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Kramer vs. Kramer was released in 1979, in the midst of second-wave feminism. Divorces were spiked, the picturesque familial views of the 50s shattered. The ‘ideal’ nuclear family was no longer; the movement led to the highest divorce rates of all time in America. In the midst of all these broken families, Hollywood released films that questioned a family’s gender roles. Now that typical marriage was broken, what did it mean to be a mother? What did it mean to be a father? Many view Kramer Vs. Kramer as Hollywood’s backlash of second-wave feminism. While others praise the film for it’s diffusing of traditional masculine roles, establishing that fatherhood is just as important as motherhood.
Akin to a modern day A Doll’s House, Joanna (played by Meryl Streep) leaves her husband and young son Billy to go find herself. Feeling depressed and oppressed, quitting a job she loved to stay at home for her son, Joanna feels that she needs to leave to regain her sanity and identity. Ted (played by Dustin Hoffman) is left with the boy for nearly eighteen months. Joanna eventually returns, renewed from therapy and obtaining a new job, she now wants custody of their son.
With mommy gone for over a year, Ted is forced to take on the more feminine roles of the home, which is all new to him. This is shown through various humorous scenes, like the one below where Ted doesn’t know how to make French toast.
Now playing both mom and dad, Ted has to balance his domestic role with his public role, his high-paying advertising job. But balancing all this is hard, and he starts to underperform at his work, and eventually loses his job. This instills that someone (a.k.a the mother) needs to be home. If only Joanna was in her rightful place so Ted could do his job. A proper home needs to two value systems in order to properly function, Mom in the home and Dad public.
But the film takes a turn when Ted gets into a groove and starts to balance his duties better. He gets another (though lower-paying) job and still manages to be there for his son- Superdad to the rescue! Why is a man being applauded for this, but a woman shamed? Joanna was discouraged from being able to balance a home life with a job. “It would be impossible” “You would be neglecting your child” is what a woman often hears. But why is it okay, if not heroic, for a man to balance his working and home life, but not a woman?
There is one scene that slightly saves the film from painting Joanna as a two-dimensional character, the “bad mom”. Joanna delivers a monologue in the courtroom, which incidentally, was not in the script but improvised by Meryl Streep. Without it, the film would strictly be from Ted’s POV. With this, we are able to get a sense of Joanna’s inner thoughts and why she has done what she’s done.
“Look, during the last five years of our marriage, I was scared and I was very unhappy. And in my mind I had no other choice but to leave. At the time I left I felt that there was something terribly wrong with me. And that my son would be better off without me. And it was only after I got to California that I realized, after getting into therapy, that I wasn’t such a terrible person and just because I needed some kind of creative or emotional outlet other than my child, that didn’t make me unfit to be a mother. I know I left my son. I know that that’s a terrible thing to do. Believe me I have to live with that every day of my life. But in order to leave him, I had to believe that it was the only thing I could do. And that it was the best thing for him. However, I have since gotten some help, and I have worked very, very hard to become a whole human being. And I don’t think I should be punished for that.
This woman feels that she was mentally ill. She was depressed and she needed an outlet. Pre-feminism was all about guilting women into believing that wanting a career or desires outside of the home was shameful, that you were an awful woman or mother for even thinking so. Without this monologue, the film would have been completely unfair to Joanna’s character. However I don’t think this saves the film from criticizing Joanna. I think many viewers still find it (despite hearing all of her convictions) hard to sympathize with Joanna.
We’ve had several scenes with an adorable quivering-lipped seven year old saying, “Where’s mommy”, begging for her, wanting her to tuck him in. How do you put that out of your mind and consider what Joanna’s going through? These scenes obviously tug at viewer’s heartstrings, and it’s hard to see the little boy suffering without thinking how awful Joanna is for putting him in that position. This input overall condones the feminine quest for independent identity as selfish.
