“Die She Must”: On Sex, Sadness, and The Graduate, Revisited

By Madeline Kennedy

The Graduate,  1967, directed by Mike Nichols.

The Graduate, 1967, directed by Mike Nichols.

There’s a Dustin Hoffman interview from 1968 that I’ve been thinking about for years. As Hoffman reclines on a bed framed in mid-century brass, a reporter from the CBC asks: “Do you have any theories about women?” “They’re intelligent like us, courageous, enjoy sex,” Hoffman says. He smiles as he talks about his first time. I see in his eyes the men I like (when I like men): ones in wool and corduroy, ones who read poetry and eat pussy, ones who don’t feel much like Men at all. Men, tenderized. Men who would never. 

But they have, and they do. Hoffman, of course, has been accused by several women of sexual misconduct, allegations brought to light as part of the recent reckoning (in Hollywood and elsewhere) with widespread problems of harassment and abuse, a reckoning brought about by #metoo. Of these allegations, there’s one in particular I think of often: in 1985, seventeen-year-old film industry intern Anna Graham Hunter asked Hoffman for his breakfast order, to which he replied, “I’ll have a hard-boiled egg...and a soft-boiled clitoris.” Beyond sex, what does this even suggest? What does it mean to be soft? Ultra-hot, vulnerable, melting in the mouth. Disappearing. I think of that girl, in that moment, and the weight follows me home: into the kitchen, into bed. Where else do women go?

I think, too, of a younger version of me, one who felt a little forced to identify with male protagonists, who wanted both to be them and to be with them. I loved The Graduate for the depths of its discontent, its vibe, and its central figure, a man roughly my age and in possession of a familiar awkwardness, anxiety, and deadpan sensibility. In high school, I devoured those male myths: outcasts and wallflowers who are vaguely displeased, who feel owed something, whose idiosyncrasies are deemed culturally cool. I read The Bell Jar, too, and began to realize that most of my women would meet tragic ends. Even when they didn’t die, they seemed to so rarely get what they really wanted, excluded from that ecstatic danger and wild magic that seemed so easily available to men for the taking.

* * *

Until very recently, I had not seen The Graduate since the allegations against Hoffman were made public. Part of it, sure, was the classic dilemma: can you separate art from artist? But part of it, too, was that I knew deep down that I might not like what I found, that a film that once seemed worthy of my admiration might reveal itself to be more troubling than I had once been able to understand. Even if you’re able to put the reality of who Dustin Hoffman is aside for a moment (and I don’t think that I am, or that I necessarily should), the film’s themes and priorities feel, in 2019, remarkably problematic.

What is striking now, more than before, is how thoroughly The Graduate proves itself to be a film depicting significant degrees of emotional and sexual violation. The film’s central premise has hardly aged well: a man is seduced (read: pressured into sex) by an older woman, then subsequently falls in love with, obsesses over, and runs away with her daughter. Early on, the film’s protagonist, Ben (played by Hoffman), is subjected to a series of escalating, unwanted advances from Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft): she brings him to her house, pours him a drink and tells him to finish it, then asks him to help her undress, locking them both in her daughter’s room as she stands before him, presumably nude. The film relied on this relationship’s reversal of roles--woman as pursuer, seeking sex without attachment--to establish its cultural relevance, and it’s easy to see how, in 1967, such a narrative might have seemed indicative of a progressive view of the relationships between women, sex, and power. In 2019, of course, the dynamic of the relationship between those characters feels more troubling; pressuring anyone into sex is not progressive, and the project of women’s liberation is not to encourage women to adopt the abusive behaviors of men, but to dismantle structures that not only encourage abuses of power, but require them to function.

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The film’s treatment of Bancroft’s character is complicated; she is, at times, painted as seductress, alarmingly willing to manipulate those around her. In a bizarre (and tremendously ill-advised) plot twist, when Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, learns her mother has been having an affair with the guy she’s just started dating, Mrs. Robinson falsely accuses him of rape, claiming that it was Ben who pursued her and pressured her into sex. And yet, there is also palpable depth to the character, and to Bancroft’s portrayal; she is both villainous and vulnerable, world weary, eyes brimming equally with cold, calculating cleverness and an almost unbearable sadness. If anything redeems The Graduate, it is this: that Mrs. Robinson is not simply a MILF, but a woman who feels tragic and real; that she’s smart and sad and wishes her life would have been different. In a key scene, the couple lies in bed at a hotel, where Mrs. Robinson (after pressure from Ben to engage in meaningful conversation before sex, for once) presents her origin story: an ex-art student, she married the husband she now cheats on only because she became pregnant, their daughter conceived in the back of a car. 

