The Movie Mona Lisa Smile

In the movie Mona Lisa Smile, the main theme of the movie relates to Simone de Beauvoir thoughts about how women are stuck in immanence by men and society. A non-traditional woman name Katherine Watson, the university’s art history teacher tries to show the young ladies attending her course that they can transcend beyond what they think that they are capable of and to break the boundaries that their families have expected from them.

One of the main characters name Betty warren attends Katherine Watson art history class.

Betty is a young lady that is engaged and comes from a very strict family that values old school traditions that women must sacrifice their own needs or wants to please society’s outlook of the perfect wife. Betty’s mission is to get married, buy a house and have children. Betty harshly judges other young ladies that attend Katherine Watson class. Betty feels that there is no place for foolish behavior as in dating different men and having sex before marriage.

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When Betty is married and living in her home with her husband, her best friend Joan tells Betty that she’s applied to Yale Law School. Betty immediately discourages Joan and blames Katherine Watson for putting a silly idea in Joan’s head. Betty goes on to tell Joan that she is close to being proposed too and having everything that she has always wanted in life such as a home and children, that going to Yale will not fit in her lifestyle.

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The fact that Betty only sees living as a woman is to be married, have babies and that this idea of life is to be applied to all women’s fate. 

Betty feels that it’s her duty and that she will be happy once she has accomplished these goals. This thinking is keeping Betty in immanence and not letting herself achieve transcendent. De Beauvoir writes that women have not shared the world equally with men, that they are treated as objects, or the Other, to the One that is a man. Women are the Other, “what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex,’ by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being... she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute – she is the Other” (Beauvoir S. d., 1949).

Giselle Levy is another young lady in Katherine Watson’s class. Giselle is quite the opposite from the other girls in class. Giselle dates different men and speaks her mind. She doesn’t care what others think of her. She always challenging others around her and that she refuses to let other ideas guide her life choices. In one scene Giselle’s bag drops and her birth control for other girls to see it. Betty tries to disciple Giselle saying that no man will want to marry her and that it’s against the law to have birth control. In fact, throughout the whole movie. Betty is always making unapproved comments and shaming Giselle about her lifestyle choices. Betty even shames the school nurse for giving birth control, publicly announcing it in the school newspaper with the result of the university firing the nurse.

Katherine Watson is the art teacher that is trying to open the mind of young women that attend the university in the 50’s. Katherine Watson is over 30 and unmarried. The school community passes judgement on her forward thinking and non-traditional teachings. She wants the girls to reach for more than being wives and mothers. The young girls in her class have more potential to grow and transcendence to more than what society expects from them. In the scene Katherine shows her students Van Gogh in a box, she references Van Gogh’s ideas, art that people at that time didn’t consider him an artist. 

Van Goh refused to conform to what society viewed what was acceptable as art. Now with Van Gogh being popular, the paint by numbers Van Gogh in a box. Katherine tells the students that they can conform to what other people expect or you can paint your own work. I feel this scene outline Simone de Beauvoir immanence and transcendence view of women. Woman must see herself, like man, as subject and not object. She must embrace her freedom and embrace projects which further disclose freedom. Or she can conform into the woman that men and society has already chosen for her to be, lost in immanence.            

Works cited

  1. Beauvoir, S. d. (1949). The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books.
  2. Cott, N. F. (2000). No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Elshtain, J. B. (1993). Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  4. Friedan, B. (1963). The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  5. Gilligan, C. (1982). In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  6. Hooks, B. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press.
  7. Lerner, G. (1986). The Creation of Patriarchy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. Okin, S. M. (1989). Justice, Gender, and the Family. New York: Basic Books.
  9. Scott, J. W. (1992). Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  10. Tavris, C. (1993). The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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The Movie Mona Lisa Smile. (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from

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