Re-examining a woman's role

Roberts movie, Keaton comedy revive old questions

December 26, 2003|By Mimi Avins | Mimi Avins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The question, Dr. Freud, is not what do women want, but what should women do? Should they be wives and mothers or captains of industry, domestic drones or divas, islands of independence or fools for love?

Through the 1970s and '80s, women believed they were supposed to strive to have it all, and if they couldn't simultaneously manage a fabulous career, a loving relationship (with a record-setting sex life) and at least a well-adjusted pet, not to mention brainy, happy children, then they were a disgrace to their gender. Today, they're not so sure.

Two new movies revive the debate about feminine roles. Mona Lisa Smile, which opened last week, depicts a time when society forced women onto a path as constricting as their girdles. Something's Gotta Give, the hit comedy about mid-life romance, could be seen as an unintentional sequel that looks in on the life of a smart, successful woman 50 years later.

Mona Lisa Smile opens in 1953, as Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), a bohemian professor of art, arrives at Wellesley College, where the administration gives lip service to its brilliant students dedicating themselves to the pursuit of knowledge. Actually, the pursuit of a wedding ring is the priority, and one the school sanctions. Fear crackles in the air like summer lightning - fear of subversiveness, of nonconformity and, above all, the terror of spinsterhood.

Rachel Greenwald, Wellesley class of '86, learned about the class of '54 from her mother. "She told me that when she was there, the purpose of a fine education was to make you appealing as a wife," Greenwald says. "Ninety percent of her friends were either pinned, engaged or married by the time they graduated."

When Greenwald graduated, she didn't know any married students. "We got advanced degrees and jobs immediately after college and waited to find mates and have children. At Wellesley, I was surrounded by very dynamic women, most of whom expected to become partners in law firms and managing directors of investment banks. They believed they could have it all, that there were no choices involved."

Greenwald wrote Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School for them and all the other women who - oops! - forgot to get married. "It's a sociological crisis," she says.

How we view Mona Lisa Smile is colored by the fact that we know what happened next. Lots of Wellesley girls went on to law school. One tucked her Yale law degree under her belt, married Bill Clinton, got to live in the White House, was publicly humiliated and successfully ran for the Senate. For many of her sisters, the freedom to kick at the glass ceiling became license to look down on women who stayed home. Hillary herself sounded defensive and condescending when she remarked in 1992: "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do is fulfill my profession."

Mona Lisa Smile producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas showed the movie on college campuses before it opened. "The young women say the movie brings up the same issues they're facing," she says. "`Can I have it all?' isn't the question. It's `Am I doing what I'm doing by choice?' Women of my generation who stayed home in the '80s were judged harshest by women who didn't. If we fight for choice, we have to respect all of it. That's the liberation."

To its credit, the movie doesn't pretend that Katherine's choices will lead to Nirvana any more than her students who marry young will end up in hell. Real lives are messy, full of wrong turns and compromises. "For me, having it all means I'm going to choose my own road," Goldsmith-Thomas says. "It's not what the choice is."

If a Wellesley graduate went on to become a successful playwright, married, had a daughter and got divorced, she might be Erica Barry, who Diane Keaton portrays in Something's Gotta Give. Things don't seem to have worked out so badly for Erica. She looks great, has a wonderful relationship with her daughter, professional acclaim and enough money to support a fine lifestyle.

Nancy Meyers, the writer-director, specializes in making entertainment of such up-to-the-minute fantasies. In 1987, Baby Boom, co-written with her ex-husband, Charles Shyer, featured Keaton as a charming powerhouse who walks away from the big business rat race and makes bushel baskets of money as an entrepreneur while fixing up her idyllic country home with one hand, and bonding with her adopted daughter with the other. All that and Sam Shepard in his aw-shucks prime. Talk about having it all! If Meyers' scenarios were less convincing, we would just groan and mumble, "Oh, sure." At her best, she can make us ask, "Why not?"

The backlash against having it all is being led by young women who say they don't want to become their mothers, who were perennially frazzled and frequently cranky. The reality of the liberation that Katherine advocates at Wellesley isn't a rose garden of intellectual challenge and fat paychecks.

"What I see today is that women don't know what course to choose, and having a lot of options doesn't make it any easier," says Kate White, editor of Cosmopolitan. "A lot of young women have said to me they don't want to work. But when I hear that, I often think about what Betty Friedan called `The Problem That Has No Name' - the dissatisfaction that women faced in the '50s when their day consisted of baking a good cake and mopping the floor till it shined. For how many decades have we been talking about these things?"

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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