It is incredibly rare that a fictional character can transcend their medium and become a part of our everyday lexicon. The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson has done exactly that. So much so that even now, over fifty years later, the name invokes a universally understood archetype in our society. What is it about this character, played to absolute perfection by Anne Bancroft, that resonates so deeply within the zeitgeist? It’s time to strip away the cougar cliché and take a deep dive into the quiet, bored desperation of suburbia that is The Graduate.
The Graduate follows Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) as he wallows in listlessness in his parent’s house after graduating from college with high expectations. He is soon seduced by Mrs. Robinson and the two begin an affair before Benjamin falls in love with her daughter and breaks things off. Benjamin is ostensibly the protagonist of the film but to be honest, an early-twenties privileged white boy having an existential crisis about suburbia wasn’t exactly breaking new ground in 1967 and I think modern audiences have just about run out of patience with this trope no matter how extremely well done it is. No, what keeps this film relevant is its portrayal of Mrs. Robinson. A snapshot of a woman trapped in marriage by the rules of the old order while the sexual revolution comes to life around her. It is Mrs. Robinson from whom audiences cannot look away.
You’ll notice I keep referring to Mrs. Robinson by her honorific and married name. That’s because the film never gives her a first name. No one in the entire film, not even her illicit secret lover, ever refers to her by anything other than her husband’s surname. This is one of several decisions made by director Mike Nichols and writer Buck Henry to emphasize Mrs. Robinson’s lack of individual identity. In the eyes of society, she exists only in her defined roles as a wife and a mother. She never drives, always shown being chauffeured by her husband or a taxi (with a male driver); not only does this make a literal point that she cannot go anywhere without the assistance of a man, but it also serves as a metaphor for her own mobility within society’s ranks. To complete her suburban prison, Mrs. Robinson is even denied control over her own sexuality. She is wrapped in the fashionable clothes of a suburban housewife, her prison uniform if you will, that are so confining she cannot get out of them on her own. In order to disrobe and be her naked (or natural) self, she required the assistance and thus the permission of her male companions.
You’d be forgiven for not noticing these details upon first viewing. Benjamin Braddock is the films POV character and from his perspective, Mrs. Robinson is an aggressor. Not just as an older seductress, but as an adult, a title that man-child Benjamin still does not hold despite his graduation from college. Again the filmmakers use subtle means to emphasize this dynamic. They dress Mrs. Robinson in furs and animal print, emphasizing her position as a predator. They constantly position her between Benjamin and doorways, preventing him from fleeing, trapping him like prey. Her seduction of Benjamin does not happen in a spurt of passion, a spark igniting a lustful flame. Instead, it is slow and deliberate, moving from room to room, like a big cat stalking its prey in the tall grass.
As the film advances, that predator persona begins to unravel. With each sexual encounter, Benjamin grows more confident, changing the dynamics of predator and prey to one of equals. Benjamin becomes bold enough to push Mrs. Robinson to share information about herself. The audience and Benjamin learn about her past at the same time. She dropped out of college after getting pregnant and married a man she didn’t love. She traded a hard life full of opportunity for a safe one devoid of independence and identity. This reveal does two things. For the audience, it strips away the predator mask Mrs. Robinson has been wearing and shows her true self. A bitter woman who is not in control of her own life, who regrets the choices she’s made that have trapped her in a loveless marriage and a life without dreams of her own, and who blames and resents her husband and her daughter for her current situation. For Benjamin it forever changes the power dynamic between the two. He has is whole life ahead of him, while Mrs. Robinson can never get that time back. She becomes an object of pity. Sensing that change, she spends the rest of the film trying to regain that power and control, slowly unraveling when she cannot. The affair was the one place where she had control over her own life and an identity outside of her family. It’s ending is also the end of her rebellion against a society that defines her by her gender. She’s taken her last gasp of freedom and now all she can do is suffocate in suburbia.
The film now shifts away from the relationship between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson and begins to focus on the relationship between Benjamin and her daughter Elaine. This is significant and to understand why we need to backtrack a little bit. We’ve established that Mrs. Robinson’s life changed with her pregnancy and that she resents the path having her baby sent her down. The depth of that resentment is shown in a few ways. First, her initial seduction of Benjamin happens in Elaine’s room while Elaine is off at college. This is definitely deliberate on the part of the filmmakers and probably deliberate on the part of Mrs. Robinson. Her daughter is living a life that was denied to her, so she will take her crush from her in her own bedroom. Her detachment from the traditional role of mother is further shown by the lack of interaction between Mrs. Robinson and Elaine. The two are never alone together throughout the film.
Take all of this together, and the film’s third act becomes a tragedy from Mrs. Robinson’s perspective. Benjamin essentially replaces Mrs. Robinson with her daughter and Elaine, by running out of her wedding, rejects the life safety and security her mother chose. The two escape and leave Mrs. Robinson once again trapped in the wreckage of her decisions. While many might disagree with her choices, no one can deny how complex and damaged a character Mrs. Robinson is. Her desperate battle to take control of her own life and ultimate failure to do anything more than burn her own world down still resonates more than fifty years later. Mrs. Robinson isn’t a heroic figure or a sex icon or a villain. She’s just a broken woman trying to fill an empty existence with something other than regret. And that is what makes her so compelling as a character.