Fifty years ago this month The Graduate, having been released in the final days of 1967, was hitting screens and headlines around the world. Like it or not, the story and the cultural resonances have become part of the vocabulary of our times.
Now the 50th anniversary digitised edition is doing the rounds, and, what’s this…? Have they come up with a new poster…you bet they have!
The old poster was based around the image of Mrs Robinson’s shapely leg in the foreground, peeling off a nylon stocking, with young Benjamin (fully clothed) gazing on from near the doorway. The strapline was neatly sardonic: “This is Benjamin: he’s a little worried about his future”.
The iconic cultural status of a piece of art does not mean you have to like it, and I have always hated The Graduate: a tale of rich folks’ angst pimped for perennial popularity into something of a milk-and-water Swinging Sixties sex tease.
But I’m interested in the fact that they have produced a whole new poster to advertise the anniversary edition.
In the new poster the innocent everyboy Benjamin stares at us instead of at Mrs Robinson. He is all vapid, all blank page, ripe to be written on. And sharing the full-on frontal head and shoulders shot is…wait for it…a leopard, a very big, snarly, fuck-off leopard.
Maybe they didn’t have the guts to use a picture of a cougar, the common parlance term for an older woman who likes young males. Cougar Town is the most popular example of the trope, a tv series that ran for over one hundred episodes. Anyway, it’s a leopard and not a jaguar or a cheetah (though there may be some punning link to the fact that Mrs Robinson was married and therefore…).
Patriarchy and sexism cause all sorts of distorted notions in our shared cultural consciousness. As regards age difference, there has been a very long tradition of older men desiring and ‘getting together with’ younger women. Often this arrangement has a financial basis (she benefits from his money and social power and he is happy to buy love and sex) and can encompass all levels of relationship from feudal marriage to prostitution.
When it comes to older women desiring and ‘getting together with’ younger men, the tradition is there but is much less open and has been much more repressed. Moreover, in cultural representations, the older woman is usually punished in some way. As is Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. At the same time, the norm is increasingly for the older woman to be awarded a “good on ‘yer, go for it, lady” nudge and wink.
I really don’t think that age difference matters between two people, but the social pressures and value judgements that come with the territory cannot be denied. Is there some primal survival of the species instinct that leads to the undermining of relationships where there is a significant age difference? Does age differential undermine the best breeding stock?
So in our century Mrs Robinson is transformed from a seducer to a predator.
The “coo coo ca-choo” of Simon & Garfunkel’s inspid theme song for the film has become more like the Beatles “goo goo ga-joob”. Cue the lines about a “pornographic priestess”. The Paul Simon song has a decent tune, but there is a weird chasm between the lyrics and the film.
Mrs Robinson is Benjamin’s university. She takes him from under-graduate to post-graduate. But has he learned anything? The film’s one interestingly ambiguous image comes right at the very end. Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s daughter have escaped from the church (ok, yes, the use of the cross to bar the doors is nicely subversive) and are sitting on the back seat of a bus to Anywhere. After a few triumphant moments they start to look pensive…then she looks at him a little apprehensively…and he just gazes ahead: is that a complacent look, a smug look, or the old blank, entitled-without-needing-to-think look? It’s a welcome hint of darkness, but it doesn’t make up for the compromised conventionality of what has gone on to that point.
The new poster is starkly eloquent. It speaks of a coarsening process, and an increasing tendency towards the blurring of the boundaries between sex and violence.
P.S. It’s not directly relevant to the meaning of this post, but I can’t help but give a nod to the fact that The Graduate was the making of Dustin Hoffman, who is now entangled in the post-Weinstein outing of serial gropers. Patriarchy moves in mysterious ways, eh?