Last spring, I was asked to attend a book discussion of Seduced by Mrs. Robinson by Beverly Gray. Published on the fiftieth anniversary of The Graduate, it is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie. Admittedly, I had not even seen the film, but I knew it by reputation and was excited by what I understood of the movie’s premise: an exploration of the dynamics of a relationship between a younger man and an older woman. The night before the event, I decided to finally sit down with the film.
It was not as I had anticipated. In fact, I found the film deeply disturbing. I went to the discussion with questions on my mind, and hopeful that some of what I was thinking would be brought up. Instead, it was a love-fest. I considered raising my hand, asking, but ultimately couldn’t bring myself to be the one to bring everyone else down. Instead, I kept turning over the phrase in my mind. “Mrs. Robinson is a sexual predator. Why isn’t anyone talking about this?”
Later, I ran this by a few of my female friends and colleagues, ones who had seen the film when it was released in 1967, four years before I was born. Their perspective was drastically different from my own. They felt that Mrs. Robinson’s behavior was okay, or at least not too bad—forgivable, funny, excusable by her desperation, and while she wasn’t intended to be likable, she was at least relatable. Much as I try to see it from that angle, I still find it problematic.
I do get that the movie was subversive for its era. It illustrated a double standard. It empowered Mrs. Robinson in ways that were unheard of at the time. There was enough backstory to help us see her almost as a victim of her time, and somewhat vulnerable, but is that really an excuse? Do we so readily excuse that kind of bad behavior in men?
Let’s consider this for a moment:
You throw a party and a male family friend insists your daughter, no one else, drive him home. Would you be okay with that? It would be weird, for sure, but maybe okay, depending on the friend?
Let's go further. It's late at night and when they arrive and despite her protestations he insists she come in with him. She does so reluctantly, to be polite. Still good with it? I guess, maybe, depending on the circumstances?
Then he pours her a drink.
Never mind that she's not even of age yet. She takes it, again to be polite, and because he won’t take no for an answer. He starts getting personal. Then, when she realizes his motives she calls him on it, but instead of letting her leave he completely disrobes and locks her in a bedroom with him.
So now your daughter is standing in a room with a naked man twice her age who won't let her leave.
Still okay with this?
Now, imagine it were your son. Does your sense of what’s okay and what's not okay shift with this gender reversal? Men—even very young men—are expected to have outrageous sex drives. Problematic assumptions about the male libido make it easier to be dismissive of Mrs. Robinson’s behavior. The concept of enthusiastic consent isn’t exclusive to girls. As a mother of sons, one of whom is closest to the age of Benjamin Braddock, I can say that, were it my son, it would be definitively not okay.
Today, in the age of consent, Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, we must be careful not to gloss over the fact that women can be predatory, too. As we hold the magnifying glass up to the lives of those in power, we must be ready to turn that lens back toward ourselves, if only to be certain that we are living up to our own expectations of others.
A couple of mitigating facts regarding Mrs. Robinson: It is worth noting that she was conceived of by men, likely for men, and therefore represents a male-centric vision of what’s sexually and socially acceptable. Would a woman have written it that way? I have my doubts. Also, it’s a routinely exploited male fantasy to be seduced by a beautiful, experienced older woman. Is this story no different? It is.
As viewers, we never quite get inside of Mrs. Robinson’s experience. We’re given a few sparse facts: unwanted pregnancy, marital dissatisfaction, and her resultant alcohol abuse; we want to feel something for her, and we do—a twinge of recognition, maybe, or sympathy? That isn’t enough. If it were, then any bad behavior could be dismissed by mitigating facts.
Please don’t misunderstand me: There is nothing—absolutely nothing—wrong with a May-December romance between any genders. Love is love is love. The same goes for attraction. Sex is not always about love. We all know that sometimes the best sex is just about sex. Mrs. Robinson would likely have very much enjoyed the sex-positivity of today's world. There is no doubt that Mrs. Robinson needed more from her life. She just went about it the wrong way.
If Benjamin Braddock, from the moment he first realized Mrs. Robinson was trying to seduce him, had given his enthusiastic consent, it would have been a very different movie. I would have cheered them all the way through, even through the ambiguous ending. But for those first few unsettling scenes, it could have been that movie. But it wasn’t.
Ann Bancroft is hot. Who wouldn’t want to take her to bed? But her willingness to manipulate and coerce is loathsome. We need to step back and rethink her actions in light of our own cultural moment. The movie will still be great. It will still be that touchstone so many needed at that time. Mrs. Robinson has not changed; it is we who must change the way we think about her in order to change ourselves.
Cati Porter is a poet, editor, essayist, arts administrator, wife, mother, daughter, friend. She is the author of eight books and chapbooks, most recently The Body at a Loss (CavanKerry Press). Her poems have appeared in MockingHeart Review, Verse Daily, Contrary, West Trestle, So to Speak, The Nervous Breakdown, and others, as well as many anthologies. Her personal essays have appeared Salon, The Manifest-Station, and Zocalo Public Square. Established in 2005, she is founder and editor of Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry. She lives in Riverside, California with her family, where she directs Inlandia Institute, a literary nonprofit.