Throughout the 1960s a rapid social, political, and artistic shift was occurring in America as a new generation fought to reorganize its understanding of gender in the face of how their parents understood it. During this time, the women’s liberation movement and new conceptions about masculinity sought to break out of the 1950s suburban paradigm that had been the standard, particularly in terms of male and female relationships. This shift was depicted in several films of the 1960s and forms the thematic core of the film “The Graduate." What is most compelling about this particular film in terms of gender is the way it reflects the changing understanding of gender of both males and females and of different ages as well.
The film presents two young people who are on the brink of coming to terms with new meaning of individuality and gender and also presents the older generation and its unflinching suburban values. Caught in the middle of these representations of gender is the enigmatic character of Mrs. Robinson who embodies both the new understanding of femininity as well as the old patriarchal values her suburban society is founded upon. With such a volatile mix of clashing gender conceptions and generations, this film presents a perfect representation of the gender struggles of the 1960s. In addition, this is all set against the backdrop of suburban America and thus integrates issues of class along with those of gender as well.
To summarize briefly, the 1967 film by Mike Nichols, “The Graduate" revolves around the story of Benjamin, a recent college graduate, who is at a crossroads in his life. Caught between adolescence and adulthood, he is searching for meaning in the upper-middle class suburban world of his parents. While at home between schools, he begins a sexual relationship with the wife of a neighbor, Mrs. Robinson. Uncomfortable with his own sexuality, Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson continue an affair for quite some time, during which she asks him to promise to stay away from her daughter, Elaine. Things become complicated, however, when Mr. Robinson and Benjamin’s father attempt to arrange a date between the two young people. Not wishing to violate his mistress’ request yet caught up in the wishes of his parents, Benjamin takes Elaine on a date, which is disastrous as Benjamin tries to push her away. Eventually, however, the affair between the Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin is discovered and Elaine goes to school. Benjamin stops his affair and essentially stalks Elaine at college, hoping to win her back. She is engaged to a man her parents find respectable and is about to marry him, but at the last minute Benjamin takes a cross-country trip to try to stop her marriage. To the horror of Mrs. Robinson and the other guests, he is successful and the two leave together.
A simple summary of the plot of “The Graduate" cannot possibly begin to unravel the several very complex themes that run throughout the film, especially those that relate to gender. Interestingly, gender does not stand alone as an issue and is continually addressed along with class and generational issues. The 1960s were a time when the old societal and familial values were being questioned and this film successfully addresses this dissatisfaction while at the same time relating these issues to gender, both for men and women. The main backdrop of this film is the world of 1960s suburbia—a place of perfectly manicured lawns, glimmering swimming pools, and impeccable homes, all of which are lined along a handsome street with perfect symmetry and homogeneity. The problem with this image is that under the surface, tensions resulting from issues of class and gender are always present. What this film is trying to achieve (among other things) is to offer a comment on how gender is constructed in a world of “plastics," or artificiality on all levels. Furthermore, it seeks to explore what one scholar terms “suburban emasculation" (Beuka 14) as well as how new concepts of femininity were emerging. This film appears to be a gender-conscious response to the prior depictions of the family unit with its clear-cut gender lines and it brings to mind how “recurring thematic concern in Hollywood cinema over the plight of the suburban male is a far cry from the utopian visions of the patriarchal suburban family proffered by network television sitcoms of the 1950s" (Liebman 17). This whitewashed understanding of the society and gender relationships is questioned in this film as the characters realize that it is only a hollow image and seek to find themselves in this new realization that the world is completely different and the 1950s standards no longer apply.
The majority of the film focuses on the internal and external struggles of the main character, Benjamin. In many ways he is symbolic of the painful tensions between the traditional male and the new image of the American male—one who is more open, less confined in traditional roles, and who is quickly losing his place at the top of the “gender" chain. Women are asserting themselves and marriage is not the only option any longer. Against this social backdrop are more complicated issues, such as how he is supposed to assert his masculinity in a society that is no longer the cut-and-dry “man goes to work, woman serves man" paradigm. His parents still live in this more traditional world and do not understand that the world is changing. As a result, he spends his time being confused and pulled in two directions; on the one hand toward his father’s understanding of manhood and a future in plastics and on the other, the need to follow his heart and seek his true identity in a world that his parents would not understand.
This tension between the new versus the traditional expectations of masculinity are best seen in the scene during which Benjamin is at his birthday party surrounded by the friends of his parents. This is significant simply because it already juxtaposes the two main issues. The idea of a birthday party is something associated with being a young boy, especially considering that he gets a “toy" (the scuba gear) and is expected to play with it in front of the other adult guests. In addition, the fact that those at the party are all part of the older generation—with the men discussing business and the women chatting quietly or being objects for the male gaze—shows how they are reinforcing his status as a boy. There is no one present who understands the tension Benjamin is facing between his understanding of himself as a man versus a boy. This tension is even further highlighted by the dialogue during the scene. It is Benjamin’s twenty-first birthday, the viewer is acutely aware of how he is standing on the brink of boyhood and adulthood and this is further emphasized by the very gendered responses given to his by his parents. For example, as all the guests look on, Benjamin’s appearance wavers between man and boy constantly. While he is treated like a young boy, at the same time there are very traditionally masculine associations given to him, such as his need to “be a man" and find his place in the world. Even his father is not sure whether or not his son is a man or a child which is evidenced when he tells his wife to “bring that boy out here" but then corrects himself and says with a sweeping gesture, “No, wait a minute, Let me amend that. To bring this young man out here."