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Mona Lisa Smile: An Example of Gendered Society

Mona Lisa Smile: An Example of Gendered Society

Mike Newell’s movie Mona Lisa Smile (2003) is a narration about the 1950s gendered society, in which men’s and women’s roles were socially and culturally constructed. The film depicts the brightest examples of gender stereotyping and social roles intrusion. On the one hand, it may seem that the movie represents some problems which may occur in a single-sex college because of the absence of diversity. The girls’ only desire is to meet a boy and then marry him to build a strong family together. Partially, the film is about these aspects in a conservative community. At the same time, the movie reveals such important social themes as gender stereotypes and identity, the roles of men and women in the society, unequal opportunities, and other issues related to gender.

Mona Lisa Smile is a film of high relevance even today because there are still prejudices and discrimination of women in many societies. For instance, women often receive lower salaries than men; they are more often supposed to stay at home and raise children than men; moreover, it is quite normal for a woman to sacrifice her career and personal desires to support her husband and children. Thus, the theme of gendered society is also extremely significant today because, even though the times of dinosaurs and cavemen have passed, men still often think that they are breadwinners and their wives are housekeepers.

Plot Overview

The protagonist of the movie is a young unmarried woman, Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), who comes to Wellesley College to teach its female students the “History of Art.” Katherine is a feminist who does not accept the rules of the gendered society and wants to change the usual flow of events at Wellesley College. As she says, “I came to Wellesley because I wanted to make a difference” (Newell 2003). However, during her first lecture, Katherine discovers that the students had absorbed the list of the course readings before the course began, so there is nothing to surprise them. Thus, the teacher decides to arouse their interest by considering the works of modern art. In such a way, Katherine notices that the girls are quick-witted and bright, which gives her a chance to change this gendered society. Therefore, she tries to show them a better life, the life where women can choose higher education and professional development along with being wives and mothers, the life where women will be heard and not ignored.

First, most of the girls are sure that the only thing they need is to marry a man and raise children. This is what their mothers have always done, and they cannot change this tradition. However, till the end of the film, Katherine manages to break up the wall between the girls and her and convinces them that they can combine family life with personal development. Finally, the year comes to its end, and the viewers observe significant changes at Wellesley College. The new era of feminism begins.

Gendered Society In The Movie

The movie Mona Lisa Smile is one of the greatest examples of the description of gendered society. In the film, the viewers examine typical male and female societal roles, which take their origin from the times of cavemen. Since ancient times, men were supposed to earn their living and feed the family. Thus, it is generally known that men went hunting and brought their bag to the cave or hut where their wives with children were waiting for them. Women, in turn, were considered to keep their family hearth, bring up children, and provide emotional support for their husbands. The times changed; however, the traditional roles of females and males were still preserved in some societies. Wellesley is the place where women are raised and taught to be good wives for their men and disregard their own intelligence and personal desires.

Therefore, since early childhood, girls are taught that being a wife and a mother is the greatest happiness for every woman. Even if a husband is not perfect and has some affairs with other women, it is important “not to tell anyone” (Newell 2003). Otherwise, the whole society would blame a woman for disobeying her husband and showing her resistance and dissatisfaction. When comparing this society to the ancient one, it becomes evident that women had fear to stay alone with children if they disobeyed their men. In those times, it was similar to meeting their doom because women physically could not hunt and bring meat to their children. However, in the 1950s, it was unclear why females did not want to take a risk and develop their professional skills to have a good career and manage family life simultaneously. Thus, one can observe cultural influence on gender and society in the movie.

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Cultural Construction of Gender

The action in the film takes place in 1953, when mass media and television was already popular in the USA. Thus, popular culture was one of the methods to influence people and construct their views of reality. The movie provides numerous examples of such impact. The brightest moment is the scene in which Katherine displays a number of magazine and newspaper’s advertisements that show traditional images of women as housewives:

Today you just listen. What will future scholars see when they study us, a portrait of women today? There you are ladies: the perfect likeness of a Wellesley graduate, Magna Cum Laude, doing exactly what she was trained to do. Slide – a Rhodes Scholar, I wonder if she recites Chaucer while she presses her husband’s shirts. Slide – hehe, now you physics majors can calculate the mass and volume of every meatloaf you make. Slide – A girdle to set you free. What does that mean? What does that mean? What does it mean? I give up, you win. The smartest women in the country, I didn’t realize that by demanding excellence I would be challenging…the roles you were born to fill… (Newell 2003)

These words demonstrate that the notion of gender was culturally constructed. Everything, beginning with fashion and clothes and ending with music, media, and art, was aimed to emphasize the difference between males and females. Moreover, women were supposed to wear girdles, sculptured bras, corsets, and stockings to stress their femininity and sexual attractiveness. Newspapers and television advertisements depicted women as appendices to their husbands, as some trophies the latter used to boast of. The more tasks a woman could perfectly perform, the better trophy she became for men. Consequently, every woman strived to become an ideal housewife to find the best husband she could, and a single-sex school was the best place to educate women to be such perfect housewives.

Single-sex schools were also culturally constructed as they allowed both boys and girls to develop their identities in a “right” way. In their book Still Failing at Fairness, Sadker, Sadker and Zittleman (2009) write, “all-female education provided ‘an atmosphere these girls may well never find again in their lives: an island in our culture that is about women … one where their major responsibility is to learn and to be themselves’” (pp. 253-254). Wellesley College was not an exception, and the main task of its teachers and professors was to educate female students to become good wives. For instance, the college president, Mrs. Carr, was proud of the fact that “half of them are already married, and the other half, oh just give it a month or so” (Newell 2003). Moreover, stereotypical portrayal of males significantly supplemented this cultural construction of gender.