This dissatisfaction--deeply female, and distinctly maternal--stands in direct contrast to that of the man she sleeps with. Ben’s dissatisfaction with his life, his lack of certainty about his future and himself, are made abundantly, almost laughably clear from the beginning, soundtracked by Simon and Garfunkel at their most wistful and melancholic. Having recently finished college, he floats through the world aimlessly, through airports and backyard pools and California highways, woefully inept and lacking any real sense of self, attempting to fill these gaping holes with women he barely knows. Where Mrs. Robinson’s profound sadness is allowed to exist at the periphery of the narrative, Ben’s sadness isn’t even particularly profound, but lives at the story’s center anyway. 

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In retrospect, Ben’s sadness, his feelings of guilt and anxiety around sex and adulthood and The Future, appealed to younger me not necessarily because they felt the most true, but because they represented a departure, a kind of sadness rendered big and romantic and Important, rather than desperate, the dreaded maternal. In one scene, “April Come She Will” begins to play, and I think of my mother, and I feel like crying. Somewhere, way back, is half a memory of being lulled to sleep with this. I wonder: did she sing or skip the part about death? I hear the first note and I know it’s all over, that agreeing to listen, that going further, means falling back in again. There is an unspoken knowledge, a thing that runs in the blood. I think of her in a hospital bed, if my arrival felt even a little bit like the end. What does it mean to be deeply desirous of both death and life, to hold all of that inside of you? Is anything more female than that? 

* * *

“Listen, could you just stop crying, please?”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“But could you try?”

Halfway through The Graduate, the character of Elaine--daughter of Mrs. Robinson, object of Ben’s obsession--is introduced. Though instructed not to take her out, he does anyway, initially to appease his parents, and on their first date, his dickishness brings her to tears. Watching Elaine cry outside of the strip club he’s brought her to, it is at this point that the relationship shifts--he wants her, badly, not because they’ve bonded, but because she’s vulnerable. Inexplicably, they kiss, his sins forgiven for the night. 

But eventually, Elaine learns of the relationship between Ben and her mother--and of the rape accusation--and understandably wants nothing to do with him. Though well aware she dislikes him, Ben (in a remarkable display of male entitlement) declares he’ll marry her anyway, and so he goes off to find her, to make her his, when it should be obvious she doesn’t want to be pursued. As we watch him want her, as we watch her being watched, Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition of “Scarborough Fair,” a traditional ballad, loops over the footage, with its repeated line that “she once was a true love of mine.” The song choice is significant--is any story older than this? Men wanting, watching, taking matters into their own hands. The Graduate is a film about plenty of things; love is not one of them. And so we’re left to wonder, then, why Elaine so quickly agrees to marry him, why she ultimately leaves another man at the altar so she can run off in Ben’s arms. Her character is given so few personality traits that it’s hard to guess at her motivations, beyond the obvious (he’s chaos, risk, an escape). But in appearing to choose Ben, perhaps there really is not much choice at all--how could there be, given the dynamics of their relationship? We might instead read Elaine’s decision as characterized less by agency than submission, a resignation to her fate.

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It is difficult to watch The Graduate now, not only because of the real-life actions of its leading man, but because it is nearly impossible to ignore the film’s normalization--and, ultimately, romanticization--of abuse. It’s also hard to ignore the gaping void that is Elaine, who is not so much a woman but a concept and a conquest, whose interiority must remain unknowable and whose actions must defy logic, lest the entire premise of the film fall to pieces. Like the Manic Pixie Dream Girls of later feminist film theory, she exists solely to save the man she’s tied to; her life consists of nothing else. When the film ends, it lingers on a shot of the two supposed lovers seated side by side on a city bus, all breathlessness and wild eyes. And then the weight sinks in, the reality of what’s been done. There’s a moment where she looks to him, or through him, her needs left unmet, her gaze left unreciprocated. And then the song begins again, and we leave them as they are, driving off shakily into a land unnamed and as old as the world itself.