‘Mona Lisa Smile’ & women in the 21st Century

Mona Lisa Smile is set in New England in 1953 Wellesley College led by Julia Roberts who plays as Katherine Watson, an art history teacher who tries to make a difference in her students’ perception of life as women. She would like them to fulfil their potential and see themselves above the perception of being wives and mothers only. Yet, she finds that this concept is ambivalent and socially challenging to her students and her colleagues and at times, it seems that her personal romantic life choices also get disarranged, criticised and questioned in that process alone.

Throughout the movie there is an ambiguous tension between what is perceived and expected from women and what women themselves think and feel about it.

In one of the latest scenes, Katherine Watson (aka Julia Roberts, the teacher) presents women with an advertisement from that time period which portrays women’s roles as the ‘perfect housewife and mum’; complete with a clean wide, white apron, hugs a flawless body figure, with the perfect kitchen skills, and a perfect, very happy smile with a very perfect family; every woman's dream.

This is what many of the students and their mothers believed in. Slowly and with great pain, the clean, wide white apron was taken off and revealed the reality of what it really means to be living under this shiny perfect false reality. The reality that dictated a woman should disown her dreams and ambitions and fulfill everyone else's needs.

One of the things that struck me was that the school prided itself on its high standards of academic excellence, while making it clear that the only grade that really counts is the one that a husband gives his wife for her performance as a wife and mother. These amazing standards punched me in the stomach. Initially I thought so much has changed since then. I drifted into thinking about Simone De Bouvior and her radical role in changing the concept of women’s role in society, and who famously said, “one is not born, but becomes a woman” (The Second Sex, 1949).

Simone, also lived around the same time as the movie was placed and seeded the ‘radical thoughts’ of the time. The movie basically describes what seems to be the beginning of a change in the women's perception about their roles in society. Any way, I thought to myself that Simone would have been thrilled to join Katherine Watson’s art class and present herself as an exemplary student.

After smiling to myself, perhaps like the Mona Lisa, I began to question my initial statement: how much have these concepts really changed? Surly a lot, right? Yes, we would like to think they have, right?

We would like to believe that when we go and do the weekly shopping we see more men around, right? We would like to see that there are more fathers taking maternity leave (so women can return to work). More fathers are going to the playgrounds (because mummy, whose job is just as important, can stay at work or do something for herself). That fathers cook for the whole family (because it’s not the mother’s sole responsibility) and that they have equal responsibility over the house work. Or is their major role still to bring home the salary at the end of the month (because women’s salary is not high enough or equal enough)? No. And I’m not looking for someone to blame and I’m not looking into the exceptions, because there are (and if you were reading this last paragraph and felt an eich in your stomach and disagree with me, let’s face it; you are either the exception or you think this is the way things should be. In either of these cases, it’s fine by me, however, wouldn’t you like your sister or your daughter to have the possibility to choose what she wants and what is right for her?)

If we are talking about women’s equality and role in society, we do need to question ourselves and check how and what we can do to provide women with the same opportunities and possibilities to live life as they wish to, without any social boundaries or glass ceilings.

I wish these were only my thoughts, but reading through the latest research of how the current world pandemic crisis has affected the population (performed by MacKinzy & Company, July 2020) you can see a very gloomy picture. To begin with, women’s starting point is unequal to men. More so MacKinzy and Co estimate that “female job loss rates due to COVID-19 are about 1.8 times higher than male job loss rates globally, at 5.7 percent versus 3.1 percent respectively.” It doesn’t surprise me, but it brings me back to my initial statement / question provoked by the movie - how much has really changed in women’s concept and role in society since then? How further have we progressed since then with equal opportunities?

I know that for me, to change the society I need to change myself and I need to start thinking that I deserve to fulfill my dreams, to have a great career and to be a great mother; sharing my responsibilities equally with the person by my side. I need to understand that I should be faithful to my needs and respect them but not at the cost of the happiness of the people around me. I and so do you, need to understand that if we don’t change our basic concept about who we are and what we want, we won’t be able to change the role we hold so proudly in the last centuries.

As I watched the movie, it provoked me to think and consider the social challenges for women’s social place and personal quest for authenticity. The struggle that seems to belong to 1953 is still chasing most of us today.

The dissonance of social practices versus personal authenticity has always been the one we face and question. The expectations we have of ourselves as part of society are endless, and more often portray a perfection that doesn’t exist. Yes, we would like to think of ourselves as superwomen with super powers. To be fair, we are pretty amazing when we put in the time and effort, but many times there is a cost to that perfection. We don’t consider ourselves as perfectionists, but as perfectionists we always want what is best for our family and most of the time what’s best for us is pushed down to the bottom of the list. We want to look after our house, our family and our partner and we don’t stop for a minute to question that role of looking after other people. More and more so, we many times ‘forget’ to look after ourselves as human beings with needs and goals and dreams.

Reshma Saujani in her TED talk spoke beautifully about the differences that ‘social gender’ has inflicted on us and how our girls and many women face challenges in becoming who they are. Her call to teach girls (and women) “to be courageous not perfect”, sums up this perfectionism world we supposedly join from a certain age. This call asks you to, and show your daughter that you can, face challenges, that you can do what you desire to do, be who you desire to be and that perfectionism is not at the centre of attention as it was back in the 50’s advertising / real world. Visions and eagerness to be who we are, should be the centre of our attention.

Can you remember yourself before having children or getting married? What were your dreams? What laid under them? What sacrifices did you think you’d make prior to children and marriage? You were supposed to smile and say that it’s part of the world and it’s meant to happen, right? That everyone has their role in the social world to fulfill. We don’t question that role that was descendent on us by an old pattern of living.

We tend to forget that our mental and emotional health are important and we tend to neglect to remember the double standards that we live under and that it is so mentally tiring. We forget to look after our happiness and smile. If we go back to the Mona Lisa Smile movie, and think about the smile, then it is a visual representation of the idea of happiness suggested by the word "gioconda" in Italian (From the Late Latin name Iucunda, which meant "pleasant, delightful, happy" and in Italian means “the witty or playful one, the joker-lady, perhaps even the tease”. Leonardo da Vinci's painting the Mona Lisa is also known as La Gioconda because its subject is Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. (The myth of the Mona Lisa, The Guardian, 2002) and this enigmatic smile is chasing us today questioning our happiness and what lies behind our own closed doors. Am I happy? Is the only thing that makes me happy is making the people around me happy? What makes me happy? Talking to many women around me in our community, we discover that many of us are still searching for these answers. Our group discussions and events bring us one step closer in finding out who we are and what makes us happy. When our portrait is taken, we’ll show our happiness with no enigmas to be investigated.

One of the things I loved about the movie is to see the change and development in the women’s relationships with one another. At first the claws and judgments were so easy to draw, however due to the nature of life and reality, they eventually realised that sticking together, supporting one another and looking after one another is the only way they would be able to succeed in transforming their own personal lives into the ones they wished to live. Understanding that we all face the same social judgments, social expectations and boundaries and more so, personal limiting beliefs should make us stick to one another and seek the welfare of your sisters just as much.

WWC is an empowering platform for women to look after women. To learn, to teach and to motivate one another to do better and be better. Equal and mutual care is one of the foundations and we take it with pride and power to make sure that our community prospers and grows both as individuals and together.

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