Kramer v. Kramer was Meryl Streep’s breakout movie performance for which she won an Oscar for her performance as Joanna Kramer in 1980. The movie nearly made a clean sweep in all of the major categories and depending on who you talk to, it was either hailed as a film which promoted the feminist cause or promoted the patriarchy.
The first time I saw it, my feelings were indifferent. Meryl Streep was Meryl Streep, able to deliver a good performance when required of her. Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Ted Kramer was too schizophrenic, too jumpy for my liking. It’s not a stretch to see why his wife left him, even if he wasn’t an alcoholic, didn’t beat her and didn’t have affairs (as so eloquently stated by Ted’s divorce attorney). As for the subject matter, it was no big deal to me. I was born in 1979 (same year the movie was released), came of age in the 90s, my parents were divorced, it wasn’t nasty, it wasn’t pretty, it just was. Almost everyone I knew had divorced parents or if not yet divorced were well on their way. Gen X accept divorce as a reality of our lives. Some people coped better than others, some parents behaved better than others, we children just got on with our lives the best we could.
I recently saw it again and this time I paid closer attention to the subject matter and how each character was portrayed. One of the commentary one consistently hears about this movie is that it gives equal weight to the point of view of both Joanna and Ted. That Joanna had legitimate reasons for her being discontented with her marriage and her role as a mother and her taking off to California for 18 months to get some therapy and find herself is just as valid as the anger, sadness and disappointment of Ted when his wife walked out on them. Each character got to present their side of the equation, and it got heated and contested at times, but in the end, they put the needs of their little boy Billy first and was able to functionally co-parent.
This is not a movie that promoted the cause of feminism. This is a movie pretending to promote women and feminism but it’s really shaming women who dare to walk out on their children and after walking out have the gumption and audacity to come back and claim them. If you walk out on your child once, you lose your right to be their mother forever. Especially if the reason for the mother’s departure is personal, as opposed to getting treatment for addiction, serving time in prison or any other reason which the mother was separated from her child against her will; she will receive extra harsh judgement from society, even from other women. Voluntarily walking out on your child and abandoning your duties as a mother even just temporarily is about the worse sin you can commit as a mother. No one will look at you or speak of you the same after that. Fathers walk out on their families all the time, some don’t even bother showing up to begin with, yet, when they decide that they’ve been selfish and cruel and want to reconcile with their estranged children, they are welcomed like heroes returning from battle. Everyone is delighted and doesn’t ask the hard questions, such as, why were you a selfish bastard to begin with?
The movie was adapted from Avery Corman’s novel of the same name. Corman was inspired to write this book because he was tired of hearing feminists haranguing on about how all men are arseholes (I don’t entirely blame him, they were becoming increasingly shrill). So, he decided to write a book to show that women can also be an arsehole and what’s a bigger arsehole than a mother walking out on her family? In Corman’s book –
Joanna Kramer [is the problem], who finds motherhood, by and large, “boring.” She starts taking tennis lessons. Sex with Ted is mechanical. About 50 pages in, Joanna informs Ted that she’s “suffocating.” She’s leaving him, and she’s leaving Billy. (“Feminists will applaud me,” she says.) Ted overcomes his shock and gets back into the swing of single life. More important, he learns how to be a good father. It is then that Joanna does the unthinkable: she returns from California and tells Ted she wants Billy back. The ensuing custody battle, which gives the novel its title, lays bare the ugliness of divorce proceedings and the wounds they allow people to inflict on each other.
If he wanted to make a point that not all men are arseholes and women are just as capable of being arseholes, Kramer v. Kramer is a cheap shot and doesn’t illustrate this point at all. There are several things wrong here.
