The Julia Roberts Movie that Predicted Elizabeth Warren

Several days ago, in the middle of the night, I sat up suddenly in the bed; the kind of brilliant “ah-ha!” moment that causes hip sprains in the elderly and scrambled terror-fleeing in the cat. However, before providing too many self-congratulations on the realization that had just come together, I reached for my Blackberry to hop on the ‘net and double check my movie-to-real life math. Lo and behold, late night logic prevailed.

All the way back in 2003, Julia Roberts played an intellectually arresting, softcore Beat professor at an elite, Ivy League Massachusetts school. The film, Mona Lisa Smile, is set in 1953, amidst the Cold War conformity of post-war, pre-second wave feminism America. There is much talk about finding a husband but not so much regarding Plato’s dialogues, as one might expect out of a blue-blooded institution. In this movie, Kirsten Dunst plays a character named Elizabeth Warren.

Massachusetts? The Ivy League? Structural gender bias? Elizabeth Warren? Where have we all heard this before?

Yes, it appears that an obscure, contextually problematic (in patches) Julia Roberts movie was sound enough to predict the meteoric rise of one Elizabeth Warren – the enigmatic Harvard Law professor, tireless consumer advocate, and, hopefully, soon to be junior senator of the Bay State.

If you recollect this movie at all, you’ll of course immediately realize that Dunst’s Warren and the Warren in RL are, at least in the beginning, alike in name only. In Mona Lisa Smile, whose plot concerns four students at Wellesley College and how each blossoms under Roberts’ tutelage, Elizabeth “Betty” Warren is less a left-wing messiah than she is an uptight, tampon-in-the-twat type. Determined to promote an old-world agenda in line with American values prior to the publishing career of another Betty – Friedan – Betty Warren writes passionate, snide editorials for the Wellesley student newspaper about the impropriety of birth control on campus, and the subversiveness of women who don’t regard marriage with the urgency of an appendectomy. She tosses around conservative cuss words like “liberal” and “progressive” with the same sneering prickishness we’ve come to expect out of Debbie Schlussel and other decidedly anti-modern-Warren women. She even spars with Roberts’ forward-thinking art history professor Katherine Watson in a sharply written, electric clash that brings to mind what an actual word duel between the real Warren and, say, Michelle Malkin might look like.

From MLS’s IMDB page:

Betty Warren: Don't disregard our traditions just because you're subversive.

Katherine Watson: Don't disrespect this class just because you're married.

Betty Warren: Don't disrespect me just because you're not.

Katherine Watson: Come to class, do the work, or I'll fail you.

Betty Warren: If you fail me, there will be consequences.

Katherine Watson: Are you threatening me?

Betty Warren: I'm educating you.

Katherine Watson: That's my job.

Yowza. There’s not too much of the real Warren present in the fake up to this point, but like any worthwhile cinema with a can-do spirit, Mona Lisa Smile is ready with a set of discussion topics that ring reminiscent of those surrounding the current Elizabeth Warren. While the film bears a predominantly feminist-oriented thesis, it also makes something of an attempt to juxtapose the privileged against the scholarship-assisted Wellesley girls. Betty, the daughter of a prominent college board member, gets a frilly society wedding with the state governor in attendance; Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, the crass, bombastic Gisele Levy, is suggested to be lower class, from a New York Jewish ghetto. The connection between women’s lib and economic disparity is certainly nothing new; the aforementioned Friedan discussed it at length in The Feminine Mystique and drew a bit of red scare fire for it. (Again, this all sounding familiar?)

Of course, in order to have an RL-Elizabeth Warren, we needed the talking points explored by Mona Lisa Smile to have come to light, which, thanks to the culture war that proceeded the story's time period, they largely have. It’s now okay to talk about diaphragms without gasping in abject horror; women who actively choose to forsake a career in favor of hands-on child rearing are fewer and far between, with those remaining acting out of personal conviction instead of societal pressure. Sure, the movie isn’t perfect – it occasionally preaches its liberation sermon with the subtlety of a Louisville Slugger against windshield glass, and who can forget the infuriating about-face of Julia Stiles’s Joan Brandwyn, whose Yale Law aspirations are inexplicably replaced by a sudden enthusiasm for housewife-ery. As Double XX Mag points out, real life Warren isn’t necessarily the shining beacon of salvation we’re all hoping for, either. But by far the most rewarding part is watching Dunst’s Warren transform from mudslinging reactionary to self-actualized woman on the verge of great, enormous achievements. By the film’s conclusion, there is perhaps law school in her future; Yale, even. And it’s not hard to picture the stubborn, fiercely opinionated Betty Warren going on to much more significant victories. Perhaps even a Congressional seat wouldn’t be too far of a stretch.

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