Term Paper: Women's Lives and Roles in American Society During the 1940's to Present

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Women's Lives And Roles In American Society During The 1940's To Present

Here's to you Mrs. Robinson and Elaine" -- the problematic view of women in "The Graduate" (1967)

In Mike Nichols' 1967 film "The Graduate," Mrs. Robinson and her daughter Elaine both have a relationship with Benjamin Braddock, the central protagonist of the tale. Braddock is a young man, confused about his identity and role in life, but in many ways, so are Mrs. Robinson and her daughter. The film, although it preaches a positive attitude towards sexuality and the rights of young people to find themselves in their own way, outside of the shelters of 1950s conformity, does not take a similarly enlightened view of women's right to express their identity outside of a male-dominated narrative. Ultimately, the female characters function more as plot devices than as individuals with their own desires and needs. The film frustrates the female characters' sexuality just as much as postwar America frustrated greater female ambitions. It shows that although much may have seemed to have changed regarding attitudes about sexual freedom, America retained a conservative sexual viewpoint about the ability of women to actively articulate their desires outside of the sexual and marital sphere.

Mrs. Robinson is a frustrated woman, sexually and personally. Clearly, she is intelligent and articulate and secure in her sexuality, given her confident seduction of Benjamin. Unfortunately, her formative years took place in an America which was beginning to construct a false ideal of the postwar American family, where the ability of women to make a happy home and to put their needs and desires second to the other people in their lives was valued. She did not have a chance to pursue a career or to choose her own husband, after gaining some experience of other men. Now she is frustrated in her marriage, but her husband, Mr. Robinson has no inkling about her real feelings. He is a soulless, faceless drone, a man in a grey flannel suit who gives cocktail parties in the suburbs. A contemporary viewer might want to stand up in the audience and shout at Mrs. Robinson not to pursue what is bound to be an unhappy relationship with a very ordinary looking younger man. It would be better if Mrs. Robinson left her marriage, and found a career and fulfilling life that really satisfied her, with a mature man who could understand her better. But because her sexuality is the only way she knows to express her needs, and she is afraid to leave her suburban life (and older women with few vocational skills would face difficult employment prospects in the mid-1960s in America) Mrs. Robinson uses an affair a way to vent her inner turmoil. Initially timid, Benjamin is happy for the attention and initiation into the ways of adult sexuality. As a result of his affair with Mrs. .Robinson, he learns how to buy and have a pre-coital drink, to make a reservation at a motel, and how to treat a sophisticated woman. Mrs. Robinson gets far less from the affair than Benjamin, other than a sense of getting back at her husband and feeling young, for a change.

Ironically, one of the benefits that Benjamin gets from Mrs. Robinson is her daughter Elaine. At first, Elaine, much like Benjamin, seems fairly passive and compliant, as befits a young woman of her era. She even goes to a strip club with him, and runs away, crying, rather than asserting herself from the beginning. She accepts her parent's prohibition that not to see Benjamin when she is at college. Unlike Benjamin, a male of her own age and generation, the female Elaine seems to accept the same sort of constraints upon her behavior that her mother, an equally intelligent woman very likely accepted when she was a girl. Elaine's prudishness also implies that while sexual confidence is at least somewhat acceptable after marriage amongst the Robinson's set, sexual awareness and autonomy in a young and unmarried woman is not.

However, the ending of the film implies that times are changing in America, that young people have more autonomy and choice. The end scene depicts Benjamin rescuing Elaine from what is suggested will be a marriage equally stifling and unfulfilling as Mrs. Robinson's. The two of them run out of the church and hop onto a bus. They are free, but people smile at them and look oddly at them, because they assume they have just gotten married. But really, they are not -- instead, they have taken a new, positive step into what will be the generation of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll and sexual freedom. They look, slightly dazed, into a world of a happier and more liberated tomorrow.

or Benjamin does, at least, and since his story and sexual awakening forms the crux of the film's narrative journey, the message of the film is clear -- tune in, turn on, and drop out of societal expectations. Elaine's journey into a new, adult identity is less clear. Of course, for much of the film Elaine remains a cipher, as she is hidden away from Benjamin by her parent's prohibition, after being forced upon Benjamin during their deliberately disastrous first date. But over the course of the film, Elaine agreed to marry against her will, until rescued by Benjamin. This does not speak highly of her real, inner fortitude as a character. She passively is lead to the church by her parents, no doubt much as her mother was as a young woman. Then, she waits for her rescue, like a traditional damsel-in-distress.

Just like her mother relied upon an affair with Benjamin to rescue her from the doldrums of suburban wifehood and motherhood, Elaine waits for a rescue, too. Only because she is young and unmarried, more mobility as a character in her life journey is possible. She can find a new man, so she can have a new life. She can get on a moving bus with Benjamin and runaway from a marriage, but she is still journeying to a sexual relationship with a man. Similarly, Mrs. Robinson saw sexuality as her only means of liberation, and she felt more confident instigating the relationship, given that age gave her some dominance (Elaine is both slightly younger than Benjamin, and a female, which makes her doubly low in terms of her right to articulate her sexual needs).

The film's failure to advance ideals of female autonomy more than one might initially hope for or suspect is further underlined by the fact that it is Benjamin who changes and gains the most autonomy as an actor in the film, not Elaine or even Mrs. Robinson. Benjamin begins the film a bumbling college graduate, still living with his parents and contemplating going to graduate school to obey his parent's dictates even though he does not want to go. He is so unsure of his identity and male sexuality, his only response to Mrs. Robinson's seduction is to blurt out in a shocked voice: "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me!" He ends the film willing to pursue Elaine at college, to transgress both his parents' and Elaine's expectations. Benjamin will not enter the field of "plastics" that is urged upon him by one of the guests at the party that begins the film. He has become his own man, not in the thrall of Mrs. Robinson or his parents. Before he was afraid to speak at a cocktail party, now, in the pursuit of his desire to rescue Elaine, he ignores her father's threats that he will call the police on Benjamin if he pursues Elaine.

However, Elaine's emotional journey in the film is not showcased or taken seriously. This silence is perhaps even more important than anything the film says about Elaine, specifically. Elaine functions more as a plot device to wrest Benjamin away from the clutches of the older generation, exemplified in the persona of Mrs. Robinson. She passively agrees to date Benjamin, then immediately agrees not to date him, agrees to get married to a boorish man she does not love, and then passively follows Benjamin onto a bus. Her inner journey and life is not chronicled by the film.

Interestingly, Mrs. Robinson's emotional journey is not showcased very much, either. Mrs. Robinson is evidently not happy, and she spends an entire summer with Benjamin, but when the affair is discovered, she does not protect him. The film suggests without much sympathy he is just as corrupt as her husband, and her passive anger, boredom, and frustration bred into her, in her suburban environment, is not altered. It is difficult to imagine a female protagonist in an equally serious, well-written, and ambitious film of today being similarly reduced to a plot device of initiating a man into a sexual relationship, without some discussion of what she has given up over the course of her life.

With the benefit of hindsight, Roger Ebert, who originally praised the movie… [END OF PREVIEW]

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