A classic cougar in American cinema was Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, which begins as Benjamin Braddock returns from college somewhere on the east coast to a party in his honor at his parents’ home in Pasadena, California. Benjamin is a lost soul and has no idea what he wants to do with his life. Mrs. Robinson, his mother’s best friend, asks him to take her home. Offering him a drink, the still-attractive Mrs. Robinson opens up her life to him, exposes herself and offers to have an affair with him. He flees her home, only to return a few days later. Who can forget the hotel room scene when Mrs. Robinson unrolls a stocking down an impossibly long, shapely leg as Benjamin watches in shock? As he and Mrs. Robinson begin a torrid summer affair, his parents and Mr. Robinson hound him to date Elaine Robinson, which he finally does.
I was much too young to see the movie when it first came out in 1967, but have seen it several times since, beginning with my film criticism class in college. The male professor’s discussion began with a question on the inappropriateness of Mrs. Robinson seducing the young Benjamin. At the time, I can remember being quite disgusted and landing on the side of those who denounced the idea of May-December romances, even while I sneaked a peek at historical romance novels with explicit sex scenes (for the times) pairing older men with young girls barely out of their teens.
Benjamin ruins everything by falling in love with the younger Elaine, enraging Mrs. Robinson. He’s threatened by her father and Elaine is sent away. When Benjamin learns she is marrying someone else, he embarks on a desperate drive to stop the wedding. Arriving at the church, Benjamin frantically begins banging on an upper window and screaming “Elaine” as the groom bends down to kiss her. The movie ends with Elaine and Benjamin catching a bus, their smiles turning to enigmatic, uncomfortable gazes as they realize their predicament.
The Graduate is an American classic film, selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1996 as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” film. So why is it that, culturally, we have no problem with a May-December romance between an older man and younger woman, and yet cringe at the thought of an older woman with a younger man?
The list of May-December movies with an older man almost doubles that of movies with an older woman in the romance, and I would venture to say that, like The Graduate, the chances of the cougar romance ending in a happily ever after or HEA is even less likely. So if it isn’t a cultural “taboo” then why the discrepancy?
Do you know of a movie or book where the feminine version of the May-December romance has an HEA ending? Please share your thoughts!