Mrs. Robinson Was My Unlikely Sexual Role Model
Guy Branum, comedian and host of truTV's Talk Show the Game Show, is the author of the new book My Life as a Goddess: A Memoir Through (Un)Popular Culture, a hilarious collection of essays which sees Branum going from a young misfit to one of the wittiest writers and performers working today. In an exclusive excerpt from the book, Branum reveals a love for one of the most complicated characters in film history—The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft—and explains how her messy and aggressive form of sexuality is much more relatable than the role models Branum is supposed to admire.
When you watch The Graduate, you watch for the scene in Mrs. Robinson’s den. The windows are glass and surrounded by so much lush tropical foliage that you might as well be in a zoo. You know what happens in a zoo: fighting and fornicating, and Mrs. Robinson is ready to do both.
Benjamin Braddoc, the film’s protagonist, doesn’t get this, though. Ben is an idiot, in exactly the way we insist is uniquely true of Millennials now. He’s rude, self-absorbed, and generally so caught up in his own narrative that he doesn’t notice the complex woman he’s talking to. This is not a characteristic of generations; it’s a quality of being twenty-one and dumb. Mrs. Robinson offers herself but denies that she’s offering herself. She needles Ben with desire and frightens him with simply too much truth. Ben is about to turn into a man, exactly the sort of creature who runs society and keeps women like Mrs. Robinson as pets. If for only a few weeks, she manages to turn Benjamin into a pet of her own.
The best line in The Graduate is when Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin are in the hotel bar before their first sexual rendezvous. She’s trying to force this little person to be the man, to take control, to be suave. He has the capacity for none of this. She’s annoyed with Ben and with herself.
When the waiter comes over, Mrs. Robinson says, “I will have a martini.” It is not a request. It is an order. It is quiet, but it is certain. I know that her tryst is ridiculous, and that in the end she’s ranting at Ben like a child who left his bike in the driveway, but I still love and respect the strength and certainty of Mrs. Robinson’s cocktail order. There are moments in your life when you’re not going to give anyone the chance to screw something up. Mrs. Robinson’s martini is one of those moments, and it lets us know so much about what the rest of her life is like.
The last act of The Graduate is a dud. Benjamin “falls in love” with Elaine Robinson and tries to wrest her away from a Berkeley frat guy. Mrs. Robinson has a few diminished moments telling Ben to stay away or cursing at him in a church, but her story is done. The goddess has to be stripped of her powers. We could have access to a creature that magnificent and wild only as an impediment to some man’s boring story.
The caged-beast predation of Mrs. Robinson, the sexual manipulation of a woman toying with her lesser because she had nothing left to lose—I would be lying if I said it wasn’t the first sexuality I saw that made sense to me. Mrs. Robinson had lived long enough in a world that did not value her. She was done asking for permission to lead a life she hated. She was going to take something, even if it was wrong. Because it was wrong.
As an intelligent, right-thinking adult, I know I should not admit that. I should not admit to finding any part of Mrs. Robinson’s psychological manipulation of a barely adult Benjamin erotically appealing. In the movie, it is permissible because it was 1967 and because Mrs. Robinson is a woman. She can’t be a real sexual threat. I am a gay man, thus a presumed manipulator, predator, and pedophile to many. My inclinations are also not ameliorated by the fact that, when I watched the film, I was five years younger than Ben is in the movie. I’m still a gay man, and admitting that power-based (age-based?) psychological coercion in sex interested me will make me suspect to you. I know these things as an intelligent, right-thinking adult.
AS AN INTELLIGENT, RIGHT-THINKING ADULT, I KNOW I SHOULD NOT ADMIT TO FINDING ANY PART OF MRS. ROBINSON’S PSYCHOLOGICAL MANIPULATION OF A BARELY ADULT BENJAMIN EROTICALLY APPEALING.
But one of the key problems with our modern, liberal construction of homosexuality is that it conceives of homosexual men only as being intelligent, right-thinking adults. “Two consenting adults” are the words on which the gay rights movement was built. Gay adolescents, meanwhile, we ask not to exist. Gay children must wait. They must watch their classmates’ adventures, and they have to watch movies about young, imperfect heterosexual love and dance to songs about it. And then they have to wait to get in to a good liberal arts college and become a consenting adult.
But no, you will tell me. Things are better now. Glee happened. Things are cool now. Gay teens now have the option of a nice dating life so long as it has the most perfect, burnished sheen of suburban domesticity on it; if the one to two out gay teens in their high school turn out to have mutual attraction, and no one’s parents are religious or conservative enough to send one of the involved parties to a re-education camp when they learn about the adolescent tryst. Love, Simon made a modest profit! Things sure are fixed. Good luck and Godspeed, class of 2020!
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.