Firstly, the feminism isn’t about absolving women of their arsholery. It’s about in spite of being an arsehole, our personhood and rights are not diminished or taken away, we still have our rights even if we are arseholes – like men. Feminists are aware that not all men are arseholes, but the patriarchy and all that subscribe to it (which include some women) provide blanket cover and rights to all men, regardless if they are worthy of it or not. Men who behave badly are not called out, it’s chalked up to “men being men” or “boys being boys”. Men who cheat on their wives, abuse their wives and children and don’t meet their financial obligation to them are scum, but they aren’t punished to the degree which women are punished should they commit these sins. Women who behave as men do, in a good or bad way, are routinely shamed, belittled, patronized and condescended. And if you are a woman who just happens to be a mother, you are held even to a higher standard, even by other women. That Corman used this situation to illustrate his point only reveals his own sexism and misogyny. He knows that everyone has strong and harsh opinions on women who walk out on their children.
Secondly, Corman need not write a book of fiction to depict how women can behave in an appalling manner. He can just look back at history and see that some of the most evil people, most manipulative people are women: Mary I (also known as Bloody Mary) comes to mind, Catherine the Great, Tony Soprano’s mother (not a real person but we all know someone like that), the Chinese Empress Wu Ze Tian of Tang Dynasty – she killed her infant daughter so she can frame the Empress for killing her daughter so that the Empress would be ousted from court and she can take her place. This is the greatest evil, a mother killing her child. There’s a Chinese idiom: Even the treacherous tigress will not eat her cubs, Wu Ze Tian killed her cub. So, the point being, Corman need not convince his readers that women can be evil. The need for feminism and the need for the constant reminders (or haranguing) from feminists is not predicated on women are inherently kinder, more ethical or moral than men; it’s predicated on women (regardless if they were good or bad people), throughout history have been oppressed by men and the patriarchy. Our bodies are abused by the patriarchy, our time to attain self-fulfilment and achievement is robbed – especially those of us who have families by the patriarchy and the need to keep society’s engine flowing. Women’s wants, needs and desires come second to those of men. Employment laws are written to benefit men (and women without children) and their schedules. Women who have children or desire to have children or have other caregiving obligations they have to meet outside of her work have to find her own way, which sometimes leads them to dropping out of the workforce. Pregnant women are seen as an inconvenience. A woman with small children are seen as a burden and someone they must accommodate their work around. But all the times she’s accommodated others prior to becoming a mother is forgotten. Women get paid less than men, about 0.79 to every dollar a man makes. All of these issues have no bearing on whether she walks out on her family or not.
Thirdly, For Corman to use a woman who walks out on her family to prove his point is appealing to the lowest common denominator of society’s boiling scorn against women who walk out on their families, especially their child. Society doesn’t punish men the same way as they punish women who walk out on their families. He doesn’t become a social pariah and he doesn’t lose the right to see his children forever because he walked out once.
Joanna Kramer was gone for 18 months, not 18 years. So, a little perspective please. Little Billy was 7 years old when his mother left. Ted, prior to his wife leaving them was your typical ‘loving but absent’ father. He was too busy working, earning the bacon to bring home to his family. His wife did all the heavy lifting at home. Because his wife left he’s had to step up to the plate and be a full time parent and work full time, which incidentally, is what many women do on much less income. This glaring fact is conveniently left out of the movie. So Ted was his son’s main caregiver for 18 months, Corman seems to believe this has earned him an award for heroism and that he is unimpeachable. And exactly what is so “unthinkable” about a woman coming back to claim her child? Even if she left of her own volition, to find that greener pasture, to find that perfect man, to find herself and to do so, she did a supremely selfish thing and left her child behind with his father – not with a stranger, she didn’t drop him off at the firestation, she left the little boy with his father, in their home, where he sleeps in his bedroom with the white clouds on the walls every night. Don’t men do this all the time? Leave their wives for the secretary or the nanny?
