Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mona Lisa Smile
A Movie of Female Empowerment
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This past Saturday night, during a trip to Miami, my friend and I chose to stay in. (Yes—we’re prone to dullness at times). Our hotel *cough, cough* (a 1 star, mind you) barely offered 15 TV channels (7 of which were in Spanish and 1 in French). Oh, and did I mention that a remote control was non-existent?
We took turns to drag our lazy backsides off the bed and be the official “channel switcher.” Eventually we succumbed to a laptop and Netflix.
My friend and I opted to watch a film called Mona Lisa Smile starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, and Julia Stiles. (My friend likes Julia Roberts and I like the “Mona Lisa.” Thus, it was a fairly easy way to compromise).
Mona Lisa Smile is about an Art History professor named Ms. Watson (played by Julia Roberts) who arrives at Wellesley College in 1953. This professor notices how the all-female student body analyzes art. They utilize rigid textbook methodology. The way they approach their personal lives is not that different either. These young women are expected to marry young and become homemakers extraordinaire. Once married, they are to vacuum, iron, and cook perfectly—with lusciously lined lips and coiffed curls of course.
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         What makes Ms. Watson indignant is seeing how her students’ sole drive is to marry well and embody the stereotypical 50’s housewife. She watches how her otherwise intelligent students shrug off their talents in favor of a purely domestic lifestyle.
         Predictably, Ms. Watson’s feministic philosophies are quickly upended by fierce opposition (from both teachers and students). It was the ‘50s after all. In spite of this, Ms. Watson continues to bulldoze over “a woman’s boundaries” by telling her students that they have a choice: They do NOT have to belittle their ambitions because of marriage. They can do both—career and family.
         This subject is obviously exhaustive and hackneyed: “Women and Work,” “Women and Family,” “Women and Societal Expectations.” We’ve seen and heard and read it all. Right?
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Vogue December 2012
But four days later, and I'm still contemplating this movie. The characters reminded me of my former classmates, my fellow Synagogue-goers, my neighbors, and of....yours truly.
Here’s a dialogue from Mona Lisa Smile that simultaneously made me erupt in laughter and feel chills zip through my back:
Ms. Watson: It says here that you’re Pre-Law. What Law School are you going to go to?
Student: I hadn’t really thought of that. After I graduate, I plan on getting married.
Ms. Watson: And then?
Student: And then I’ll be married.

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          As Orthodox women we’ve been raised with the precept that familial life is unequivocally important. Our homes are a sacred Mini-Temple. Our hearts firmly echo the beat of our husbands and of our children. With dough-encrusted fingers and orange-juice stained skirts, we proudly march to this drum.
And that is a vision for my future.
I, along with most women, have an inherent yearning to be a wife and mother. It’s a blazing fire that spreads from our souls to our aching feet as we chase our toddlers in the park. It’s the reason why the Torah does not command Jewish women to marry. In contrast to men, familial life is as natural to us as is the concept of, say, breathing. We’ve nursed this flame since we were 4 years old and crooning lullabies to our baby dolls.
But, then there’s another kind of fire; a heightened crescendo that begs for one to release her inner strengths and talents. There is a fervency to become a musician, a mechanical engineer, a financial analyst, a filmmaker.
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            I recently met a lady during a Shabbat dinner. When she asked me what I’d like to do professionally, I said “write.” She offered me the sharply crinkled forehead that I’ve (sadly) come to expect.
“Oh, you mean for magazines like Binah? Or newspapers like The Hamodia?”
“Oh no” I responded. “Although I’m aware of reality, I dream to write for Vogue or The Times. Perhaps I’ll write my own novel. It’s always good to dream, right?” I heard my voice hover uncertainly in the air, and subsequently threw in a nervous laugh for good measure.
“Well, you know it’s the not the best career move for a Jewish woman. Don’t journalists always have to be on the road? Did you ever consider one of the health science fields like Speech Therapy? How about Nursing?"
My right leg began to shimmy in aggravation under the table.  
“Yes, I did—and it’s not for me."
Why did I say this with the petulant shame of a Madoff-ian fraud caught in the act? Why?

         A woman’s strengths and professional objectives (especially when they’re unconventional in the Orthodox universe) can be easily buried under a heap of grocery lists, cookbooks, and laundry detergent. Of course having a family is a desire that pierces my very marrow. But you know what? So does the desire for self-expression and creativity.

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          Maybe as a writer I won’t be making the requisite salary to purchase expensive toys for my children. Maybe as a writer I’ll be consistently clubbed by neurosis and spend hours trying to perfect a paragraph. Maybe it’ll be taxing and littered with publishers’ rejection letters. But, maybe, just maybe I’ll be able to show my children that tapping into your inherent calling can animate life with meaning.  Maybe I’ll be fortunate enough to unclog parts of that unwinding road for my children. If my childrens' hearts ache with passion for their craft, then I can show them how to jerk their heads away from the naysayers and societal conventions.
Just like Ms. Watson did in Mona Lisa Smile. And just like I aim to do--that is if I ever encounter another busybody who likes to view my life through the narrowest of lenses.

Be warned.


  1. Oh my, I think we understand each other perfectly.

    I love to write, nay, I NEED to write. After college I no longer had an outlet, and I didn't realize how much I missed it until I decided to launch my blog. I was worried I would run out of things to write about, and so far, praise be, that has not been an issue.

    My dream is to be a full-time Mommy, but I do not believe that means that I won't have an identity or other passionate endeavors. I have gotten the snarky remarks about my lack of career, but I do not feel a need to explain myself.

    My mother was a full-time mommy, but she never sublimated her personality or drive beneath that role. And that is the same model I hope to display for my own brood, please God.

  2. Yes, writers have an innate NEED to write. It's like an itch that you must scratch or else...I'm glad you started your blog Princess Lea. It's definitely one of my favorites. It's always refreshing to hear a unique Jewish female voice. Being a full-time Mommy is a blessing indeed. As long as people know that they have a CHOICE and that they're not bound to fulfill certain expectations. I admire your nonchalance towards people's mean comments. I'm still working on know, the whole "not caring" thing. It saves one a lot of uneccessary hurt. And yes, with G-d's help, let's inspire our future children in the best way possible!

  3. I didn't say I don't care. Believe me, I come from a thin-skinned family; those comments cut! I just remind myself that when someone is saying something hurtful, it's more about them than it is about me.

  4. At least you ladies have a choice. As a man, I don't. I CAN'T follow my dreams if I want my family to be provided for. I wrote about it here:

  5. Princess Lea: Sorry for the misinterpretation. I meant to say that I admire the fact that in spite of comments hurting, you try to not let it get to you. What you said about "it being more about them, than me" is true and def something for me to bear in mind :)

    Frum Geek: Yes. I agree. Men have that added pressure. I honestly don't know what I would do as a career if I were a man. I suck (with a capital S) at math and science. Good luck in your endeavors :)

  6. Just read your post FG. Comic Book Artist?! SO cool. It's a bit of a tragic act when we bury our dreams beneath the blanket of reality. I know the feeling. And like you said, men usually experience it much more. But, never know who where life will take you. Nurse that passion. Maybe you'll use your business degree to OPEN UP a comic book store! How awesome would that be?

  7. That WOULD be cool. Except that everything's going digital not to mention I wouldn't be able to be open on Shabbos. Again, the reality of being a frum male Jew. So I'm going to do what frum male Jews do, and become a lawyer. (I start law school in August.)