In The Graduate (1967) we’re supposed to empathise with the central character, Benjamin Braddock. Ben is the graduate, pampered by his parents, naïf, lacking in confidence, straight out of university, still a virgin. He is the epitome of the American Dream, with his preppy look, driving an expensive Alfa Romeo sports car — he has it all, including a promising future, which a family friend suggests should involve ‘plastics’; and, no doubt that’s actually a job offer, but he doesn’t pick up on it. He might not be a blond haired, blue eyed WASP, but he does come from a privileged background. Nevertheless, he finds himself lost in the world, unable to fit in with middle class convention. The story is really about Ben finding his way to an alternative lifestyle — the 1960s ‘counter-culture’. He doesn’t want the life his parents have; he’s after something different.
Ben’s comfortable life hides his own anxiety. He appears socially isolated, unable to mesh with the day-to-day life going on around him — in his own world, like the diver at the bottom of the fish tank in his bedroom. Later in the film he appears wearing a diving suit, and sinks like a stone to the bottom of the swimming pool, holding the same pose as the plastic diver in the fish tank. He is, most certainly, ‘out of his element’ in the cosy but stuffy middle class world around him.
From this difficult position Ben makes the mistake of involving himself in an unfulfilling, sex-based relationship with the alcoholic Mrs Robinson. She is usually viewed as the story’s monster, seducing an inexperienced young man at a vulnerable stage in his life. And then stopping him from experiencing true happiness with the girl he’s fallen in love with. Mrs Robinson is selfish and manipulative, the personification of the predatory older woman, clothed in big cat print — the archetypal ‘cougar’.
From what she gives away in conversation to Ben, during the course of their affair, she admits she married because she became pregnant. One assumes the marriage is loveless, and that her husband is doing more than just playing golf all day. He doesn’t seem interested in spending time with her. She offers herself to Ben because she says she finds him attractive, but it’s clear the relationship is purely sexual, an extramarital affair. She also — understandably — makes it clear she doesn’t want Ben dating her daughter. Ben, on the other hand, Ben clearly doesn’t really desire her; the affair is an escape from the boredom and confusion in his life. When he dates Elaine Robinson he breaks the promise he made Mrs Robinson. This leads to a succession of events: upsetting Elaine with the revelation that her mother was the mystery woman he was having an affair with, and causing the breakdown of the Robinson’s marriage. Then he ruins Elaine’s plan ‘B’, marrying a doctor, who appears to be a ‘good catch’ (and a classic WASP). Ben and Elaine run away together, leaving everything behind them — swapping his sleek sports car for a municipal bus ride (the mode of transport for the common person).
Beneath the veneer of wealth and personal confidence, Mrs Robinson is unhappy. She gives Ben the most valuable thing she has: confidence, the knowledge that you can have what you want from life, you just have to take it. First she takes him, and then he takes her daughter.
Yes, Mrs Robinson does seduce Ben, and her behaviour is inappropriate on multiple levels. But he’s the one who decides to call her from the hotel, and asks her to come and meet him. Mrs Robinson is also a vulnerable character — she is depressed at the way her life has turned out. While the outcome for Ben is a victorious celebration of sticking it to the system, she ends up being the tragic loser: the scorned woman, literally replaced by a younger version of herself — her marriage and family destroyed. But she never resorts to really extreme behaviour, like the jilted woman in Fatal Attraction (1987). Mrs Robinson is a victim, part of the trail of destruction that Ben leaves behind him.