Mona Lisa Smile. (2003)
Tonight I watched Mona Lisa Smile. The last time I watched it was probably over ten years ago. Back then I was far more naïve, and far more under-educated about the myriad issues going on in our country. The film hardly meant anything to me because I couldn’t see the deeper meaning in it, not like I do now. I didn’t even understand what the title meant. I thought it had to do with the love affair between Katherine Watson and Bill Dunbar. How very “socially constructed” of me!
In the scene where Betty Warren tells her mother how unhappy she is, I finally understand what Betty understands. The predestined life of marriage (or any other socially constructed role) is just a ‘show’ that doesn’t necessarily mean true happiness. It’s just a “fake smile” so that everyone will approve of you, treat you well, give you privileges and other “fine” things. There is no originality in a socially constructed part. It’s just an act any person can fill. It’s all impersonal and meaningless.
People who don’t keep up the “Mona Lisa Smile” risk losing privilege, status, wealth, and stability that comes through acting out a socially constructed part. For instance, a network, jobs, and/or advancement. It could be career related, or family related, or related to a religion or belief system, or a social circle. Everything we’re tied to is some sort of network that we play along with to get a need met.
But that fine network is also a well-crafted prison.
It’s all the “have to’s,” and “shoulds,” we complain about because we know if we drop the ball we’ll lose “everything” that rests on that infrastructure. We’re surrounded by these ideas everyday. We’re consumed by them as a nation. The media and marketing make sure to keep them in place. These ideas run us like mindless drones, to our jobs and back home again, all the while we are dying a little more each day. We get more crazy and less compassionate with each moment. We know we’re losing to something greater than ourselves and that nags at us because we know it is empty. What we really long for is creeping away from us. Our dreams. Our passions. Our expressions. Our voices. Experiences that make us feel truly alive and worthy because its authentic, genuine, and spontaneous.
I realized I was like that. I once sat at a job like a drone. I compromised the things I wanted for the things people around me wanted. I did this for 9.5 years thinking nothing amiss, except this growing frustration inside me that I couldn’t quite soothe. Every time I worked hard to get something “right” in a job, or in a church, or with a person I knew, I came up short. Never making the mark. Never making people quite happy enough. That frustration began to fester like an uncontrollable monster inside of me. I was angry I could never get it right. No matter how hard I tried or how much I believed in myself. I was never enough in that lifestyle.
For years I thought I was a victim of a lot of bad things. I thought I was a bad thing. I thought I met a lot of cruel people. I thought I was fighting battles that would move me up some sort of scale. As though I would reach some “higher level” that would graduate me to a “good” person, maybe even an awesome person like a hero or a guru. I thought I was fighting some battle of “good and evil” and if I could conquer the evil I would become a victorious winner of perfection and then become worthy and loved by everyone.
But tonight I realize it isn’t so much about “good and evil” that I’m fighting for, but rather the right to exist as myself.
I have the right to reject ideas of perfection. The right to express how I want to, to have emotions if I want to, to get a divorce if I want to. I get to choose respect instead of the status quo. I’ve fought for my right to bear my soul how I choose and never give up ownership because of traditions, or patriarchal rules, or sexist rules. And I’ve realized that people will literally beat you into submission to take that away from you, if you let them.
I look back at all the times I’ve been verbally, emotionally, or psychologically beat down. All the times that kept me from being myself, kept me quiet, kept me “in line,” and kept me feeling like a total failure. I now feel utterly triumphant because while it worked for a time, it didn’t keep me down for good. Now I see those times represent how I’ve pushed back against this oppression that haunts us all.
Every fight meant I wasn’t taken hostage by an idea.
I stand up for myself. I fight for myself. I believe in myself so much I lost everything to hold on to myself. I lost everything. I sacrificed “the smile” for a genuine and meaningful life. I filed for a divorce and celebrated being free of oppressiveness. I celebrated not raising my daughter in daily arguments and broke free of possessiveness and control. I had to let go of my friends and family for a while so that I could have the right to live my life how I chose to. I had to lose everything to find that. To find myself between the lines of so many ideas others have in our culture.
When my job of 9.5 years would not even so much as thank me for a year’s worth of hard work, and it was the hardest year I ever worked, I could not take it anymore. I moved on. And then I moved out-of-state. I lost everything again. All my stuff came down to what would fit with three people in a mid-sized sedan. That was the lowest point in my life.