There’s no way to prepare for parenthood except trial by fire. There are some people whose dream is to become a mother, until she becomes one, when she finally experiences how much work it involves and how much is taken from you. Not just sleep, your weight or your figure, but quiet time, alone time, time to think, which for those of us who are artistically inclined is like oxygen. Children demand attention from you twenty-four seven, non-stop. They find the most inconvenient time to have an ’emergency’ and that emergency can be ‘I want orange slices nooowww’ or tripping and scraping its knee and you’ve got to drop everything in your hands to attend to that emergency. Some people take these impositions better than others. Some people have no coping ability for them. Parenting can be equal parts soul draining and joyful elation. For those that lack coping skills, parenting is a suffocation, a slow death of yourself.
The movie didn’t explore why Joanna Kramer left except that she’s “bored” and that she didn’t know how to deal with that boredom. It made her appear flighty and irresponsible, after all, what person would just get up and move across the country and leave her family behind? The movie didn’t explore Ted much either. What was he like as a husband and father before his wife walked out? Was he was a screaming bore? What if the marriage was a mistake and they no longer had anything in common but Billy anymore? And what if she just wanted out for no particular reason but that she wants out? The most compelling scenes in the movie is when Joanna Kramer was put on the stand to testify on why now she is suddenly fit to regain custody of Billy when just 18 months ago she walked out without so much as a backward glance. The line of questioning from Ted’s attorney is your typical patriarchal bullying:
Hunching over her on his cane, he asks her to name the “longest personal relationship” of her life. Wasn’t it with her ex-husband?
“Yes,” she murmurs.
So, hadn’t she failed at the most important relationship in her life? “It did not succeed,” she answers weakly.
“Not it, Mrs. Kramer,” he bellows, sticking an accusatory finger in her face. “You. Were you a failure at the one most important relationship in your life? Were you?”
You wouldn’t think she was testifying at a child custody hearing, you’d think she was on trial for murder. According to the patriarchy, Joanna is responsible for the failure of her marriage. Not Ted or his actions or their joint actions. It’s not a joint failure, it’s her failure, because, after all, Ted doesn’t beat her, he didn’t philander and he’s not a drunk. Ok – someone please hand him the Husband of the Year award.
Meryl Streep while preparing for the role demanded some script rewrites which would explore the thought processes of Joanna, she asked her own mother about the whole ordeal of raising a family and she said,
“All my friends at one point or another wanted to throw up their hands and leave and see if there was another way of doing their lives.”
Because the writer chose to not give the audience more details as to why Joanna walked out on her marriage besides that she was “bored” and felt “suffocated”. It gave very little narrative about what their marriage was like, they let the audience’s imagination wander. He chose not to depict the nitty gritty parts of the marriage which could drive one to leave, he took the convenient way out and just regurgitated what the feminists were saying at the time, that marriage and family obligations can be suffocating and boring and as women, we yearn for more. We see Joanna feeling “bored” and “suffocated”, she has a semi-nervous breakdown, leaves her family, goes to California, gets some therapy and a job of her own, recovers from the breakdown and comes back to claim her son, which apparently is the “unthinkable” part to Corman. A woman coming back to claim her child. As a result of certain omissions, the audience (male and female) cannot make a clear judgement on exactly why she would leave such a cute, mop haired little boy behind and seek greener pastures on the other side of the country. It leads the audience to only one conclusion – and that she’s selfish and unfit to be a mother.
This movie only reinforces the idea that women are held to a higher moral or ethical standard. And that for every action a woman takes, she must have a moral or ethical justification – in the case of Joanna, she must a victim of some sort of abuse at the hands of her husband before she’s allowed to leave the yoke of her marriage and come claim her son. The movie went out of its way to portray Joanna as an irresponsible and immature mother and Ted as the heroic father who steps up to the plate when his wife leaves them. But where was he 7 years before?
After the movie wrapped, the director Robert Benton decided to re-shoot the ending with different dialogue. Meryl Streep by this time had married her husband Don Gummer and was pregnant with their first child,
[The pregnancy was] [n]ot enough to show, but enough that Joanna’s choice—a harbinger of Sophie’s—suddenly seemed unconscionable. She told Benton, “I could never have done this role now.”
Whatever happened to actors not judging the characters they play?