- "It's too late…Not for me":The Graduate (1967) and the History of Women
Mike Nichols's The Graduate has been called "a Sixties emblem,"1 and with good reason: the film illustrates some of the defining aspects of the decade, including the hypersensitivity to a generation gap, the radicalization of sexual mores, and the anti-establishment search for authenticity. Yet a major element of the film has been ignored for a half century: the emerging women's movement. Unsurprisingly, the central female characters, Mrs. Robinson and her daughter, Elaine, gained rather shallow attention at the time of the film's release in 1967. More surprisingly, critical commentary on the two characters since then has continued to lack sufficient analysis. More directly for historians and educators, The Graduate offers a primary historical document of the early Second Wave feminist movement of the 1960s. The characters of Mrs. Robinson and Elaine embody two successive generations of white, affluent women that represent critical changes in the mid-twentieth-century history of American women.
By late 1968, only The Sound of Music and Gone With the Wind were more successful films than The Graduate,2 with the film, the director (Mike Nichols), and the actors (Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross) earning numerous accolades,3 but, unlike those films, The Graduate resists any inflection toward the epic, staying firmly and modestly inside domestic melodrama. There is no angelic Maria or devilish Scarlett to move the narrative outside the boundaries of family concerns. The film centers on Benjamin Braddock, who, in his listlessness after newly graduating college, has an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's business partner. Later, however, Ben falls in love with Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine, who soon discovers the affair. After agonizing attempts to repair his relationship with her, Ben persuades Elaine to leave her husband at the altar. The new couple flee and catch a bus, uncertain of their future but content to leave the traditional marriage dangling in the past.
Some commentators have argued that The Graduate lacks sufficient references to iconic Sixties events and therefore does not properly represent the decade. Bethlehem Shoals, writing for Politico in 2012, argues that the film is not "about that fabled decade, its seismic cultural shifts, or the freedom that people found as a result of its progressive politics. What was radical about the film is the love (and lust) story, not what it has to say about the greater world" or "any of the [End Page 21] explicit modes of Sixties-dom."4 Jonathan Zimmerman, in a 2014 essay in Inside Higher Ed, observes that "What we do not get is a sense of the Free Speech Movement, demonstrations against the Vietnam War, or any of the other political passions that enveloped Berkeley in the late 1960s."5 As New York Times writer Rick Lyman remarked in 2000, "all of the hippie-tinged themes associated with the era are completely absent…It's more like the last movie of the '50s than the great clarion of the '60s."6
Other critics actually praise the lack of any depictions of Sixties protest. In her 1997 review of the film, Barbara Shulgasser argues that this omission is the key to the film's endurance.7 J.W. Whitehead agrees: "The lack of contemporary cultural reference points has served to keep The Graduate's narrative evergreen through succeeding decades."8 Still others argue that omission of Sixties events is irrelevant because the film depicts a critical 1960s cultural shift. Film director Ron Howard recalled in Lyman's 2000 interview that The Graduate "closely captured the mind-set of the era." Elaine Bapis writes that, "if the film lacked historical and political insight by not asking what was really happening in the streets...it was by no means backpedaling." Rather, she argues, "The film engaged in the conversation about social changes and cultural values already alive and well in the public arenas."9
Even if we accept The Graduate as a cultural artifact infused with Sixties history, historical analysis of the film's women has been elusive. J.W. Whitehead posits that the female characters must...