[exploring a dynamic at the heart of some difficult mother-daughter relationships]
A while back I watched The Graduate. I’d seen it once before, many years ago, when I was a plastics industry trade magazine editor, because everyone quoted this line to me:
“I have one word for you, Benjamin. Plastics.”
I’m not sure what compelled me to watch it again, but this time the ending blew me away in a way it hadn’t when I saw it 30 years ago.
Before I get to why, here’s the premise of the movie (which came out in 1967): it’s the late 60s and Benjamin Braddock has just graduated from college. He’s disillusioned with his parents’ high-society lifestyle and not sure what’s next for him. The wife of his father’s partner (the famous Mrs. Robinson) seduces him and they have a secret affair. Meanwhile, his parents encourage him to date the Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, which he does, against Mrs. Robinson wishes. She threatens to tell Elaine about their affair.
Benjamin and Elaine find that they really like each other but eventually he has to tell her that he had an affair with her mother. Understandably upset, Elaine goes back to college and dates another man. Benjamin follows her and tries to convince her that he truly loves her. Eventually, Elaine’s parents force her into an arranged marriage with the other man and at the end of the movie (which is depicted in the clip below), Benjamin, who has been racing to stop the marriage, ends up at the church right after the “I do’s” have been said.
Seeing a way out, Elaine runs to Benjamin and in the midst of the chaos Mrs. Robinson hisses, “It’s too late!” And Elaine replies, “Not for me!”
This. This is one of the dynamics at the heart of many difficult mother/daughter relationships.
Mrs. Robinson tries to force her daughter into the same unwanted married life that she herself was forced into (at one point in the movie, Mrs. Robinson reveals that she had been forced to marry Mr. Robinson because she was pregnant).
Elaine then runs away with Benjamin, going against her parent’s wishes, and in so doing establishes that she has the agency to create a future she chooses.
For more in-depth discussion: Predator, Prisoner, and Role Model: The Evolving Figure of Mrs. Robinson
Rebecca Neumann notes how difficult it is for people in more recent generations to understand and appreciate the experience of a middle-aged woman in the 1960s.
Some points she makes:
- Mrs. Robinson is a predator – she is often dressed in animal prints.
- She is not motherly – she never shares a scene alone with her daughter.
- She is vengeful toward her daughter whom she is jealous of for attending college – she seduces Benjamin in Elaine’s bedroom even though she knows Elaine has a crush on Benjamin.
- The affair, which is about power more than anything else, hurts her husband, whom she also holds responsible for her powerless situation because of the unplanned pregnancy that caused her to drop out of college.
- Her powerlessness is also demonstrated in her financial dependence on her husband, her inability to drive, and the fact that the only name by which she is referred is her husband’s name.
She was a bored, bitter woman at a time that was pre-sexual revolution, pre-birth control, pre-abortion, pre-women in the workforce after marriage, pre-no fault divorce. Mrs. Robinson was a woman with no choices, no outlets except this affair.
We’d like to think that mothers want more for their daughters and yet, when their daughters actually have more (in whatever capacity that is: more freedom, more choice, more opportunity, etc.) it can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Understanding this can be helpful, but know that your mother’s happiness was never, and will never be, your responsibility.
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