Social, Cultural, and Political Issues in The Graduate and Never Forever
In the forty years that separate the late sixties with the twenty-first century, America has undergone immense changes. On the surface, political values have shifted, with new laws and social guidelines freeing and restraining certain sections of society. But on a more unnoticeable level, sexual freedom, abortion, and roles in marriage have transformed into entirely different entities. There has been an obvious increase in immigration and foreign involvement since the sixties, and the transformed automobile industry shows the blending of the two. The 1967 film The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols, portrays both the sexual, social, and political changes of a new America in the late sixties, and the 2007 film Never Forever shows the alterations which these aspects of American life have undergone.
Sex, sexual freedom, and reproduction are themes heavily present in both The Graduate and Never Forever. Whether or not there was a “revolution”, as it is so often called, there is no doubt in the presence of popularization of sex in the 1960’s. It gradually became something that could be portrayed in the cinemas, the taboo on nudity was lifted just a bit, and advancement in science and politics gave way to a changed woman’s experience with sexual freedom. In 1960, the Searle drug company created Envoid, which was the earliest 100% effective form of the contraceptive pill. With this advancement, women of all ages were now able to enjoy sex, whether marital or premarital, without the looming possibility of impregnation. An early Searle advertisement shows a picture of a woman freed from her chains, and the caption is “From the beginning, woman has been a vassal to the temporal demands and frequently the aberrations of the cyclic mechanism of her reproductive system. Now, to a degree heretofore unknown, she is permitted normalization, enhancement or suspension of cyclic function and procreative potential”. This idea that before 1960 women were restrained is represented perfectly by the life of Mrs. Robinson. Mrs. Robinson was seeking a career in art, as she tells Benjamin, but when she accidentally became pregnant with Elaine, there was nothing she could do but quit her college pursuits to bring up a child with a man that she did not love. From a PBS documentary on the Pill, “With almost 100% fertility control, women were able to postpone having children or space births to pursue a career or a degree that had never been possible prior to the Pill.” While the Pill was and still is a preventative measure that the woman has control of, not the man, there were very terrible side-effects of the Pill at the time, which made the use of it extremely risky. Perhaps the most important changes in American law took place after the sixties, in 1973 and 1976. At the court case Roe v. Wade, in 1973, the Supreme Court legalized abortion, and this was an extremely huge step in the prevention of impregnation. Women no longer had to turn to back-alley illegal abortions, where the risk of death or disease was very high. In 1976, the court case Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, parental consent was no longer required for a young woman to abort her child. Since there were now two things that women could use to protect themselves against accidental pregnancies, they were now able to seek permanent jobs, or attend university without having to stop because of a child. Because of this, and the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the percent of college-age Americans attending university skyrocketed from 15% in 1940 to 40% in 1970. When Benjamin Braddock visits Elaine at Berkeley, many students are present, along with a large number of women. It is beginning to look more like a modern college campus, rather than a male-dominated climate. This idea that abortion helps women stay in control is defended in Never Forever. Sophie, very late in the film, to assure Andrew that he was once capable of reproducing, says that she was pregnant once, but she aborted the child, because they were not yet ready for one. Upon hearing this, however, he beats Sophie, screaming at her to abort the baby which is not his. She then claims it is her child, and she will do what she wants. One of the most significant changes since The Graduate in America is the amount of sex which is shown in popular media. The most scandalous scene of the 1967 film is when Mrs. Robinson bares all for Benjamin, and her breasts are shown for only a fraction of a second. In 2007, however, this would seem like almost nothing. Just as society has largely become immune to violence, so many different outlets, whether it is a movie, or an advertisement for Godaddy.com, or an HBO show, now display sex freely and openly. Never Forever is an extremely explicit film, and would never have been shown in 1967. In addition to the plethora of intimate sex scenes, Vera Farmiga’s character Sophie is shown topless on several different occasions, which provides great contrast to Mrs. Robinson’s scene in The Graduate. In conclusion, The Graduate greatly portrays the main sexual issues present in the sixties, like abortion and the Pill, and starts an avalanche in the film industry that leads to modern movies like Never Forever, which display nudity and sex freely.
Another important issue addressed in both films that will be present for all time is the role of the woman in marriage. For a very, very long time, the sexist cultures of the entire world created one role for the woman: reproduction. In most societies then, and in very many still today, the woman has been constrained into a role that she most likely did not truly desire. Certain men and women have tried in the past to glorify this household role of the woman, with the Cult of Domesticity arising in the 1950’s, where women in TV shows and movies would stay at home while the men would go to work. There is no wonder that women sought more than this mundane lifestyle, where the dreams they had were crushed simply because of their gender. Betty Friedan’s famous book The Feminine Mystique speaks about “the problem with no name” which haunted many housewives in America. This problem seems to be a major reason that Mrs. Robinson desires an affair with Benjamin so badly. She was pursuing her career in art, when she was forced into a marriage with Mr. Robinson for the sake of the child. For the next twenty years, she had to reside at home with a man she did not love, and she becomes an alcoholic to drown her sorrow. Her affair with Benjamin is not a great thing to do, but, knowing the position her life has put her in, her actions are understandable. The Graduate largely comments on the faux statement that a married couple will always love until death do they part. Even though the divorce rate in America has doubled since 1967, that does not mean married couples were happier, it simply lies with increased acceptance of divorce as an escape, and less idealization of marriage that was present in the 1960’s. In Never Forever, Sophie’s affair seems on the surface much more complex than Mrs. Robinson’s. She loves her husband deeply, and when he tries to kill himself because he cannot reproduce, she pays a man that looks like him to impregnate her, so he will find happiness. Although this is the supposed reason for her actions, she is also feeling very similar to Mrs. Robinson. She is raped by her husband in the first scene, and for the entire movie, she is treated by everyone except Jihah as a carrier for Andrew’s baby. Her actions seems to stem simply from her love for her husband, but when she sleeps with Jihah after she is pregnant, it shows that she still wants to be loved by someone who recognizes her for more than her role in the society she lives in. In the end of the film, from what the audience knows, she is living alone with the child she created with Jihah. In a 2007 census report on American families, about 23% of households were composed of a mother and her children, so Sophie’s position is very common.
