An Education

I watched An Education yesterday and I can’t stop thinking about how fantastic it was.

I don’t consider myself a movie buff or film critic by any means, so I’m sorry if this post is rather choppy. Usually when I like a movie I say, “It was so funny!” or, “What a great story!” or, “The acting was top notch!” or even, “What a great use of an original narrative device!” What I have never said is this: that movie meant something to me that I can’t explain.

I worry that I might drop some spoilers here, but even if I tell you the whole plot, it will still be worth watching. So take that caveat as you will. The plot is described:

It’s 1961 and attractive, bright 16-year-old schoolgirl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is poised on the brink of womanhood, dreaming of a rarefied, Gauloise-scented existence as she sings along to Juliette Greco in her Twickenham bedroom. Stifled by the tedium of adolescent routine, Jenny can’t wait for adult life to begin. Meanwhile, she’s a diligent student, excelling in every subject except the Latin that her father is convinced will land her the place she dreams of at Oxford University. One rainy day, her suburban life is upended by the arrival of an unsuitable suitor, 30-ish David (Peter Sarsgaard). Very quickly, David introduces Jenny to a glittering new world of classical concerts and late-night suppers with his attractive friend and business partner, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny’s girlfriend, the beautiful but vacuous Helen (Rosamund Pike). David replaces Jenny’s traditional education with his own version, picking her up from school in his Bristol roadster and whisking her off to art auctions and smoky clubs. Just as the family’s long-held dream of getting their brilliant daughter into Oxford seems within reach, Jenny is tempted by another kind of life. Will David be the making of Jenny or her undoing?

Seems like not the most original of plots. School girl falls for older man? Snore! That might be the main plot line, but the movie is called An Education because a teen crush isn’t really the point that packs the punch. It’s the 60s, and Jenny wonders what the point of an education is for a female. She wants to read English at Oxford, but the only career options available to women are basically school teacher and nurse. I wish I had written down quotes, and there aren’t really that many online, but there’s this one scene where she points out to her well-educated teacher, that well-educated women aren’t necessarily happy after graduation anyway. So what’s the point of the hardship?

A memorable piece of dialogue that I’m probably messing up is when Jenny’s teacher says to her, “You’re pretty and you’re smart. Does your boyfriend like pretty Jenny or smart Jenny?” In another scene, they visit Oxford and Jenny’s glamorous female friend wonders why all the university girls are so ugly. They come in pretty and they leave ugly! BIG spoiler alert: when Jenny is considering dropping out of school to get married, her parents agree that there’s no point furthering one’s education if you’ve got a husband anyway! But I really don’t wait to spoil the ending, so I’ll stop recapping the movie there.

To me, the movie was about doing things that are challenging because that’s what you owe yourself. It’s not necessarily about the value of an education, nor the hardships that specifically women face, nor about taking paths less travelled. It’s just about facing hardships despite the existence of an easier journey. And I think that’s why this “review” belongs on a feminist blog.

Because haven’t we all, at some point, wished we were happy fitting more of a mould? I believe that there are some women who just really loooove wearing heels and lipstick and dresses. Women who don’t care about becoming a CEO, or finding a cure for a disease, or starting a polytechnic school in a developing country. (Note, I don’t mean to mix the former two sentences as mutually inclusive.) Women who are happy doing what is generally accepted and expected of women. And if that is what they are happy, then hooray! I am happy that they are happy!

But for the rest of us, it’s hard to make unpopular choices. Maybe we’re choosing not to shave our legs. Maybe we’re choosing not to become mothers. Maybe we’re choosing to get a degree in what is traditionally viewed as a man’s field. Whatever it is, we know what we’re choosing it’s unpopular. And An Education was a story about choosing it anyway.

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