Mona Lisa Smile, Dead Poets Society, and The Subtle Sexism of How We View Movies

If you attended high school at any point in the last 30 years, your English teacher probably wheeled one of those boxy TVs to the front of the classroom and announced “Today is going to be a little different” before hitting play on Dead Poets Society, Peter Weir’s 1989 drama about an unconventional teacher at an elite, all-male prep school in 1950s New England, who encourages his students to “seize the day” and not fall prey to the dangers of conformity. It’s less likely your English teacher decided to show you Mona Lisa Smile, Mike Newell’s 2003 drama about an unconventional art history professor at the prestigious, all-female Wellesley College in 1950s New England, who encourages her students to “have it all” and not fall prey to the dangers of conformity. The two films are similar enough to raise eyebrows, yet it’s the one centered on men that garnered more acclaim and earned a permanent spot on your high school English syllabus, while ironically, the one centered on women has become semi-forgotten with time.

You can certainly argue that Mona Lisa Smile is derivative of Dead Poets Society, if only because it arrived 14 years later and both films fall squarely into the inspirational teacher genre. But they are tonally different, highlighting how we tend to view issues affecting men versus women. Dead Poets Society is solemn and earnest—even Robin Williams is (mostly) subdued as Mr. Keating—quoting heavily from important male writers like Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. When tragedy strikes in the form of star student Neil Perry’s (Robert Sean Leonard) suicide, the mood turns somber. This is a Serious Movie about Serious Things and every element of the film—from Maurice Jarre’s tranquil and triumphant score to the gorgeous, silent, snowy shots of the school grounds—works to emphasize it.

Mona Lisa Smile, on the other hand, is romantic and stylish—full of color and charisma, like the modern paintings Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) shows her students. The shifts from comedy to drama are handled so gracefully by Roberts and the rest of its star-studded cast, the viewer is swept up without realizing it. The film has an unmistakable buoyancy, but it doesn’t lack depth; it just doesn’t linger so heavily on its dramatic elements. Mona Lisa Smile is no less serious in its dramatic aims than Dead Poets Society, but history—including popular culture—often tends to trivialize issues affecting women while simultaneously elevating those affecting men, and the film’s lighter tone and emphasis on relationships likely did it no favors in the still very cishet male-dominated film industry (including criticism), who have always undervalued women’s stories and box office power.

It’s not only the tone where these two films differ, but how they each define “conformity” within the context of 1950s America. For the women of Mona Lisa Smile, conformity is less about stamping out vague idealism and more about enforcing concrete misogyny and gender roles. Whether it’s firing the school nurse (Juliet Stevenson)—who also happens to be a lesbian—for illegally handing out contraception to students, encouraging antiquated campus traditions surrounding marriage like the hoop race while discouraging advanced degrees (like law school for Julia Stiles’ brilliant Joan), or publishing sexist screeds against Katherine in the school newspaper because of her subversive views on work vs. domesticity, there are very real consequences for not conforming to expectations of womanhood in 1953. “It’s brilliant, really. A perfect ruse,” Katherine rants at one point, “a finishing school disguised as a college! I thought I was headed to a place that would turn out tomorrow’s leaders, not their wives!”

This is not to say that conformity of thought, which Keating rails against in Dead Poets Society, is not also damning. But men have always had more advantages and freedom in society than women—especially freedom of choice. The exception here is Neil Perry, who is presented as responsible, high-achieving, sensitive, and passionate. Though the film never states it outright, there’s plenty of subtle evidence to suggest Neil is gay, which is perhaps why he feels so “trapped”—as he confides to Keating—by his domineering father (Kurtwood Smith), who enrolls him in military school after witnessing his less than traditionally masculine performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The film presents this more as a conflict of ideals, but it’s also about Neil’s subtle rejection of traditional, toxic masculinity, which his father emulates, and the consequences are far more akin to the ones faced by the women of Wellesley than his classmates at Welton. Perhaps Neil sacrifices his life for art and poetry, but his desperation to be free of his father’s control and accepted by him on his own terms hints at something far more personal than just ideology, which makes his death all the more tragic.

Still, the threat of conformity in Dead Poets Society is far more existential in nature. All of the young men at Welton Academy—even the more rebellious, like Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen)—will go on to become doctors, lawyers, businessmen, politicians etc., who have privilege, protections, and real power regardless of how they speak or what they do. This doesn’t mean the crises these young men face feel less dire, only that the consequences are, in reality, much more so for women who don’t comply with patriarchy. It doesn’t matter how much Katherine tries to make her students believe they don’t have to choose between marriage and a career in Mona Lisa Smile, because there’s simply too much pressure from all sides and evidence to the contrary. Many reviews rightly point out the clumsiness of and inconsistencies in the film’s feminist messages (perhaps due in part to its male screenwriters and director), but another found it “lacking in conviction” and finished with, “Dead Poets can rest easy,” which is, frankly, a bit unfair. Its heart is in the right and even the same place as Dead Poets Society, but the latter had the benefit of being first and centered on men. 

It’s hard to say for certain whether Mona Lisa Smile would have been treated better if it had arrived prior to Dead Poets Society, but the disparate treatment of both by audiences, critics, and awards ceremonies reinforces a vexing truth right out of one of Katherine Watson’s fiery lectures: history works against women whether in the classroom, the movie theater, or society. Men are valued based on their own merits while women still only have value as they relate to men. If, as student Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllanhaal) puts it, “the context the art comes from affects the way we view it,” perhaps it’s not so much that one film is better than the other, but that our whole context for comparison is rooted in the same misogyny the women of Mona Lisa Smile are pushing back against and the men of Dead Poets Society unknowingly benefit from. In viewing Mona Lisa Smile, or any other woman-centric story, only in relation to its male counterpart, we’re erasing its individual merits. Until we absorb the lessons of both films, we’ll never see things differently whether we’re standing on a desk or in front of a Pollock painting.

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