While the quest for one’s identity as a woman is important, Kramer Vs. Kramer also touches upon the importance of fatherhood. This film shows that a masculine identity can also encompass more traditionally female things. You can cook, put the Band-Aid on your child’s boo-boo, and give them a bath. A father is a parent, too, and should share equal weight in child-rearing and housekeeping roles. You’re not just babysitting them in between reading your newspaper at the end of the day. If we’re going to call female roles into question, it is also important to bring male roles into the question as well. Ted gives a speech in the courtroom that questions the ideas of motherhood vs. fatherhood.
There’s a lot of things I didn’t understand, a lot of things I’d do different if I could. Just like I think there’s a lot of things you wish you could change, but we can’t. Some things once they’re done can’t be undone. My wife, my ex-wife, says that she loves Billy, and I believe she does, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. If I understand it correctly, what means the most here is what’s best for our son. What’s best for Billy. My wife used to always say to me: ‘Why can’t a woman have the same ambitions as a man?’ I think you’re right. And maybe I’ve learned that much. But by the same token, I’d like to know, what law is it that says that a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex? You know, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it is it that makes somebody a good parent? You know, it has to do with constancy, it has to do with patience, it has to do with listening to him. It has to do with pretending to listen to him when you can’t even listen anymore. It has to do with love, like, like, like she was saying. And I don’t know where it’s written that it says that a woman has a corner on that market, that, that a man has any less of those emotions than a woman does. Billy has a home with me. I’ve made it the best I could. It’s not perfect. I’m not a perfect parent. Sometimes I don’t have enough patience because I forget that he’s a little kid. But I’m there. We get up in the morning and then we eat breakfast, and he talks to me and then we go to school. And at night, we have dinner together and we talk then and I read to him. And, and we built a life together and we love each other. If you destroy that, it may be irreparable. Joanna, don’t do that, please. Don’t do it twice to him.
In all, it’s very important that Ted learned to be a father. Without Joanna’s absence, would he ever have learned to bond with his son? Would his relationship ever had been able to grow if he felt he wasn’t allowed to share in those “feminine” duties? Ted also admits that he’s learned that women have the right to pursue a career as men do. But in the end, the final lines, the blame is put on Joanna. Don’t abandon your kid again, Joanna. You ruined everything. Although Ted loses the case and Joanna regains custody, she chooses to let Billy live with Ted. This feels as if they’re saying “See what feminism has done! You should’ve left things in their rightful place!”
It is interesting to note that shared custody doesn’t come up at all in the film. After all, this is Kramer vs. Kramer, male vs. female, Mommy vs. daddy. Someone is the winner, and someone is the loser. And ultimately that loser is Joanna. She has lost her child for selfishly putting herself first. If a woman leaves her child or takes a break, she will be punished and lose a relationship with her child. Repress and hide your oppression as a mother or you will lose your child forever. (Although, food for thought, if a male left to find himself would anyone bat an eyelash?)
Kramer Vs. Kramer mainly wants to dispel gender roles in favor of the father. It’s important to show that fathers can do a good job, too. They have an equal part of raising children just as mothers do. Thankfully we are able to get a slight POV from Joanna through her monologue, but overall we are never able to sympathize with her. The film could have benefited by showing more of the background of the family’s past. Our first introduction to the couple is Joanna leaving the family. We can’t know what Joanna’s relationship with her son really was, because we’ve never seen it. We only see Ted having fun moments and bonding with his child, all we saw was Joanna hit the road. Kramer Vs. Kramer could have benefited from showing more of a balance between the point of views, instead of an equal Kramer Vs. Kramer we are on Ted’s side vs. Joanna.
(SIDE NOTE: Kramer Vs. Kramer wasn’t the worst film in response to second-wave feminism. Take a look at Author! Author! Starring Al Pacino (who, ironically, turned down the part of Kramer Vs. Kramer. So here he attempts that cool single dad role) He’s married to Gloria, a woman who has FIVE different kids with all different men (not Al, though) She leaves her children behind with Al, who is not even their father, to marry another guy. It’s really bad, and her monologue giving reasons why doesn’t help)
Categories: Feminist Criticism
great article – I LOVED this movie. these monologues remind me of the truly top-notch performances the two leads gave. plus, this film really served justice in invalidating the stereotypical gender roles that are expected in a model family household.
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