Who's afraid of the 1950s?
Pretty frocks did not stop my film Mona Lisa Smile posing important questions about the role of women
Article by Julia Stiles
Last night, a woman stopped me on the street to tell me that she enjoyed my performance in David Mamet's Oleanna at London's Garrick Theatre. She said: "You were good, but I hated you." After I giggled with discomfort, she added: "And I hated you in Mona Lisa Smile." I assumed this was because Joan, my character in the film, chose to get married instead of pursuing law school.
I found the stranger's commentary curious, given that her vitriol was directed towards diametrically opposed representations of women. Joan is a conformist by nature, while Carol is unrelenting in her non-conformity to the point of being a masochist. It seemed to me that she disapproved of the way these characters were written. I left the encounter in as much dismay as I left Cherry Potter's recent article on these pages about "the spate of Hollywood retro movies". She suggested that films such as The Stepford Wives, Mona Lisa Smile and Down With Love represented a retreat into 1950s gender conformity.
She argued that the films celebrate "pretty frocks" and "feminine period details", while ignoring the male backlash that occurred against gains made by women in the war-torn 40s.
It left me wondering when we decided to go to the cinema not to see a reflection of human nature, but for an unthreatening after-school special -- like those television shows geared toward children, where the idealised protagonist makes the right choice, to set an example for viewers to follow. Film studios are keen to follow that paradigm, because the role model is a perfect advertising conduit. Indeed, they face a dilemma here. Films have a responsibility to expose our faults, just as they should avoid their dangerous capacity to rewrite history for the sake of entertainment.
Frequently studios film two endings, and let a test market audience dictate the outcome of the story. Sadly, audiences have come to expect the Hollywood happy ending, and disapprove if questions raised in a film are not neatly answered by the end.
But the recent trend in "girl power" movies is a good example of how female buying power is essential to studio marketing campaigns; young women left theatres feeling empowered by their triumphant heroine, even if her choices were somewhat unrealistic. Potter expressed concern that films aimed at women are merely an extension of exploitative advertising, reminiscent of those in a 1950s fashion magazine. Her simplistic indictment of Hollywood, which she likens to the Stepford Men's Club, is an insult to the multitude of ambitious female executives producing movies today. The driving forces behind Mona Lisa Smile were Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas and Deborah Schindler, who developed the project for Revolution Studios.
As astute business women, they of course had to find a way to make the film's message palatable to a larger audience. Without those "pretty frocks" and "feminine period details", Mona Lisa Smile would have appealed only to women already familiar with feminist theory, or -- unfortunately -- more likely the film would not have been made at all. Moreover, the director Mike Newell relished these period details precisely to comment on the shallowness of the era. The so-called seductive elements of the film were true to that time and were emblematic of the confusion women must have felt in the face of conformity.
The film is set in the period just prior to the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Those symbols of old-fashioned femininity are precisely what caused the malaise that Friedan outlined in that ground-breaking text. By embellishing the buried unhappiness that each character feels as she poses elegantly by her new fridge, the filmmakers hoped to illuminate a feeling of suffocation for a generation of girls unable to express what Friedan and her contemporaries would later articulate.
The ultimate message of Mona Lisa Smile may have been concerned with what we now refer to as "having it all", but it was necessary that characters such as Joan should remain content within their limits.
Otherwise, to show a group of young women in the 1950s so quickly ascribing to a modern sense of empowerment would be historically inaccurate. Critics of such movies have to watch them in the context of the gradual progression of the women's movement.
It wasn't until the 1970s that feminists began to express an appreciation of feminine attributes; arguing that that to ignore them reinforced the implicit inferiority of feminine characteristics. A modern audience's enjoyment of period details, albeit examples of a repressive time, is not an example of "Stepfordisation". Why should audiences be afraid of 50s kitsch?
Ironically, the F word is now pejorative in the mainstream because it is seen to represent a woman's renunciation of her femininity. It's an issue many women struggle with today -- including female studio executives. After Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, women of my generation have not employed self-censorship, but rather we challenge the notion that being a feminist is in opposition to being feminine.
Originally published in the June 17, 2004 issue of the Guardian