman can make.
Katherine Watson is something of a bohemian. But when she gets an opportunity to teach art history at one of the country’s most prestigious institutions for women, Wellesley College, she jumps at the chance. She physically moves to New England, but she brings with her her “California-style” progressive (subversive) values. Once there, she’s surrounded (she feels suffocated) by gaggles of traditionally minded pupils, an outwardly conservative faculty and a stern college president.
Under the glassy surface, though, boils discontent and immorality. One of her housemates (the school’s nurse) is a lesbian who distributes illegal contraception to students. A fellow teacher (with whom Katherine falls in lust) is known for his philandering—with students. Another housemate (the poise, manners and elocution instructor), while an icon of decorum in public, is so brokenhearted over a lost love that she rarely leaves her seat in front of the TV. Outside, everyone’s all smiles. Inside, hearts are aching and breaking all over campus.
Katherine’s remedy for the pain all this duplicity brings? Modern art. The all-out pursuit of personal fulfillment. And the complete rejection of all things traditional. Katherine’s student’s remedy? Booze—and quick engagements.
Katherine refuses to stay in a relationship that includes deception. Her ideals are misplaced, but her care for her girls is genuine. She teachers her students to think for themselves (positive on the surface, but she then fills their heads with amoral values). Indeed, Mona Lisa Smile includes many “positive” elements that are ultimately sullied by the overarching messages that surround them. For instance, a woman is shown to be devastated when her husband ignores her in favor of long business trips and other women. Another discovers that clear communication between people can many times clear up damaging rumors and misinformation.
Julia Stiles’ character Joan is pretty much the only one who clings to principle and clear-headedly pursues her dream—of marriage. She grapples with the ups and downs of trying to figure out how to interweave “occupation” dreams with “family” dreams, but when push comes to shove, she chooses her future family over her aspirations to become a lawyer. (Undoubtedly, Katherine’s damaging advice messes with her head, and the lingering impact of her words may explain the uncertain look in Joan’s eyes after telling her teacher she would certainly regret neglecting her family more than she might regret setting aside her corporate ambitions.)
Classic artwork includes nudes. Archive footage from the 1950s shows women wearing bras and bathing suits. In the dormitory, one girl playfully tries to kiss another. It’s “well-known” that Professor Bill Dunbar sleeps around, and that his favorite females are his students. Katherine is said to have had an affair with movie star William Holden, and it’s implied that she has been having a sexual relationship with a beau back in California. Also, she and Bill have sex (implied by images and conversation after the fact). Believing it's Bill who is taking a shower, Katherine rips open the shower curtain exposing a stranger inside (views of his midsection are obstructed). A student’s husband is seen kissing another woman. The college girls talk and joke about sex, birth control, affairs and male anatomy.
The school nurse (a self-professed lesbian) ends up getting fired for giving girls contraception, but the tone surrounding the events clearly communicates that such a firing is unjust and despicable.
Crude or Profane Language
No obscenities (f- and s-words). A dozen or so mild profanities (“h---,” “d--n,” “a--“). God’s name is used as an interjection three or four times and is combined with a profanity once. Jews and Germans are on the receiving end of an ethnic slur each. A crude term is assigned to male sexual anatomy.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The students smoke and drink every chance they get. Wine and hard liquor make frequent appearances with the girls chugging from bottles, glasses and small flasks. Bill and Katherine get drunk in a bar. The school’s “manners” teacher also gets smashed.
Glamour asked Julia Roberts why she chose to be a part of Mona Lisa Smile. Julia responded, “It seemed like a good story to remind girls coming up in the world how far we’ve come—and how much we have to be grateful for. It was a lot of struggle to get us to this point, you know, so that we can vote and wear pants and all the rest.” She’s right. A lot of good social changes have happened over the course of the last century (though I’m not sure I’d put slacks on the list of top achievements). And a lot of misguided ideas and ideals were a fixture in our society during the 1950s. But a cultural commitment to marriage wasn’t one of them. So Smile starts looking like a pretty big frown as it throws out the proper value of nuptial vows along with the improper subjugation some women historically faced.
Feminism in its purest, most biblical sense is torn to shreds here by “feminism” in its most compromised, worldly sense. Katherine says repeatedly that she’s all for “doing both”—getting married and having a career. But she’s unmistakably overjoyed when she learns that one of her married girls is getting divorced (a release that will allow her to go to Yale). And she ferociously demeans the laudable tasks of homemaking—cooking, cleaning, mothering, etc.—leaving moviegoers with the unshakable feeling that any woman with half a head on her shoulders should stay as far away from the home (and all those lying, scheming, cheating men who come with it) as they possibly can. “I didn’t realize that by demanding excellence I would be challenging the roles you were born to fill,” Katherine says scathingly. Somehow, I don’t remember reading those kinds of sentiments in Proverbs 31. The message that you can do more and be more is a superb one. But when it’s implied that the path to such self-actualization is necessarily pockmarked with immorality, Christian women shouldn’t find it too hard to denounce it.
Why is all this so important? Because it greatly affects the world we live in. Plugged In Online reader Ashley Pawloski got a chance to see a sneak preview of Mona Lisa Smile, so I received her letter in time to include it here. She wrote, “Monday night my friend got us two preview movie tickets to see Mona Lisa Smile at the theater. We have been talking about seeing this movie for at least two months. I was beyond excited to see a movie set in the 1950s, with all the neat outfits, the makeup, the hairstyles. I love the era. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, though, I was subjected to at least three moral dilemmas: sex outside of marriage, sex before marriage and homosexuality. I started to get this sick feeling in my stomach. The school nurse (who is a lesbian) gives “birth control” to the young college-age girls. A student is sleeping with her language teacher. And the main character, Katherine—who doesn’t believe in marriage—is having casual sexual relationships. One student does get married but of course her husband cheats on her within the first three weeks. These are all images that I have fought hard since high school. I am a 23-year-young lady who has been happily married for a year and one month. My husband and I are devoted to the Lord and to each other. I do work, but one of my largest desires is to be a wife and a mother.”
This movie makes it just a little bit harder for Ashley, and everyone else, to do that.