Here's to you Mrs Robinson... Wait, what?

I had never watched 'The Graduate', but because of the popular culture surrounding Mrs Robinson's mythical figure as a liberated and liberating woman, I always believed that she was some sort of positive influence - a woman younger than her years educating a younger man on ways older than his years.

Mrs Robinson is, however, not a positive influence - not in the graduate's life, not in her daughter's life, and definitely not in ours.

The character of Mrs Robinson is disappointing to me for three main reasons, as I shall lay out below.
Her attempted seduction of Benjamin at the beginning is disturbing. She does everything she can to get the boy in bed with her; Mr Robinson arrives in due course and we wonder whether he would indeed have slept with her if he had had a longer time alone with her. But his repeated cries of 'No' are not exactly the consent that is required for a healthy relationship. It is this lack of consent that leaves me to wonder, had Mr Robinson not arrived, if Mrs Robinson would have forced Benjamin to have sex with her. 

This is an important point in the tenets of society's so-called masculinity, for while Benjamin had repeatedly said no, if he was taken advantage of he would have been loathe to name it rape in terms of society's rape culture for men. Furthermore, if he had never contacted Mrs Robinson again to embark on a sexual relationship, he would have been ridiculed - by himself at least - for not being 'man enough'. Thus he was in essence forced to do what he did, as everyone around him constantly told him he was now a 'man'. Can we really assume that his call to her to agree to her offer is simply because he was a horny young man? Why had he waited so long to indulge in sexual activity if this was the case?
Though Mrs Robinson taught Benjamin the ins and outs of sex, she certainly did not become a positive influence for him. Understandably, this should not be her position as she is not his parent nor his mentor, but it becomes increasingly obvious that she indulges him as she would a child. Their sexual encounters appear to be entirely one-sided: aside from practically forcing herself on him at the start of the film, Benjamin is often seen lying prone on the bed as she undresses herself and him, where he remains as she enters and leaves. Indeed, his trysts with her do nothing but seem to point Benjamin into unhealthy and yet more selfish acts, such as smoking and thinking of his own discomfort when choosing to break his promise and take Mrs Robinson's daughter out on a date. Certainly I am perhaps overlooking Mrs Robinson's own selfish motives for accepting a young lover, such as a need to be desired or overcoming a marriage she felt forced to enter into. I am also projecting my previous belief in a Mrs Robinson onto the character, and this shows what an effect popular cultural beliefs can have on you when you haven't actually seen the reference personally.
By far the most disappointing aspect of Mrs Robinson's character is lying to her daughter that Benjamin had raped her. Mrs Robinson's free sexuality is a representation of the free sex era of the '60s in which 'The Graduate' was made, but this reference is appalling to me: not only was it an unnecessary lie (she disliked her husband anyway and it was only a matter of time before she would leave him), but it points directly to the culture of rape and victim blaming, falling right into stereotypes of women as seducers and deceivers, of how they set honey traps only to blackmail and punish men. Not that the truth would have changed anything...

And then, though we, the viewers, know that Mrs Robinson is lying, her daughter does not and yet either regards it as a lie after hearing Benjamin's side of the story or completely overlooks the fact that the man she runs off with at the end of the film is a rapist!
I don't intend to criticise the filmography of 'The Graduate'. By all accounts it is an iconoclast because of what it attempted to do on film and also because it was one of the few films at the time to include a soundtrack almost exclusively performed by Simon and Garfunkel (it actually knocked The Beatles' 'White Album' off the top of the charts). It managed to make Benjamin's post-college doldrums utterly real and threw in some comedic effects that made the audience question itself rather than simply laugh at the movie. Indeed it is a forerunner to some of our most inner-looking films. But as it holds this position and is held up as an example of what relationships with older women should be and can turn out to be, its views on rape and women leave much to be desired.

Criticisms aside, Mrs Robinson's character is in fact the only interesting character in the film. I read reviews where Benjamin was lauded as a man of his generation, but which generation was that? The generation of youngsters who have no idea who they really are and are perfectly happy to float at the bottom of swimming pools in scuba suits? It was only out of pure luck that Mrs Robinson decided to make use of him. Indeed, he was more symbolic of his parents' generation, being set on a traditional marriage rather than creating a loveshack with Elaine.

Mrs Robinson is the single most interesting character of them all, with wit, sarcasm, articulation, intelligence, a dramatic past, and courage to do what she wants to do. Even her divorce from Elaine's father by the end of the film was something looked down upon in those days. As cinema's first cougar it is however obvious that her representation was not dependent on reality and neither is today's view of the cougar.

Just take 'The Boy Next Door' as an example: If he doesn't fall in love with you, stalk you, and try to kill your loved ones, he'll do it to your daughter instead.

{Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0}


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