The title of Kramer v. Kramer (1979) refers to the court case and the conflict between the two chief characters, one of whom, Joanna, is more notable for her absence. But the title could also be viewed as to represent a battle with oneself–Kramer v. Kramer, given Ted Kramer’s competing identities as an advertising professional and a father (and now a single father).
Ted Kramer, played by the great Dustin Hoffman, thinks that things are going swimmingly as he has just received a type of promotion at work, where he’s an art director in the advertising industry in New York City. His wife Joanna, played by the equally great Meryl Streep, has other plans.
Once Joanna leaves him, Ted’s world is turned upside down. Insofar as he is sometimes referred to in the context of “the other mothers,” one might suspect he is emasculated. But Ted takes this in stride and in a spirit of irony. His boss, however, does not see the humor of the situation.
Meanwhile, Kramer comes to embrace his role as a father, something he might have neglected up to this point as he has been consumed in succeeding as an art director. An example of this is his insistence on remaining in the emergency room after his son suffered an injury falling off the jungle gym, despite the doctor’s protest. Ted proclaims with an emotional sense of conviction:
“If you’re going to do something to him, I’m going to be with him. He’s my son.”
Kramer’s lawyer advises him to write out the pros and cons of having custody of his son. The exercise is meant to confirm whether that’s what he really wants himself. Apparently, Kramer decides there are too many cons. He goes to kiss his son goodnight, in a parallel of when Joanna had kissed him one last time with an excess of sentiment. “I love you with all my heart,” Ted tells his son. Yet he apparently reevaluates, because Ted does not give up on the custody battle.
The climax of the film is the trial itself. Here Kramer’s lawyer, John Shaunessy, steals the show. Shaunessy apparently assumes that the trial is an uphill battle from the get-go. As a result, he seeks to inflict maximal damage in his interrogation of Mrs. Kramer. Ted reluctantly goes along with this, but in the trial itself he doesn’t really have the stomach for it. Shaunessy asks Joanna:
“How many boyfriends have you had–permanently?”
It’s a relevant question once you see where he’s going with it.
“I don’t recall,” she responds.
He presses on:
“More than three, less than 33–permanently?”
The point is that in terms of personal relationships, not much is permanent in Joanna’s life. Though it seems harsh, it also proves to be an accurate gauge of Joanna’s flightiness. After the rough interrogation, Joanna is in tears. Shaunessy seems exceedingly satisfied with this outcome, as though it were a victory quite separate from the actual outcome of the court case.
Yet Ted rebukes his lawyer:
“Did you have to be so rough on her?”
On the stand, Kramer points out the hypocrisy of feminist proclamations vis-a-vis women and career: A woman who wants to focus on her career should not be hindered in any way. Yet when a man wants custody of his kid, he’s presumed to be unfit by the very fact that he’s a man. This is all despite how harried he was in his initial single-parent experience (recall the french toast incident). One would hope that he would get custody, considering that Joanna simply abandoned the child, with only lame letters to her son Billy to answer for herself.
Yet there is something fragile and beautiful about Meryl Streep’s Joanna. She’s like a nervous bird who flutters, and hurts people unintentionally. Her best moments are when she comes to regret the entire court proceedings, and realizes that Ted is indeed a good father. This represents her growth as a character.
Ultimately, Ted’s lawyer Shaunessy is correct: nothing in terms of her personal relationships is permanent with Joanna. In he end, she changes her mind yet again! She releases her claims of custody on Billy. Anyway, the only way that Ted was going to gain custody is if Joanna gave it to him, given how rigged the judicial system is apparently against men in such cases. Finally, all those kind and magnanimous gestures which Ted made towards Joanna in the trial paid off.
Gender War Angle
The Guardian takes exception to Kramer v. Kramer on the grounds that it “could be interpreted as Men’s Rights propaganda.” Let’s set aside that premise–that The Guardian regards Men’s Rights as something nefarious. What they mean by this is that the visitation terms set out in Kramer v. Kramer were so “odious” as to suggest the system is rigged against men. This actually is a fair interpretation of the film, which is not necessarily untrue.
That’s one implication of the film which The Guardian takes issue with. It does not, however, take issue with one of the film’s more progressive messages; namely, that men can also be caregivers. The film follows the journey of Ted learning that he can be an active parent, and by implication, men can be just as nurturing and active in parenting as women.
The Guardian also notes that the film is biased in favor of Ted, which is to say that the film makes the audience sympathize with him much more so than Joanna. But why wouldn’t it? After all, she left without warning or reason, and then returned just as inexplicably. Are men allowed to be portrayed sympathetically in film in a dispute with their partner?
The Guardian complains of the film:
"For Joanna to forfeit custody entirely is supposed to redeem her, but it makes her the villain once more, because she’s walking out on her son a second time. Even 40 years ago, parenthood wasn’t a zero-sum game."
But she was the villain! Perhaps a villain with something of a redemption arc, but nonetheless. Why is that so hard for liberals to understand, that women are not always perfect, and they shouldn’t necessarily be betrayed in film as such?
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