The Graduate

A Gender Role Analysis of a Classic Film

The Graduate, a 1960s classic, is recognized as a landmark film due to its social themes regarding gender, fidelity and marriage in American suburbia. The “wholesome American” stereotype that was commonplace a decade before was slowly dwindling away once the baby boomer generation became young adults. The turbulent 60s stripped away images of the “Stepford Wife” archetype whose goal was to manage households, raise children and take after her husband’s lead. Women were revolutionized and empowered with ideals of self-worth and independence on a larger scale. The Graduate’s core theme can be broken down to a general societal defiance. “The influential film is a biting satire/comedy about a recent nebbish, East Coast college graduate who finds himself alienated and adrift in the shifting, social and sexual mores of the 1960s” (Dirks, 2013). Benjamin Braddock, starred by Dustin Hoffman, and the infamous Mrs. Robinson, starred by Anne Bancroft, become the man and woman who defy the social customs. An older woman paired with a younger man, out of wedlock, is still a taboo in American culture. Four decades ago, a sexual relationship between the two would make the pair a social pariah. To make matters more complex, the daughter of Mrs. Robinson, Elaine, finds her way into the arms of Benjamin which causes more confusion for everyone involved. Social expectations remain a thematic focus for Ben, Elaine and Mrs. Robinson. Ben is supposed to go to graduate school, and later marry a nice young lady and live happily ever after (which is what seemingly occurs more or less when he runs off with Elaine in the resolution). Mrs. Robinson is supposed to be happy with her marriage and upper middle class lifestyle. The film aims to explore each character’s thoughts and the implications of their actions based on the social parameters. This essay will focus on matters centrally related to Mrs. Robinson and her daughter Elaine. Gender roles become restrictive upon the Robinson women in their respective circumstances; as a result, The Graduate realistically portrays stereotypes and the culture of the 1960s from the woman’s perspective.

Relationships representing older women and a younger man are growing in today’s society. Pop culture has glorified the term “cougar” to describe these relationships. But the numbers show that couples with a younger man and older woman were not prevalent a few decades ago. “The number of marriages between women who are at least 5 or 10 years older than their spouses is still small, 5.4 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively. But both rates doubled between 1960 and 2007” (Kershaw, 2009). The figure highlighted by Kershaw infers that apart from fidelity issues, Mrs. Robinson and Ben’s partnership was a taboo situation to begin with.

Mrs. Robinson was forward in her advances from the start. Her aggressive approach breaks gender roles as well. It is typically presumed that men are the ones who are to make the first moves when it comes to attracting a woman. With this in mind, a point can be made that “men are deeply attracted to a woman who knows what it’s all about and is sexually free” (Kershaw, 2009). This certainly describes Mrs. Robinson. She offers Ben the opportunity and although he is initially stunned by the proposition, he eventually reconsiders and they later house their scandalous relationship in a hotel reminiscent of the archetypal passionate affair. The gender role reversal here is that the older woman is more experienced and overall more sexual. Ben is the young adult who likely has yet to experience sexual relations with anyone based on the dialogue between him and Mrs. Robinson. In essence, “Mrs. Robinson is a compelling character—one of the most famous in film, in fact, but when one considers her in terms of gender representation it is clear that she is not compelling because of her achievements, but because of her status as something of a monster…whereas she should be upholding traditional values that are parallel with her status as a suburban wife, she is not happy with this life and instead of being heroic and abandoning it completely, she simply lives in these two spaces at once” (Smith, 2011). Living two separate existences makes her life unnatural. She lashes out at her unhappiness by doing something that is generally considered unacceptable.

Moreover, when discussing the implications of gender stereotypes, one must delve into Mrs. Robinson’s character portrayal further. Firstly, Mrs. Robinson’s birth name is never mentioned in the film. Even when the affair between her and Ben became something of a regular occurrence, the audience never discovers this. The effect relates to the social structure at the time. Married women of her stature lose their sense of personal identity and become the wife of someone. This is similar to the idea that women become property of their husband. The last name taken becomes her sole identity. In contrast, “Benjamin’s story is…‘active instead of passive’ and struggling ‘not to be used as an object’ like everything surrounding him” (Nixon, 2013). Mrs. Robinson’s dissatisfaction with life can be linked to her passionless marriage. Likely, she feels as though she is just a wife and not an individual of her own. Her affair with Ben becomes her escape from a troublesome reality. Matters proceed relatively well until the subject of her past, marriage and Elaine surfaces. “Remember the long fixed shot of Ben and Mrs. Robinson in bed, as he boyishly questions her about her college major while she, flicking the bedside lamp on and off, falls into the fathomless depths of isolation” (Winn, 2007). Ben learns that Mrs. Robinson married because she unexpectedly became pregnant. The tone of her voice implies that she had no desire to marry but it was customary that pregnancy naturally led to wed lock. The isolation described by Winn above is psychological. In the present she is with Ben having her exciting sexual affair. But in her mind, she is well aware that the social issues along with Ben being a young man of promise means that it is only a matter of time before she may lose his company. Her sign of jealousy towards the possibility of Ben getting into a relationship with her daughter forces her to act emotionally. The one thing keeping her mind away from her less than exciting marriage to Mr. Robinson is Ben. She cannot lose him under any circumstances.

