Kramer vs. Kramer, 40 years on
A couple of nights ago, we re-watched the movie Kramer vs. Kramer, and were struck by the prescience of its response to 1970s feminism.
Starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, and directed by Robert Benton, Kramer vs. Kramer is suffused with the revolutionary feminism of its decade, in which gender roles were in the spotlight, and both men and women were being encouraged to “find themselves” outside the framework of traditional expectations. Unlike the novel by Avery Corman upon which the story was based, the movie was not a total rejection of feminism—but it was skeptical enough to prove that, in 1979, feminist ideology had not yet become Hollywood doctrine.
Many feminist themes are present. Hoffman plays Ted, an ambitious advertising executive who is as blissfully oblivious to his wife’s unhappiness as is their 6-year-old son, Billy. Joanna, played to the hilt by a constantly red-eyed and overwrought Streep, could have walked straight out of the pages of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, anguished by the intelligent housewife’s supposedly perennial question, Is this all there is?
When Joanna leaves Ted in one of the movie’s opening scenes, he is mystified, but viewers are not surprised. Streep’s Joanna is immediately recognizable as the quintessential repressed, desperately questing woman of 1970’s America, trapped in a life supposedly so barren of meaning that she has lost faith in herself. We learn later in the film that before marriage she had attended Smith, a prestigious private women’s college, and worked upon graduation at an elite women’s magazine, Mademoiselle. Marriage and motherhood, viewers are to recognize, have left her intellectually and emotionally suffocated.
In pro-feminist fashion, the movie is about how Ted becomes a better man after his wife leaves him, learning to more fully love and care for his son (though his devotion leads to the loss of his job, a tension the movie never explores) while also developing an empathetic understanding for why his wife found life with him intolerable.
The movie encourages viewers to applaud Ted’s transformation and to view his former (male chauvinist) self through feminist eyes. Viewers are not encouraged to acknowledge or sympathize with the zeal with which Ted pursued the career that, for many years, enabled him to financially support the family from which it also alienated him. He is seen as solely responsible for the collapse of his marriage, a responsibility he acknowledges when he tells his son that “Mommy didn’t leave because she didn’t like you. She left because she couldn’t stand me.”
Yet the fact remains that Mommy did leave her son, staying away for 15 long months while she underwent therapy and found a new lover in California, a fact that even a moderately pro-feminist movie of the 1970s found impossible to forgive or forget, and Streep’s fragile, self-absorbed, and irritatingly self-justifying character garners little sympathy. Her antipathy to her husband could be readily understood, but not her desertion of her child.
The movie centers on the battle for custody of Billy, and the cruelty to both child and father of the judge’s pro forma decision to grant custody to the mother, leaving Ted to visit one night per week and to have Billy stay with him on two weekends of each month. (He will also, of course, pay the mother to take his son from him, despite the fact that his salary is now lower than hers.) That the movie could fully show the father’s pain at this unjust outcome, and the damaging disruption in the child’s life, says something significant about the far greater ideological flexibility of 1970s Hollywood than in our own era, in which the subject of a father’s right to parent his children has never again been raised so prominently in a mainstream movie.
The subject is also raised, significantly, in feminism’s own idiom. In the movie’s most resonant scene, Hoffman asks the court why if women are fully as capable as men to enter the workforce, what law says that a father is any less capable than a mother, or any less necessary, in the raising of their son.
Forty years after that father’s heartfelt (and allegedly feminist) appeal, feminism has failed to provide a satisfactory answer, or even to acknowledge that the question matters.