The world of “have tos” and “shoulds” and “you betters” and “or else” and “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” and “why didn’t you?”… All those constraints that made a prison in my mind, had finally reached its toll and I cracked. I moved to Oregon for a few months. Experienced another terrible relationship. Experienced another falling out with a friend. Experienced another therapist that could not figure out what was “wrong” with me and prescribed me drugs, which he said he never did to his patients. I was at rock bottom. No social world. No work. No love interest. No family. Just my young daughter and me and one long distant friendship. And for five long months I just laid in my bedroom on foam padding and a sleeping bag. We had no furniture. No TV. Few clothes. Just a strange apartment, in a strange city. I never slept so much in my life. I was so depressed I played the same album in my car stereo for months straight. It had become my medicine.
All these years I thought I was wrong. I thought my misery meant I was wrong. I thought my anxiety and lack of confidence meant I was wrong. I thought being totally alone made me wrong. I made many people angry in my life. I did a lot of things that put people into a rage. But now I see I’m not a bad person. I’m not wrong. It was that none of these people could own me and trap me in a cage of conformity. None of these people could make me see life their way so that I’d follow along. I wasn’t wrong. It was them all along. They were angry because I didn’t do what they thought I should do. I didn’t follow along with their “rules.”
And to make sure I understood how I should never break the rules they told me about my “failures” through stigmas. I am just a woman, which of course means I am mentally ill. I am a bitch. I am selfish. I am cold-hearted. I am uncooperative. Stubborn. Insincere. Bi-polar. Too picky. I don’t understand people. I’m too sensitive. I don’t get along. And worst of all, what will the neighbors think? I even got called a “whore” once for playing a practical joke on someone. Since the other girl who did the joke with me was their best friend and played by all their rules, she was never ousted and called such names. But I realize I am not these things. I am not at fault. And most of all, these problems of anger and judgement do not equal who I am. Instead I see people have jaded perceptions of others.
And so to them, I know it could never mean I am creative, dedicated, strong-willed, a fighter for what is right, diplomatic, empathic, intuitive, I know what I want, and I’m a believer in myself and everything I’ve ever wanted. I have a right to live my life full of experiences where I can express my soul without the guidance or correction of another human being telling me what I should or shouldn’t do or whether I performed close enough to perfection or not.
I realize tonight, I don’t have a long history of baggage. I don’t have a long history of poor choices. I don’t have a history of being a victim. I just have a long history of people who couldn’t see me clearly and who didn’t know how not to live by the rules.
And I don’t sit idle in suffocating situations. I know exactly who I am and I move out of unhealthy situations. But there is no “healthy” in Capitalism, it is a system of competition, extremes, hierarchy, judgement, control, dominating ideas, and winner-takes-all attitudes.
I was born not to conform.
Just like Katherine Watson in the movie Mona Lisa Smile, I do not give myself up. My life has been a continual set of circumstances where I freed myself from emotional, verbal, psychological and physical slavery (and the list keeps growing).
The most powerful part of this movie is not Katherine Watson liberating herself from Wellesley College. The most powerful scene is when Betty Warren is running Giselle Levy into the ground for being a “whore.” The scene builds up to the point where you’re just waiting for Giselle to haul off and clock Betty in the face. Instead, Giselle grabs Betty and holds her tight until Betty is sobbing about the pain of her own husband neglecting her.
For so long I saw other people’s attacks on me as abusive. I couldn’t see their pain. I couldn’t see the prisons they live in and the lashing out as an attempt to free themselves from that which tears them away from their own souls. I couldn’t see how it suffocates their expression to the point of rage. But I see that now. Check out this scene that truly defines a person that knows who she is (Giselle) and a person that has let her life be run by other people to the point where she cracks (Betty).
In this culture, being true to your soul is a continual sacrifice. Everything Capitalism stands for goes against our souls. Life is hard because of a system that is completely opposite of who we are as people. It’s a constant temptation for us to ‘sell out’ one decision at a time until we are so ingrained with these ideas we have no idea they are the constant itch that drives us mad.
There is a term called Stockholm Syndrome, defined as a victim’s emotional bonding to their abuser where they will defend and justify the abuser’s actions. So many of us have ‘sold out’ for Capitalism and the oppression that comes with it that we suffer this syndrome as a country. We defend the very ideas that keep us enslaved to harmful behaviors towards ourselves, others, animals, and the environment. But I think we can change this together!
If you want a truly meaningful life, you’re going to have to start asking yourself what it is that you want. It’s a tough question, especially if the answer that makes you feel best is only because you know others will like you for it,… because it’s their idea.
If you want a happy life, find what makes you feel passionate and fulfilled. If you want a happy world, give your happiness away to others around you.
Here is Ash Beckam’s perspective on this:
Do you have a time where you chose other than what you knew others wanted you to choose? Do you have something you hid for a long time because people wouldn’t approve? Anything goes! I’d love to hear other people’s stories.