Friday, August 25, 2006

Mona Lisa's puzzled look

Last night, the movie Mona Lisa's Smile was on TV. I was busy doing something else, but I caught ten minutes of it somewhere in the middle, and I sat down for the last ten minutes or so. From what I gather, it was scened in the mid-1950's. The main character played by Julia Roberts came from forward thinking California to be an art history teacher at ultra-conservative Wellesly. She was alarmed that so many Wellesly girls were seeking their "MRS." degree, and she sought to broaden their thinking. This culminated in her persuading the only married girl in the bunch to dissolve her unhappy marriage and in persuading another to forget her fiance in favor of law school.
Now, I didn't see enough of the movie to critique it or its message. However, it did set me to thinking about the long cultural journey that the first world countries have taken during my own little lifetime. I was born a couple of years later than when the movie supposedly took place -- but my birth certificate certifies that I am, indeed, a mid-1950's antique.
At any rate, in the era of the story and of my birth, the cold war was creating tension. There was a low divorce rate, and more families stayed intact. Unfortuantely, more people were racist, some of them openly and violently so.
The majority of people in my native U.S. went to church. Was that because more people had true faith or because of tradition? Obviously, that's not for me to say.
The first world, particularly the U.S. , was heading into a period of prosperity, which reflected the best of hard work and discipline at its beginning and the worst of materialism at its height.
Some people look back and think that women were depressed by being forced into the role of homemaker. They forget that in this same era, men died at alarmingly high rates from uclers and heart attacks. They got these through the stress of fighting for position on the corporate ladder. "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" went to an office while his wife stayed home, but he wasn't necessarily happier there than she was in her kitchen. This corporate world angst and materialistic rat race would eventually lead to the sixties cry, "Tune in, turn on, and drop out."
Today, we have eradicated a lot of racism, which is great. We know that since humans are still humans, it will flame up again in some ugly form, but, for now, we can say we have made some great strides in that area. Unfortunately, we have also created a high divorce rate that was unthinkable in the 50's Moreowver, sins that were practiced by a shamed few in private in the 1950's are now practiced openly by many and receive the approval of many more. Fewer people take part in church today, but, perhaps (and this is just a perhaps), those that do participate give it more thought. Schools have attempted to better meet the needs of students, but, in their attempt, they have unwittingly "dumbed down education". Technological and medical advances have been boons to our lives, but also problematic at the same time.
The various political crusades of the past few decades have changed society, for good or for ill. As a certified antique, I have witnessed this change and can attest to it. The fact is, we do live in a society that that is --on the surface -- vastly altered from the fictional one portrayed in Mona Lisa's Smile. It is also transformed from the real one in which I grew up.
The point of view espoused by Julia Robert's character would never raise an eyebrow on any of today's campuses. In fact, I rather imagine that her character would be viewed as being on the conservative side. Today, it's the woman who thinks outside of the box drawn by this character and her real life counterparts who riles people's indignation.
My point is that both critics and fans of mid-twentieth century lifestyles miss an important point. We can and should effect powerful changes through political and social dialog. However, how far can these changes really take us?
It's my impression of Mona Lisa's Smile that the movie dealt in stock characters and revolved around a worn-out plot. It stereotyped all that a person with a liberal, feminist viewpoint would find horrifying about the fifies. The characters seemed shallow and one-dimensional, and the Wellesley setting appeared skewed in order to create the villian of the story -- "the bad old establishment".
Yet, as somone who has not only witnessed a widespread moral decline in the last few decades, but has repented of personally participating in it, I am drawn to equally shallow stereotpyes of teh '50's.. I miss the good things of that mid-century middle-class life had to offer: moms at home, a politer populus, wholesome entertainment, etc. Thus, I'm a sucker for cheerful represenations of these things. I simply prefer my stereotypical images to have a more positive spin than the ones used by the makers of Mona Lisa's Smile.
So, what do we make of the changes we'e been through since the movie took place? The apparently peaceful Eisenhower years and the following tumult of the sixties and early seventies do fascinate us. I think we are still reckoning with the great cultural shifts that occured during that time. But, I think we have to be wary of either villifying or idealizing a particular decade in history.
Political movements come and go. Moral thought and behavior swings from one extreme to the other. Religious ideas come in and out of vogue. When these ideas sweep in, we always think they are new. But, the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and a thorough reading of history reveal that they aren't.
Mankind sees problems -- real problems. But, mankind attempts to cure these through human philosophy and effort. You see this by all of the "isms" that people championed in the decades right before and right after Mona Lisa's smile took place -- feminism, communism, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, pacifism, federalism, facism, capitalism, etc.
There is a place in life for political "isms". I couldn't make an "ism" word out of the words democracy or political freedom. But, they were causes that people championed to the benefit of our society. I am thankful to be able to vote and to exercise religious freedom, and I am concious that I have these rights because people were willing to die for their beliefs.
