Catch Up written by Chelsea Cristene
Kramer vs. Kramer
Year of Release: 1979
Rating: PG (probably for the split second that you see a naked lady)
Currently Streaming on Netflix? I know that it was a few months back; not sure if it’s still there!
Spoilers? If you don’t want the ending revealed, stop reading three paragraphs from the end.
It is of very doubtful value to enlist the gifts of women if bringing women into fields that have been defined as male frightens the men, unsexes the women, muffles and distorts the contribution the women could make, either because their presence excludes men from the occupation or because it changes the quality of the men who enter it. – Margaret Mead, Male and Female
What’s with the epigraph? Isn’t this supposed to be a movie review? What does a 1949 book by Margaret Mead have to do with something set in the ’70s? Well, a lot. A whole hell of a lot.
In the late 1940s, much of Margaret Mead’s anthropological work was shaped by her time. She was one in a band of psychologists, social scientists, and other educators who had adopted the “biology is destiny” view of women’s roles, the reverberations of which are felt in every second of Kramer vs. Kramer. Thirty years after Male and Female, not much has changed in the household where Joanna (Meryl Streep) tucks her son into bed and waits for Ted (Dustin Hoffman) to “bring home the bacon.” Scenes of the drastically different spaces husband and wife occupy alternate in the first few minutes: Ted hustling through the streets of New York City, high from great career news; jobless Joanna milling around a tiny apartment. What follows is a sort of delicate explosion. Calm, cool, and collected, Joanna tells Ted, “I’m leaving you,” to which he first asks her to quiet down because he’s on the phone. (In one of my favorite devil-is-in-the-details moments from Meryl Streep, the way she nods lets us know that this is not the first time she’s felt ignored by her husband.) Joanna is out the door and into the elevator in a matter of minutes, but we know from her organization (“Here are my keys, here are my credit cards…”) and resignation (“I don’t love you anymore.”) that she’s been thinking about this for a very long time.
Whoops, we forgot about Billy (Justin Henry). And so has Ted, given their obvious lack of closeness while making French toast the next morning. Both father and son are shaken up by the disruption to their routine: Billy likes his breakfast the way Mommy makes it (that is to say correctly), while Ted has absolutely no idea what he’s doing and curses Joanna for leaving him with such a mess. We can certainly identify with Ted’s frustration, especially since Billy is an insufferable brat much of the time, but we can also probably see why Joanna left. Fully immersed in his role as “man of the house” as American family culture dictates, Ted isn’t involved in the domestic sphere because he’s never had to be. And as his relationship with Billy goes from being chastised for not being attentive like “the other mommies” to kissing Billy’s forehead as the doctor stitches up a playground injury, Ted also comes to realize that if he hadn’t been trying to “make [Joanna] a certain kind of person,” while refusing to be a more nurturing man, their marriage might have worked.
This isn’t to let Joanna off the hook. Just as quickly as she had left, she returns to New York City and, after a while of creepily watching Billy from a nearby cafe, decides that she wants him back. The subsequent courtroom scene is the most emotionally draining thing I’ve seen since To Kill a Mockingbird. Ted and Joanna, through the kind of brutality that only child custody lawyers can bring, are forced to confront the issues in their marriage that were overlooked or dismissed for years. (For instance, like a lot of young married women at the time, Joanna had stopped working because her husband didn’t approve.) Additionally, each lawyer attacks his client’s spouse’s inability to “succeed” according to the expectations of his or her gender. Ted is criticized for his oversight in watching Billy on the playground, which led to a bloody fall and ten stitches. Joanna’s lawyer also accuses Ted of being an unfit provider, as he was recently fired (notably for paying too much attention to his parenting responsibilities) and forced into taking a pay cut at a new position. Ted’s lawyer grills Joanna about her personal life, asking “how many boyfriends” she has had and if she currently “has a lover.” It’s implied that all of this romantic inconsistency makes Joanna unfit to raise Billy, exemplifying the stereotype of the “promiscuous” divorced woman that persists today. And when Joanna is asked if she was a “failure at the one most important relationship” in her life, I can feel all the divorced women I know holding back tears with her, having been asked the same question by family and friends as to why they didn’t try harder.
As a teenager, I used to understand Kramer vs. Kramer as the story of a hard-working dad who “wins” the custody battle against his negligent ex-wife. It was easy for me to villianize Joanna in the same way it is easy for those critical of divorce to villianize its initiators as the selfish destroyers of families, without acknowledging the identity crisis in all parties. “What if the grownups aren’t really grown up?” Roger Ebert asked in his 1979 review. “What about a family in which everybody is still basically a kid crying for attention and searching for identity?” In what for me is the film’s most powerful scene, Ted quells his son’s fears that Joanna left because of him and comes to terms with the real reason.
I think the reason why Mommy left was because for a long time, I kept trying to make her be a certain kind of person. A certain kind of wife that I thought she was supposed to be. And she just wasn’t like that. I think that she tried for so long to make me happy, and when she couldn’t, she tried to talk to me about it. But I wasn’t listening. I was too busy, too wrapped up… just thinking about myself. And I thought that anytime I was happy, she was happy. But I think underneath she was very sad. Mommy stayed here longer than she wanted because she loves you so much. And the reason why Mommy couldn’t stay anymore… was because she couldn’t stand me, Billy.
When men and women are not socially permitted to realize full versions of themselves, they are set up for a life of confusion and resentment; a life of choices made according to someone else’s idea of happiness instead of their own. Ted, through personal growth that extends well beyond finally learning how to make French toast (one of the film’s most touching moments), becomes a better caregiver than his female counterpart and redefines what it means to be a man. “You know, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it is that makes somebody a good parent,” he tells the court. “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 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 a man has any less of those emotions than a woman does.”
Kramer vs. Kramer was the first movie of its time to speak candidly about divorce and child custody, made all the more real by dialogue that was improvised during many of its scenes. This movie, to me, is more than an Oscar-winning masterpiece: it’s required viewing for anyone who believes that a marriage should only end if someone cheats or throws a fist, assumes that a couple who divorces simply “gave up,” or otherwise feels the need to judge a situation they’ve never experienced.