Have you seen the movie Mona Lisa Smile?
Starring Julia Roberts, this movie was about Katherine Watson, a free-thinking art teacher who moved from California to Massachusetts to teach in the very prestigious Wellesley College for women. Set in the early 1950s, the movie showcased the beginning of a decade where women were privileged enough to avail of a college education. The girls were portrayed as being smart, prepared for class, diligent and disciplined in their studies. In fact, when Katherine first started at the school, she considered it an honor to be teaching the country’s leaders of tomorrow. Boy, was she in for a big surprise…
The title of the film refers to the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), a Renaissance artist and inventor. One of the reasons the painting is so famous is because of Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile: is she really smiling? The technical term for this painting technique is sfumato, which means soft and blurry. If you look directly at her smile it seems to disappear, when you look away it reappears. The poster for the film is of the four main female characters gazing at a painting: they have similarly indefinable expressions.
The war had just ended and the face of America was changing. Marriages and birthrates were booming. And the women of the 1950s weren’t just majoring in history, economics and/or pre-law but also in the art of husband-hunting as if back in the time of Jane Bennett and Mr. Bingley. Cookery, housekeeping, interior design, poise and social graces were equally as important subjects as chemistry, mathematics and language. Of course! A woman must be prepared to cater to her husband and home’s every need! It seemed that college was merely a holding area for women until an eligible bachelor propositions her for marriage. Then she leaves school and, how did they say it in the movie? Ah, “set up house”, that’s it.
The film shows the 1950s ‘ideal’ woman as one that is pretty and house-proud, and emphasizing her husband’s career over her own. Women have historically been portrayed as ‘trophies’, as an appendage to a man; their own existence is only qualified by the presence of a husband.
It makes me glad that I get to marry in 2013 and not in 1954. It wouldn’t have worked out for me. I’d be out the door the minute my smart-ass 50s husband starts yelling for me to get dinner out of the oven because he can’t, he’s busy reading the paper.
Ha! On second thought, just a few years back, I was actually mere inches away from being another Stepford Wife. I barely escaped without a scratch.
You see, I am an ambitious woman. I knew from the second I started walking that I wasn’t going to be a Plain Jane. I would go to graduate school, pick a career path, excel at it and climb my way to the top. It’s good for a woman to be independent: to pursue her interests, set up her own priorities and even have her personal finances in order. I honestly believed it to be the right thing. But a few years back, I was in a situation where I thought I wanted to be a full-time housewife and spend every waking day devoting my life to managing a home: cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids, making sure my husband is well and happy, etc. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being a full-time housewife especially if one is really passionate about it. After all, it isn’t easy work. In fact it’s a very challenging job. Being a housewife is both an art and a noble sacrifice, but I don’t like the stigma that’s attached to it.
I was born and raised in the Philippines, a country with very patriarchal views. Working women are generally accepted and encouraged. Yet women having jobs or not isn’t the issue here: It’s the double standard. Men are expected to be breadwinners: work hard and provide for the family. For women, working is optional. And yes, you may pursue a career, but if something happens to the kids, your in-laws would tell you it’s your fault. It happened because you were away working when you were supposed to be at home. You have to do this, you have to do that, because you’re a woman.
Somebody used to say this to me all the time and I got sick of it. I bailed. I never really found out if he meant it or not. Maybe he was kidding. Nonetheless, I believe that no one should think this way anymore, even jokingly. This is the 21st century and women have come a long way from being portrayed as pin-up bimbos. As a person who has a great degree of understanding and respect for what women are capable of doing and achieving, I WILL NOT HAVE IT.
There’s nothing wrong with being a housewife or at being good at housework. I am very good at housekeeping and child care, as I was the oldest among a brood of four. But I also think that the decision to stay at home and watch the babies is as much the free-willing decision of the wife and not just of her husband. These days, no husband or mother-in-law can tell you that you cannot pursue Medicine because you are getting married. These days, a woman SHOULD be able to be what she can be and pursue her dreams.
So, to the ladies out there: Choose only a partner who will allow you to maximize your true potential, who will not limit you just because he’s too insecure and afraid that you will outshine him. Ack! The thought of those bastards just made me vomit in my mouth. Do NOT choose a partner who will refuse to let you spread your wings; choose one who will willingly be the wind beneath them instead.
I was prepared to settle. I never thought I would ever find my wind. But I did, and so now I have soared higher and discovered greater horizons.
I understand it must NOT be easy to challenge conventions. In the Allegory of the Cave by Plato, the prisoners, after years of being in the dark, were reluctant to come out into the light because it hurt their eyes. They feared the light was blinding. Even people who undergo eye surgery experience trauma from the recovery of their eyesight. Sometimes too much information (as in the eye processing what it can see and sending brain signals) can be traumatic, the sensory overload causing headaches and vertigo so that the now seeing person may even wish he were blind again. Similarly, new knowledge and new perceptions are overwhelming, especially when we are so accustomed to what was there before.
Katherine Watson hoped for her students to be the CEOs, Presidents, statesmen, trailblazers of the future but she was disappointed to find out that they actually felt they were destined to be the housewives of the former- and that they believed and accepted that the housewife role is the one they were born to fill. They could have been so much more, and Katherine was frustrated to see so much potential go to waste. I really hope you don’t make your teachers feel the same.
It is time for a change. It is time to open our eyes and settle in to the new vision that we have.
We are NOT in the 1950s anymore. These days, a woman must be able to express when she is unhappy and/or dissatisfied, say so when she feels disrespected or belittled, protest when she is undermined or discriminated against. No more Mona Lisa smiles.