Here’s to Mrs. Robinson

Film still, The Graduate, 1967, MGM
The Graduate (film still), MGM, 1967.

As the 1960s progressed, mainstream media looked warily at a changing American sexual culture. In 1960 the Food and Drug Administration approved the marketing of Enovid, the first oral contraceptive, and by 1962, more than 1,000,000 women were “on the pill.” In 1965 the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that all women, not merely married women, had a right to a prescription. By 1967, as the Summer of Love attracted national attention, the old guard recognized that the standing sexual order, in which men (and more importantly) women remained chaste until marriage, was crumbling. While men and women had engaged in sexual relationships before marriage—and in extramarital affairs—well before the 1960s, the cultural shift reflected a broader willingness to admit to these actions rather than pretend adherence to the allegedly “natural” order (Allyn 2001).

Many concerned citizens agonized over the undue influence wielded by sexual rebels, with their disregard for traditional morality. Critics feared that sexual relationships would be robbed of their meaning as romance and commitment fell by the wayside in this casual sexual culture. But these alterations clearly appealed to a broader cross-section of the population as the marketplace and various media forms reflected a changed and still-changing America. Indeed, films of the latter part of the decade spoke to a shifting sexual climate. One of the most acclaimed films, The Graduate, complicated the view of those who led the charge in subverting the sexual value system. Rather than sex-crazed hippies, it’s Mrs. Robinson (played by Anne Bancroft), an affluent middle-aged woman, and a “straight” young man, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who embrace the possibilities of the so-called sexual revolution as they embark upon a secret affair.

At no point does the audience receive any sort of indication that the relationship between Mrs. Robison and Benjamin is meant to be romantic. Rather, it’’s a filler for both. It gives Benjamin an alternative to following the path laid before him after a stellar performance at university, and it gives Mrs. Robinson an escape from an unhappy, unfulfilling home life. Mrs. Robinson’s nude proposal of the affair takes place in her daughter Elaine’s childhood bedroom, and Benjamin’s response is a hilarious mixture of anxiety and terror. After he decides to take advantage of her offer, he calls from a pay phone at a nearby hotel and proceeds to bumble around the hotel and its bar, uncertain of how to proceed. Their first bit of physicality involves Benjamin’s hand flatly pressed against Mrs. Robinson’s breast and an awkward kiss that traps Mrs. Robinson’s cigarette smoke in her mouth. Her delayed exhalation tells viewers what they already know: this is an interaction devoid of romance.

Promotional image, The Graduate, 1967, MGM

The Graduate (promotional image), MGM, 1967.

Even in their most intimate moments, there is no intimacy. Benjamin continues to call his lover “Mrs. Robinson,” and she continues to regard him with a kind of bemused irritation. This is a relationship which has no chance of going beyond sexual encounters. And both Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson give a sense that even if something more were possible, that wouldn’t necessarily be desirable.

In their hotel room trysts, Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson highlight just how greatly American sexual culture had changed by the close of the 1960s—and well beyond the obvious populations of free love practitioners and swinging young singles. And yet, the relationship and the secrets revealed within suggest that the myth of a stable sexual order, in which sex, love, and romance were inherently linked, was very much a mythic view. Mrs. Robinson’s admission of a marriage based upon an unplanned pregnancy, a pregnancy conceived in Mr. Robinson’s Ford, points to an American sexual culture that had veered, long before the 1960s, from the idealized sexual order.

The famous final scene of The Graduate, in which Elaine runs away from her wedding to escape with Ben, initially hints that romance may not be dead, that spontaneity and freedom and love can co-exist. And yet, by the time Ben and Elaine board a bus bound for the unknown, the excitement has worn off and their initially smiling faces begin to register a sense of reality and even resignation. Their liberation is fleeting, and their relationship’s future is unclear (The Graduate 1967). Perhaps more than anything else, it was the frank admission of the limits to the romantic ideal that made the so-called sexual revolution truly revolutionary.

Allyn, David. Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History. New York: Routledge, 2001.

The Graduate. Directed by Mike Nichols. 1967. CA: MGM, 1999. DVD.

Karen Dunak

Karen Dunak is an assistant professor of history at Muskingum University, New Concord, OH, and author of As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America Find out more about Karen Dunak.

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