I, personally, would love to hold on to the societal advances we have made in my lifetime -- such as dimishing racism -- and yet, I'd love to also reach back and pick up a few of the good things we've lost -- such as a greater respect for manners.
However, when all is said and done, we always have to check ourselves: Are we fighting the right battle? Yes, people looked at the limitations of 1950's society and sought to change them. In doing so, we have gained some things and have lost others.
Mona Lisa's Smilefocused on one narrow struggle particular to that time's feminist movement: Should women consider home and family their career, or should they pursue fulltime careers outside of the home? Like many feminists, the main character saw women who weren't reaching their intellectual or personal potential. She sought to free them by orienting their thinking away from traditional roles and towards new possibilities. The anti-feminist movement has also focused its battle along this same narrow line. It fights to regain the dignity once accorded to women at home. It hopes to broaden a woman's thinking by showing her that marriage and domestic life are not limiting. It is actually a role in which you can exercise your intellectual or personal potential.
Negotiating marriage and outside work is still an important issue for women. But, is it the foundational issue of a woman's life? I think not. Today, we can see that simply moving women from the kitchen to the workplace did nothing to answer the deep questions of their souls. Nor, did it guarantee their happiness.
If, now, we move women back to the kitchen from the workplace, I personally think this is the wiser choice. However, we still will have done nothing to help women determine their true meaning in life.
Society has changed in many ways, and today's woman has all of the opportunities that the character in of Mona Lisa desired for her students. Are we better or worse off because the majority of women now work ouside of the home? You decide.
The larger question is, why do women of the 2000's still wake up every morning with the same questions women had in the 1950's?
Whether they engage in a career or not, women struggle with the same kinds of urgent matters their mothers did: How will we pay to get my car repaired? Can we make this month's mortgage? Why is little Johnny getting in so much trouble these days? Why can't I get along with my husband? Why has my mother always hurt me with her drinking? Will my elderly father still be able to live on his own after his heart surgery, or should I insist he move in with us? To these quandries, the career path has added a few new ones: What kind of career should I seek? Will I get the promotion I want? What should I do about office gossip? Can I find a job that pays more and isn't as boring as this one is? I've made it to the top; now what?
Behind those urgent questions are deeper ones: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life in general? What is the meaning of my life, in particular? Why do I feel empty or vaguely guilty? Why don't my relationships ever work out the way I dreamed they would? Why do I keep doing the harmful things I don't want to do? Why don't I ever live up to the good things I want to do? Why do other people act the way they do? Why is there so much suffering in the world?
Behind this second set of questions are the most important ones of all: Who is my Creator? What is this wall of sin I have built between Him and me, and why can't I scale it? Since I can't take it away myself, who will save me? Do I know my Creator and my Savior? Does He know me?
Until a person -- male or female -- finds the answers to this last set of questions -- until he or she is rightly related to God through Christ -- that person cannot answer any of the lesser questions in his or her life. Particulary, a woman will not be able to wisely choose whether she should work fulltime outside of the home or be a fulltime keeper of her home. If a woman discovers the real source of her life's meaning, her labors in any arena will be sweeter. If she doesn't, nothing will completely satisfy her.
As we mentioned earlier, Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun. Solomon explored all of the questions that women asked in the 1950's and still ask in the 2000's. He started with his focus squarely on God, but he diluted that with false religion. From there, he slipped into the futility of human reasoning. He pondered and pondered the meaning of life "under the sun", or, in other words, from an earthly viewpoint. He tried coming at life from every angle: materialism, hedonism, etc.
As a powerful and wealthy king and as the man on whom God had bestowed much wisdom, Solomon had more opportunity to change his society than any of us do. If any human could have made his culture work the way he thought it should, it would have been Solomon. In all of his meditations and his actions and his projects, he failed, however. He grew more frustrated and bewildered.
Finally, he came back to one solid truth -- the one that made everything else in life fall into place for him. Through the inspiration of God's Spirit, he recorded this truth for our benefit: "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." Ecclesiastes 12:13-14.
Later, Jesus demonstrated that the answer to life is not found in an "ism", but in Him. He said,
"I am the way, the truth, and the life." Again, he said, "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."
I believe whole-heartedly that being a keeper of my home, as God commends in Titus Chapter Two, means that I should actually be in the home to keep it. And, I have no trouble sharing with other women why that is my conviction. In fact, I err too much on the side of making that a personal soapbox. When it comes right down to it, however, that is not a good place for me or anyone else to start a convesation. Nor, I pray, is it the main message of my life.
After all, the apostles and the early church did not preach themselves or their personal soapboxes. They did not get sidetracked by social issues. They simply preached the message of the gospel, and they walked as Christ walked Through this message, God transformed people's souls one by one. The results were so powerful that they were accused of "turning the world upside down." Acts 17:6
As Paul said, "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: That Christ died for our sins acccording to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." I Cor. 15:3.
Now that's the message that will truly change the world and set a woman free.


