The Other Charlotte and I have been using this space to express our views about Mona Lisa Smile, the god-awful (but inadvertently richly entertaining) movie about the efforts of humorless proto-feminist Wellesley art history Prof. Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) to open up the minds of the benighted students of this all-women’s college during the 1950s, who are programmed to think about nothing but marriage, even to the point of taking etiquette classes as part of the Wellesley curriculum. (See our Mona Lisa Files on Jan. 7, 8, and 9.) Now a real Wellesley grad from the Fifties, author Judith Martin, has used her syndicated “Miss Manners” newspaper column to blast away at the movie (in her refined Miss Manners style, of course) as glaringly inaccurate, starting with the fact that Wellesley, always an academic powerhouse, never taught etiquette, during the 1950s or any other time.
The blast is a rare departure from Miss Manners’s usual subject matter, which is etiquette advice, not movie reviewing. The Other Charlotte and I are pleased to see such an elegant concordance with our own views about this appalling piece of Hollwood 1950s revisionism:
“For one thing, the practice of etiquette is not an academic subject (nor, by Wellesley’s standards, was journalism, another field into which Miss Manners later fell headfirst). The history and theory of manners are academic subjects, but even now few academics understand this element of philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology and literature.
“For another thing, it would have been superfluous, as all the students, not just prissy Miss Manners, knew basic etiquette. This was not because they attended an expensive school, but because etiquette was something all children had to suffer through at home.
“Innocent of the history of etiquette, the film is rife with anachronisms. Students were given the dignity of being addressed by title and surname, and faculty eschewed the title of ‘doctor,’ since their doctorates were taken for granted. ‘Poise’ was a word associated with beauty contests, which were disdained; the term ‘gracious living’ was said as a joke.
“More deeply, the film fails to question the assumption that female students were at Wellesley to pursue marriage, when accomplishing this required an exactly equal number of males with the same goal. Whether they first establish their families and then build their careers, as then, or reverse the order, as now, does not strike Miss Manners as much of a change.”
Do read the column it its entirety.