Although the movie is focused on female-based stereotypes, the viewers can notice a hidden stereotyping of male roles. For instance, most of male characters are either successful fathers of the families or their sons who have huge plans for the future, such as studying in the best universities and building career. Moreover, males are “displayed with stereotypical masculine characteristics such as aggressiveness, competency, and independence, whereas girls were depicted as passive, nurturing, and dependent” (Evans and Davies 2000:257). Even the adverts Katherine showed to her students contained the depiction of elite men, who always wore neckties and suits and were expected to be out working while their wives were at home tidying, washing, cooking, and rearing children. On these adverts, men were depicted as independent and self-sufficient individuals while women were shown as dependent and nurturing ones. The influence of culture on gender construction, thus, was quite essential. However, not only cultural but also social construction of relationships can be observed in the film.

Social Construction of Relationships

Newell’s movie demonstrates that the relationships between the representatives of opposite genders are socially constructed. First, the characters of the film live in the conservative society, where adherence to traditions is more than important. For example, one of the students, Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), writes in her article in the local editorial: “While our mothers were called to the workforce for Lady Liberty, it is our duty – nay, obligation – to reclaim our place in the home, bearing the children that will carry our traditions into the future” (Newell 2003). In such a way, the society imposed the roles of housewives on women, and they were satisfied with such conditions. Moreover, this view was supported by Betty’s mother, who claimed that her daughter had to be an obedient wife and “not to wash her dirty laundry in public” (Newell 2003). The whole society was based on submissive relationships between men and women, and such women as Katherine Watson, who lived by their personal rules, were generally rejected and even judged.

For the society, it was important to preserve its functionalistic approach to gender roles and family relationships. In such a way, men could perform their jobs and earn money while women would not compete with them trying to earn their place on the labor market. It was possible to only if men and women behaved appropriately. Thus, the teachers’ aim was to teach the students such behavior: “A few years from now your sole responsibility will be taking care of your husband and children,” as a Wellesley teacher, Nancy Abbey, says (Newell 2003). Men and women have their functions in society, and their relationships are built basing on these functions. If a woman, for example, refuses to adjust to the image of an obedient and virgin person, such as Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal), she will be perceived as a means of entertainment only but not as a potential wife. At the same time, such women break gender stereotypes and demonstrate that they may think and act independently. Nevertheless, the existing social structures try to expel or rebuke individuals who do not want to adjust to the rules. For example, the president Carr threatened to discharge Katherine if she preserved her modern way of communication with the students. However, the teacher does not give up, and her efforts result in successful transformations of the students.

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Transformations In Gendered Society

Wellesley College is a college for elite students; that is why the protagonist decides to go there and change their society. However, not every woman understands her and accepts her way of teaching. As it was already mentioned, older generation of women, such as students’ mothers and teachers, disapproved Katherine’s methods. There was also another character, Joan (Julia Stiles), who managed to enter the Yale University but refused to go there, preferring her husband and family to personal growth. Nevertheless, the teacher noticed that it was her decision, and she made it because she really wanted it, not because she was afraid of staying alone or being socially unaccepted. That is why Joan joined the other students following Katherine’s car while she was leaving.

In addition, the protagonist of the movie, Katherine Watson, manages to change the views of her students on their lives and society. When at the beginning of the film, most of them judged her and could not understand how she could resist “the holy sacrament of marriage,” later on, they changed their minds (Newell 2003). Katherine was a feminist woman who lived “by her own definition, and would not compromise that” (Newell 2003). She showed the girls that they could live differently, depart from the social and cultural definition of gender and achieve more than established by their gender role. Even Betty, the most adherent to traditions student, realized that her teacher wanted the best for them. In her last article, she wrote, “I dedicate this, my last editorial, to an extraordinary woman who lived by example and compelled us to see the world through new eyes” (Newell 2003). The young woman realized that she was not born just to oblige her husband and forget about her personal joys. On the contrary, she was endowed with beauty and brains, and intelligence was her prerogative over the other girls, which would help her succeed in the male-dominated world. Thus, Betty decided to file for a divorce and begin new life in New York City, build her career and facilitate social progress.

Katherine Watson’s mission was fulfilled, and the gendered society underwent changes and transformations. The movie teaches that every person regardless of gender may have a choice either of being passive and submissive and accepting social rules or becoming independent and self-sufficient, moving the society towards progress. Ms. Watson showed that men and women could have equal opportunities, and one could not judge women differently because of their gender.

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Mona Lisa Smile is not just a fiction film but also a film about deep social themes, such as gendered society, equal opportunities for men and women, gender stereotypes, discrimination, and construction of gender and relationships. The movie begins with representation of socially constructed gendered society, in which men earn money and women stay at home and bring up children. The protagonist of the movie, Katherine Watson, demonstrates that these gender stereotypes are culturally constructed, and the media along with the society imposes the role of submissive wives on women. Eventually, the teacher convinces the girls that they may have equal opportunities and make their independent choices in life.

The film reveals an outdated concept of gendered society, which takes its origin in the cavemen time. Even at present days, many societies discriminate women and expect them to be appendices to their husbands. Therefore, the movie is relevant today since it provides the viewers with a new perception in life and gender roles and demonstrates that women can change the world if they want to. Mona Lisa Smile teaches that even in gendered society, the representatives of each gender should have equal opportunities and abilities to implement their wishes and desires and live happy and full lives.