In 1979, Columbia Pictures released Robert Benton’s film Kramer Vs. Kramer. Almost immediately the film became a hit, and even garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. In the years following, Kramer Vs. Kramer achieved a “classic” status on home video, becoming a classic on the family film circuit. All that said, a closer analysis of the film reveals that not just its text, but its sub text paints a rather unflattering portrait of feminism.
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) introduces the effects of feminism onto the American family unit to the mainstream of American cinema. Of course, the ramifications of feminism had long been the subjects of films, though those had all been small independent or underground films. For the most part, feminism had only been articulated from the perspective of the woman in the family unit, most successfully in Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969). Focusing an entire feature on the perspective of the male was not commonplace, though it had been done on a smaller scale before in John Cassavetes’ film A Woman Under The Influence (1974). However, the male protagonist, Nick, in Cassavetes’ film does not make all the apologies that define the character Ted (Dustin Hoffman) in Kramer Vs. Kramer.
Following Joanna’s (Meryl Streep) departure, Ted begins apologizing to his son that he enforced the accepted sociological responsibilities and stereotypes onto his wife. The more Ted realizes that his behavior had suppressed Joanna, the more he himself adopts the very behavior he had tried to enforce upon her. The problem with this is that it vilifies feminism. Kramer Vs. Kramer consistently advocates the adherence of the sexes to the sociological archetypes that dominated the family unit in the wake of WWII. To be a success, Ted must behave as the archetypal male at work and as a surrogate mother at home. The catalyst for this division of Ted’s persona is the abandonment of his wife, who has suddenly decided to heed the call of feminism.
The film goes even further to villainize feminism when the narrative reintroduces Joanna to carry out a custody battle with Ted over their son Billy (Justin Henry). Since the film is designed to bestow the audience’s sympathies with Ted, he signifies, along with Billy, the American family unit. Since Joanna’s actions are portrayed as selfish, and they clearly stand in the way of Ted and Billy’s success as a family, one must assume that feminism (represented by Joanna) is the antagonist of the film.
During the custody battle in court during Joanna’s testimony is restricted to the vernacular of the nuclear family. Though this could be explained by narrative fluidity, these scenes neglect to articulate the feminist perspective. In this case, feminism has no voice, and is simply relegated to being just a motive, whose deeper meanings and ramifications as they pertain to Joanna are entirely ignored.
The conflicts that arise from Joanna’s custody battle, particularly Ted’s search for a new job, further the positive image of corporate America and conservative politics. The idealism scenes such as these advocate lack the contemporary Romanticism of Frank Capra’s films, optioning to follow a stylistic approach closer to realism, a very common trend at the time. Without the tenacity of Capra’s cinema, Kramer Vs. Kramer comes across as deceptive and subliminal. The film moves covertly to make its political points and convey its conservative message, neglecting a number of American cinematic traditions that extend beyond Capra to Chaplin, Keaton, Hawks and Ford.
Realism, at least what passes for realism in Kramer Vs. Kramer, is hardly grounded in the world the audience inhabits. Yet, the film makes the pretense that it is, deceiving the audience into a state of suspended belief designed to instill in that same audience a series of conservative ideals. If one were to compare Ted to Nick in A Woman Under The Influence, the differences between actual realism and “assumed” realism become clear. Though the scenes in A Woman Under The Influence in which Nick is left alone to take care of his children only make up one fifth of the entire film, they more accurately portray the situation both he and Ted find themselves in. In an attempt to entertain his children, Nick and a co-worker take the children to the beach in the winter. There is little dialogue, mostly just Nick trying to control his kids because he cannot engage them in the fantasy world their mother created. Yet, Nick stubbornly tries to bond with his kids on the same deep level his wife had. All Nick can think to do, is to share some beer with his children. Both Nick and Ted are working men, yuppies, disengaged from the inner world of their children. What Cassavetes does in ten minutes takes Robert Benton forty minutes to accurately portray the perspective of the male bread-winner under these circumstances.
Examining all these different components, the evidence appears indicative of an anti-feminist agenda at work in Kramer Vs. Kramer. It isn’t suprising that the perspectives at work in Kramer Vs. Kramer aren’t what they are considering the political climate at the time under the Carter administration. At best, Kramer Vs. Kramer begins to articulate the strife a child experiences during a divorce.