”You can bake your cake and eat it too!” says the reassuring slogan that distills the comfy revisionist feminism of the film and is repeated empathically enough to qualify as the defining mantra of the film. Mona Lisa Smile preaches both disruptive female self-empowerment and the dream of being swept up and away by Prince Charming.
Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, a free-spirited UCLA graduate who goes to teach Art History at the snooty all female Wellesley College in 1953, shaking up the place enough to be deemed subversive by the Wellesley thought police. The insistence with which she presses her mildly progressive agenda makes her a kind of academic Hillary Clinton. And in her art history classes, she challenges her students to do more than simply identify paintings shown in slides.
Why is an original van Gogh a work of art and reproduction is not? she asks. And where does a do-it-yourself, paint-by-numbers van Gogh fit into the scheme of things? The appearance of a Jackson Pollock canvas of abstract expressionism on campus stirs up ripples of controversy.
But Katherine’s biggest mistake has nothing to do with notions of arty aesthetics. Arriving at Wellesley, she is appalled to discover that almost all of her students have no ambitions beyond settling down with Mr. Right. Her rebellion culminates with an indignant slide show of vintage magazine ads displaying perky wives reigning like queens in their immaculate kitchens.
Making some interesting appearances are Marcia Gay Harden as the world’s prissiest (and weepiest) teacher of elocution and poise, Juliet Stevenson as the discreetly lesbian school nurse with progressive ideas about birth control, and that empress of hauteur, Marian Seldes, playing the intransigently starchy college president. Dominic West, as a carnivorous-eyed professor of Italian who sleeps with his students, gives the movie a shot of testosterone.
But the main girls are Kirsten Dunst, Juliw Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ginnifer Goodwin. Each plays a specific type:
- Kirsten Dunst plays Betty Warren, a vicious, overprivileged archtraditionalist hellbent on marriage, who attacks Katherine in the college newspaper.
- Julia Stiles plays Joan Brandwyn, Katherine’s protage who finds herself torn between marriage and Yale Law School.
- Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Giselle Levy, a wised-up rebel who sleeps around and almost loses her bearings.
- Ginnifer Goodwin plays Connie Baker, the house wallflower who can’t believe it when a boy asks her out.
These women bring life to perhaps one of the most underrepresented minorities in film: the intelligent woman. However, the screenwriters ensure that the film is left open to interpretation by the audience as their writing ensures that both sides of the plot are made to appear right: there is no shame in being a wife, just as there is no shame in being a self-empowered woman, just as long as your intellectual potential is fulfilled.