Elaine’s character portrayal on the other hand focuses on a newer perspective in regards to the liberated modern woman. This woman is educated and more independent than her predecessor. In theory, she is exactly the opposite of her mother. Elaine returns from school to embark on an evening with the newly experienced Ben. Their relationship begins on a funny circumstance but things eventually proceed as it should. In the background however hangs Elaine’s mother, Mrs. Robinson, who is clearly distraught at the idea of Ben dating her daughter. In most cases this would be the perfect scenario. A young educated man and woman getting together is ideal for most parents. Mrs. Robinson of course clearly has other motives guiding her principles. Towards the end of the film, Mrs. Robinson clearly objects to Ben’s proposal. “Mrs. Robinson slaps Elaine twice across the face to bring her back to reality, but it doesn’t work” (Dirks, 2013). As Elaine and Ben flee the scene, they leave the situation in an interesting circumstance. The look they give each other implies uncertainty whereas moments ago they were clearly in undying love and devotion for each other. Although Elaine is the so called educated woman of the modern era, it is clear that the film is written to end on a conflicting note. The ending coincidentally highlights traditional values of partnership. Even a liberated woman such as Elaine marries in the resolution “thus confirming old beliefs about women and their roles” (Dirks, 2013). It is not however a one or the other rule. Elaine walks the line as a woman with her own mind who also shares the traditional values that marriage and relationships are founded upon. This contrasts her mother’s predicament simply because she has most of the choices her mother did not have at her disposal. Elaine can choose to live liberated, traditionally, or some combination of the two. Elaine’s character serves to mend the gap between different generations founded on different values, concerns and customs.

Ben is undoubtedly the protagonist of the film. His character brings forth themes of uncertainty, taboo, and youth culture. However, the woman’s perspective proves to be just as important to the film alongside Ben’s story. “The 1960s and the films that came out of the period reflect the tensions between the old and new order, especially in terms of gender. The reason The Graduate is such an excellent example of this tension is because it offers characters that show the full spectrum of the generational differences in terms of conceptualizing femininity or masculinity” (Smith, 2011). The role of women has different implications in regards to the love interests of Ben, young Elaine and the experienced Mrs. Robinson. One of these woman is educated, liberated and at times maintains traditional values of the previous generation. The other is the older woman who is unhappy with her life and chooses to break conventions for better or worse. In either circumstance, the woman’s perspective ultimately shows that gender roles and stereotypes are imbedded within American culture whether they are spoken of or not. Beyond the surface, one may uncover all of these examples that prove the different ideas society places upon the two genders and the generations past or present. The disclaimer to be noted is that neither Elaine nor Mrs. Robinson are necessarily right or wrong with their approach to womanhood. Every character is reminiscent of a lost sailboat “traveling toward an unpredictable, ambiguous future (Dirks, 2013). Each individual must find their own path through the circumstances and stereotypes that life places upon everyone.

References

Dirks, T. (n.d.). The Graduate (1967). In AMC Filmsite Movie Review. Retrieved September 23, 2013, from http://www.filmsite.org/grad.html.

Kershaw, S. (October 14, 2009). Rethinking the Older Woman-Younger Man Relationship. In New York Times. Retrieved September 23, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/15/fashion/15women.html?pagewanted=all.

Nixon, R. (n.d.). The Essentials: The Graduate . In Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved September 23, 2013, from http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/288405%7C0/The-Essentials-The-Graduate.html.

Smith, N. (December 7, 2011). Issues of Gender and Generation in the Film “The Graduate” (1967). In Article Myriad. Retrieved September 23, 2013, from http://www.articlemyriad.com/issues-gender-generation-film-graduate/2/.

Winn, S. (September 10, 2007). ‘The Graduate’ at 40: A defiant and astute film to be proud of. In San Francisco Gate. Retrieved September 23, 2013, from http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/The-Graduate-at-40-A-defiant-and-astute-film-2504455.php#page-1.