Why Joshua Heartily Disliked Mona Lisa Smile

You might remember Joshua is a former student of mine, whose weblog is one of the few I read every day. Or at least I did until his server went all crazy recently. So I thought I’d give Joshua a voice over here for a while. Obviously it’s my interpretation of his voice, cause I’m reproducing parts of an email correspondence. It started like this:
Joshua: I just noticed you gave _Mona Lisa Smile_ the same number of stars as _28 Days Later_? Are you serious?

Me: … about 28 Days Later. I was mean to it because I seriously disliked the ending. Don’t sell me a dark movie and then give it a hopeful happy ending. ALL of Europe had to be reeling with violent zombies, not just England. That’s just status quo.

And I was overly nice to Mona Lisa because I hate the way critics automatically slam movies about female teachers.

So both reviews were biased, I admit it. Just in opposite directions.

Joshua: On 28 Days and Mona Lisa Smile— I’m not sure the rest of Europe *did* need to be overrun with zombies, just because Britain’s an island and the onset of the zombie virus happened so quickly that it would be hard to transmit over water. So it’s not like someone could have a latent infection and make the journey over the channel. All the continent would have to do once they realized there was a problem in the UK would be to seal off the tunnel (the only route from the UK to Europe that a zombie could travel on foot) and the problem would be effectively confined to the island.

The thing about Mona Lisa Smile is that it was just so… fantastically irrelevant. I mean, it’s a movie about the expectations placed on rich young women 40 years ago. Most young women today face a completely different set of expectations and there are about five times as many young women growing up under the poverty line (then and now) than there are going to private schools. Yet it never seems to occur to anyone to make a movie about a teacher in a public high school who teaches poor girls to overcome the (infinitely more repressive and violent) sexism that exists in the poorer parts of American society—to use birth control and go to college and dump guys who won’t drop. So, to my experience, the insult of Mona Lisa Smile’s self-congratulatory preachiness was compounded by its glaring failure to interrogate its own appallingly class-based assumptions about who’s going to qualify to be “tomorrow’s leaders, not their wives”.

(1) There are many stories that should be told but are not.
(2) There are other stories that may be over told from some perspectives.
(3) There’s really no such thing as an overtold story. There’s a badly told story, sure. But that’s as far as I’ll go.

Women of my generation, women like me — definitely did not grow up middle class or above, but have got there by hook or crook — need stories like Mona Lisa. It reminded me that I’m fortunate, and why, and about the women who paved the way. Corny, maybe, but nonetheless: true.

January 14, 2005 11:41 AM
[title size=”2″]Comments[/title] Hey, look at that. I’m a guest star. Cool.

“It reminded me that I’m fortunate, and why, and about the women who paved the way. Corny, maybe, but nonetheless: true.”

This isn’t really a direct contradiction, but it is something that occurs to me from time to time when I’m thinking about identity politics:

Really, we’re all fortunate in a lot of important ways. But identity politics divides our accomplishments up into movements to create a false impression of division where there’s really unity. I mean, take parenting for example: until 20 years ago, single men were effectively barred from parenting their own children if there was any female family member available to fill the role instead. There was (generally) no law on the subject, but it was certainly the practical end of judicial rulings on the matter. Or labor: 8 hour days and all that. Those are wins for everybody, and they’re part of a larger process of the steady democratization of the United States. The advances in the lives of women of your generation are part of a glacial liberation movement that has improved my life and the lives of everybody in the country.

All of which is to say that my gripe with Mona Lisa isn’t so much that the story is overtold as that the presentation of the film is much too pleased with itself. The scoring, the direction, the action — all cop this Big Important Movie attitude, when what they’re really talking about is, in its specifics, an very narrowly defined critique of an extremely rarified group of American elites.

So I guess to some extent Mona Lisa’s failure as a story (the badly told story critique) is that it didn’t manage to distract me from its irrelevance. Dead Poet’s Society is pretty much the same kind of movie — filthy rich people struggling with the terrible pressure of being filthy rich and privileged in the wealthiest country in the history of the world  –but the presentation made me not care. The scoring, acting, and directing convinced me that the events of the film mattered. They made it possible for me to forget that the events of the film were contemporary with Jim Crow. Mona Lisa didn’t manage it and I don’t think it’s just because I have genitals in common with the people in Dead Poet’s.

Posted by: Joshua at January 14, 2005 02:03 PM

Hey, look at that: typos.


Posted by: Joshua at January 14, 2005 02:05 PM

See, I think MLS is relevant now because we’re having such a strong cultural push back to the 1950’s, woman-in-the-kitchen, woman-can’t-do-it-all period of time. A lot of this movie gave me (20something liberal girl who loathes cooking and cleaning) the shivers, thinking, “That was normal back then?!” It’s almost over-the-top parody to me, but I wasn’t there then when it was real. But some of those messages are still out there today.

Partially, it’s a “see how much better things are now?” movie, and partially, it’s a “see how things could go again?” movie to me.

Posted by: Jennifer at January 14, 2005 04:22 PM

You know, things were that bad and worse. My mother in law got an MD in 1955; the stories she tells about going to get a job are hair raising. In my own generation, my own school history: the girls were encouraged to go to secretarial school, or nursing school, or (and here was the pinnacle): to teachers’ college. This was partially a class thing, as I grew up in a very conservative working class neighborhood, but it was also gendered.

So MLS is about a very small, very elite section of the population, one to which I have never belonged — but it didn’t feel like that to me. MLS didn’t feel irrelevant *to me* the way Dead Poet’s Society felt irrelevant and staged and — this is the word that comes to mind — hokey. Maybe this difference in reaction isn’t completely gendered, but I think there’s at least some of that there. I also know that part of my bad reaction to Dead Poet’s Society has to do with being a teacher of creative writing. I hate the way they romanticized teaching, what teachers do or should do or can do, and most of all the way they used literature and poetry as a kind of — prop, I guess you’d have to call it.

There was something about MLS that struck a chord for me, it had to do with the fact that the struggle between the teacher and the students was in fact mostly about class, and only secondarily about world view and women’s roles.

But I will agree that it could have been better done, sure. I also think some elements of 28 Days Later were poorly handled. For example: all those men slobbering at the bit over a woman an a girl, and the emphasis on them as sexual pawns. Please. That was insulting to men and women both.


Posted by: rosina at January 14, 2005 05:37 PM

It’s about flippin’ time I heard from Joshua!!!!

Thank you, Sara for giving Joshua a guest starring role.

Josh – get the server fixed!

Posted by: Jenniferanne at January 14, 2005 08:51 PM