"Not all who wander are aimless. Especially not those who seek truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond the image." -Mona Lisa Smile.
Mona Lisa Smile tells the story of a free-thinking art professor who teaches conservative 1950s Wellesley girls to question their traditional social roles. The girls who attend this prestigious and conservative college come from wealthy, influential, upper class families. However, the student that Miss Katherine Watson clashes with most, is Betty Warren.
Highly, opinionated and traditional, Betty is appalled by the progressive and feminist ideas that Katherine brings with her to Wellesley. Believing that a woman’s only role in life is to marry well, Betty struggles to understand why Katherine herself is not married. With her upcoming marriage arranged by her parents, the conflict between the two results in Betty writing an editorial attacking Katherine Watson and her free-thinking attitudes. As well as this, Betty is seen to viciously expose the campus’ nurse after she overhears her room-mates discussing how the nurse supplied them with the contraceptive pill. As a result of Betty’s scheming, this causes the nurse to loose her job. This consequently leads Katherine to convince her other pupils not to follow the same thoughtless conformity Betty chooses to follow.
However, Betty ultimately becomes ‘disillusioned with the woman’s traditional role’, when she discovers that her husband is having an affair. Heartbroken and alone, Betty retreats to her childhood home to seek comfort and advice from her mother. Upon arriving home, Betty’s maternal loyalty is shattered when her mother urges her to remain silent about her pain, in order to avoid a scandal. Moreover, Mrs Warren rather unsympathetically orders Betty to return to “Spencer’s house” as she is no longer welcome home now that she is a married woman with responsibilities of her own.
Once Betty returns to Wellesley, she unintentionally lashes out at her friend Giselle as a result of the hurt she feels with regards to her failing marriage. It is only after this that she is is finally able to admit to her mother that, just like how the Mona Lisa appears to be smiling, it does not necessarily mean that she is actually happy. At her graduation, Betty consults Katherine about an apartment in Greenwich Village that she intends to share with Giselle, after she files for divorce from her husband Spencer. As a result of this, Betty concludes that she wants her own future, away from the domineering influence of her mother.
The reason why I find Betty Warren to be such an interesting feminist icon is due to he fact that although she initially appears to be the villain of the story, the painful path to self-progressive Betty has to undergo not only allows her to discover her own self-worth, but allows her to defy tradition and expectation. In particular, the most poignant moment of Betty’s struggle is when she lashes out at Giselle, but ultimately breaks down, admitting that her husband no longer “wants” her. Not only is this heartbreaking to watch, it also humanises the notorious Betty Warren, thus showing that her character is rather complex due to her tragic and painful journey to self-discovery.
"Art isn't art until someone says it is."