The final aspects of American society the two films provide insight into are immigration, and the presence of foreign influence on American consumerism, specifically in the automobile industry. In 1960 in America, there was virtually no diversity whatsoever. The census of 1960 presents the race division as 85% white, .5% hispanic, 11% black, and only .5% asian. The Graduate greatly reflects these percentiles, as every single character in the film is white. In 1965, the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act was passed, which prohibited exclusion of immigrants based on race. Although this did lead to many more legal immigrants in America, the number of illegal immigrants grew immensely. In the Immigration Act of 1990, the constraints for legal immigration were tightened, and reasons for exclusion and deportation increased in number. By 2007, the racial makeup of the United States looked like this: 63% white, 17% hispanic, 12% black, 5% asian, and 3% other. In Never Forever, Vera Farmiga is actually in the minority for a majority of the film, living in a Korean-dominated community. In the city, when she sees Jihah, there are Asians, Africans, Hispanics, and whites. The film presents a better image of the “melting pot” which is referenced so much in American media. The United States, is, in fact, one of the most diverse nations in the world, and Never Forever strongly represents that. One significant and related aspect of both film is the subtle but powerful presence of automobiles. In The Graduate, Benjamin drives an Alfa Romeo Spider, a sleek and new Italian car. When speaking to Mrs. Robinson about when she first had sex with Mr. Robinson, he says:
Benjamin: Where did you do it?
Mrs. Robinson: In his car.
Benjamin: What kind of car was it?
Mrs. Robinson: Come on now.
Benjamin: No, I really want to know.
Mrs. Robinson: A Ford.
Benjamin: Goddamn, that’s great. So old Elaine Robinson got started in a Ford.
This exchange not only shows the age gap between the two people, but also the decline in name and stature that American automobiles had undergone. By 1960, the rest of the world was producing more cars than the previously dominating U.S. industry, with Germany, Britain, France, and Japan producing combined as much as America. This transfer from American industry to foreign industry is shown in Never Forever, as the wealthy families drive European and Japanese cars, while American cars are largely unseen. A 2012 infographic published by Toyota shows the top ten car producers in the world. Eight of the top ten are foreign companies, and produce combined 44 million units a year, while GM and Ford produce only 14 million a year. While Americans have always taken a nationalistic pride in their industry and composition, the presence of an increase of foreign involvement in all aspects of American life is immense and undeniable.
Something important that is very present in The Graduate but not in Never Forever is the representation of rebellion from youth. In the United States in the 1960’s, there was an immense revolt from American youth, stemming from both the increased enrollment in University and the pressure of the Vietnam war. Mario Savio, at a UC Berkeley protest on December 2 1964, stated “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at the heart, that you can’t take part; and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop”. Joshua Freeman writes in one chapter of American Empire about the 60’s, saying “Adolescents and young adults, coming of age during a period of extended economic growth, chafed under the cultural norms and expectations of an older generation shaped by the Great Depression and World War II” (190). This overarching theme of rebellion is shown by the actions of Benjamin Braddock, who refuses to succumb to the path his parents and society have laid out for him. When he hears his parents brag about all of his accomplishments like they were on a checklist, and when a family friend begs him to consider the possibilities in the future of plastics, he is repelled and confused. There is a stark difference in generational values present in the 1960’s, and in The Graduate. The older generation had values that they attempted to impose on the “baby boom” generation, who sought more emotional and philosophical connection to their work and life. Since there is no youth in Never Forever, it does not provide much insight into rebellion of youth, but this is something that will most likely be present all around the world forever.
When one thinks of the differences between the 1960’s and the twenty-first century, there are many. Through seemingly dissimilar films like The Graduate and Never Forever, however, there is a common thread that links the two time periods, explaining the changes in social, sexual, and political values. Sexual popularization and acceptance is something that truly began in the sixties, and continues to grow and evolve today. This trend is identical to the little presence of sex in The Graduate and the immense amount of sex in Never Forever. The roles of women in marriage have changed drastically since 1960, due to the sexual and scientific revelations that occurred during the decade. Women today are now able to choose the path they go on, with methods such as the Pill or abortion to prevent accidental pregnancies. Mrs. Robinson is trapped in her place in life, tormented by her inability to change her course, just like many mothers in the sixties were. Sophie, however, is able to choose when to get pregnant, and to decide the future of her life. Finally, the foreign presence in America has changed both in the number of immigrants and the amount of foreign business in the US. Every person in The Graduate is white, while the majority of characters in Never Forever are immigrants. These films, when viewed as documents that capture the time period, do give true insight into the issues of the time, and provide a clear thread between decades of American life.
Freeman, Joshua. American Empire. New York: Viking, 2012. Print.