Culture as Seen in “Mona Lisa Smile”

In Mona Lisa Smile, the goal of the female students is not just to gain an education, but also the greater prize of a husband. The 1950’s experienced change regarding the roles of women: it was post-war but pre-feminism and the conflict between tradition and modernity are embodied in the characters’ struggles to find their own way in life. The women experience difficulty conforming to the society they are so familiar with, role conflict and struggle to stay faithful to their conservative culture.

Being some of the brightest women in the country, the ideal culture at Wellesley College is conservativeness, academically excelling, abstinence, becoming a wife and soon after, a mother. But in the real culture of Wellesley, girls are sleeping with teachers and using contraceptives. For the most part, the women are very intelligent and conservative and they do aim to become a wife and mother, but there are a few deviants like Giselle, who had a fling with one of the teachers and startles her roommates by revealing that she has been using birth control. Deviance is not very common within this formal organization because of what Travis Hirschi calls the control theory. Because there are such strong bonds between the women at Wellesley, they are less likely to act out.

In the 1950’s, the role of a woman was to be a housewife, and having the ascribed status of a woman, this causes Katherine a lot of conflict. Katherine believes that women should not only be housewives, but hold a career as well. But the beliefs and values of the women at Wellesley College disagree with her opinion and instead, the girls choose to stay at home and have a family rather than getting a job. Joan, an especially bright Wellesley woman, wants to continue her studies at Yale and become a lawyer. Knowing this, Professor Katherine Watson helps her apply and Joan is accepted to the university of her dreams. But Joan has a boyfriend and instead, she conforms to society, marries him and becomes a housewife.

Katherine Watson achieves the status of being a professor of art history at Wellesley College, something that she had always dreamed of being. In her hidden curriculum, she teaches the women that they can be more than just a housewife. But unlike Katherine’s hidden curriculum, the hidden curriculum at Wellesley College, in general, teaches girls to be proper, have etiquette and how to make a good future wife and mother. While Katherine Watson takes on the master status of a professor, the Wellesley women take on the statuses of being students and some of them take on the status of being a wife. By taking on two statuses, there is often role conflict because their role performance of being a student clashes with the role of being a housewife. For example, when Betty gets married, she misses many days of school and gets into trouble with Katherine. Betty struggles to get her priorities straight and to figure out which status is her master status.

Functionalism is the theoretical approach that emphasizes the contributions made by each part of society. There is a basic agreement on values within a society, which means that the people within the society are typically working towards a common goal. At Wellesley College, and in many other areas in the 1950’s, women are working towards the common goal of becoming the best housewife and mother that they can be.

According to the functionalist point of view, a change in one part of society leads to changes in other parts. During World War II, women had to take over the jobs of their absent husbands. Among other things, they began working in factories, nursing and building ships and war weapons. The role of the woman became more important during the war, causing a social change. The women at Wellesley College have a difficult time adapting to the modern, post-war norms of women having a job and they are stuck in the pre-war norm, which is a woman becoming a housewife and mother. Katherine Watson attempts to modernize the women at the college with her modern art and beliefs instead of using Wellesley’s traditional ways.

After much interaction with Katherine Watson, the women at Wellesley College begin to believe that they can be more than just a wife and a mother, despite the culture that they were raised with. Katherine made a change at Wellesley and she helped the girls step outside of their social norms, outside of what they felt comfortable with. Along their journey, the girls experienced role conflict and they questioned their traditional beliefs and values but they soon adapted to the social change with the help of their beloved professor, Ms. Watson.



Mona Lisa Smile. Dir. Mike Newell. Perf. Julia Roberts, Kristen Dunst and Julia Stiles. Revolution Studios, 2003. DVD. Web.


Shepard, Jon M., and Robert W. Greene. Sociology & You. Columbus: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2008. Web.



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