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plainandsimple said...

Hi Elizabeth

I really enjoyed this post for it's balance and thoughtfulness. I have similar views on the burgeoning "keeper of the home" movement, because on most things in life I'm a "moderate" "middle ground" type of person. I also feel that to go forward we must not look through rose tinted spectacles at the past. My own family history tells me that people had their problems no matter what year they were born. We have a real opportunity to make the world a better place NOW. We can look at the past and take the best from it without the need to go back there.

plainandsimple said...

Hi Elizabeth
I commented on this post a little while ago, but it wasn't published. I could have been my PC playing up and if it was forgive me *or* you may have thought my comment a bit "in your face" LOL. If that's so I'm so sorry me I get a little over excited at times! Just to say I'm so happy that a blogger has put so much thought into this issue.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Plain and simple,

I'm so sorry, but I never saw your original comment. Don't ever worry about any comment of yours being too "in my face" or about getting over-excited when you write.

As long as someone is neither obscene or thoughtlessly cruel -- neither of which I can imagine your ever being -- I welcome all comments. Sometimes, a stirring dialog helps me sort out my own thoughts.

I wondered if I communicated well in this post, anyway. I would love to hear another person's point of view.

I think I figured out what happened to your comment. Someone left a blog title in the comments section of this article, but they did not leave any comment along with the blog title. Maybe, they were having trouble getting a comment through to my blog, too. If so, I hope they will comment again.

But, I got funny little feeling when I saw a title and no comment. I wondered if someone could leave a link on my site, without caring about the blog or its readers. I wasn't sure if there could be anything harmful about this or not.

So, I went into my template and checked the option of reviewing all comments before they are published. Thirty minutes or so later, I decided I was being overly cautious. I want readers to be able to comment freely. So, I went back and unchecked that option.

Anyhow, if you posted during the time the option was checked, your comment may be somewhere waiting for me to review it and I just don't know how to get to it.

As an experienced blogger, you may be able to give me some advice about what to do with blog titles with no accompanying comment.

If you don't mind sending your comments again, please do.


plainandsimple said...

Hi Elizabeth
I wish I could help you with your technical problems but I am completely useless at that kind of thing!

My original comment was entirely in support of your article. The link between a love of the past and what can be loosely called the "keeper of the home" movement is a strong one. However, I think you're completey right. I know from my family that home life was not all that rosy in the 1950s, the Victorian times or the 1930s. I've researched my family history and older relatives have been frank with me about their lives and (without going into too much detail)life for those women was hard. I also think that the 1960s taught us a lot about equality and loving our fellow man, also the hippies had a lot of good stuff to say about living simply and respecting the Earth. I think if the movement is to go forward (and I think it is becoming a movement) then we need to look to the future. We can take the good points from previous eras; manners, strong family structure, respect for our elders; but we also need to acknowledge that they made terrible mistakes too. Nostalgia is a lovely thing (I'm a truly nostalgic person)but we need to balance a love of the past with and eye on the future.

I loved this article - that's why I contacted you again - at heart I'm just a bossy boots!

Elizabeth said...

Hello, PLain and Simple,

I am so glad that your comment came through! As a fellow Queen of Nostalgia, I totally agree with you.

I am wired to love things from the past, and would be even if there was no cultural struggle over the role of keeper at home. Since my culture does continually assault the choice I've made to be keeper at home, I naturally look to a "more homekeeper friendly past" for inspiration and education. There's nothing wrong with that. The past has a great deal to teach us.

However, I so have to balance this with this Ecclesiastes 7:10 -- "Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions."

Since Eve ate the forbidden fruit and sin entered the world, things have been off-kilter. As a result, women from every era have longed for more graciousness, more wholesomeness, more loveliness, more romance. But, these longings are a symptom of a deeper need to know God. The only unfallible place to rest our searching hearts is in Christ. And, he is the same yesterday, today, and tomrorow -- so he's just as avialable to us today as he was to the women of the past.

So, the question is: How do we live our lives in a way that makes godliness attractive in our current culture, without compromising our convictions? I don't have all of the answers here. That's something I have to keep searching out with God.