Kramer vs. Kramer
vs. mother-right

by Rebecca A. Baum

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 4-5
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

KRAMER VS. KRAMER is a story about particular parenting relationships. When seen against the background of the societal oppression of women and mothers, the film takes on misogynist significance. This film is, as they say, "heartwarming" and "believable" and the attention it received at the Oscars is no surprise. In its treatment of women, though, it is a liberal, middle class version of THE CHAMP. It is a well crafted, beautifully acted backlash movie.

The cards are stacked for Daddy. Joanna Kramer, early on, leaves her husband Ted and child Billy in search of self-fulfillment. Ted takes on the responsibility of single parenting Billy. Though awkward at first, he learns to do so admirably, efficiently and with great caring, better even, we have to hear our little internal voices whisper, than most women. It is Ted's struggle that the movie is about.

Yet Joanna's absence strongly informs the film. Though the film gives lip service support to her escape from a stifling marriage, Joanna's human expansion is not what is seen. Instead we are consistently reminded of Joanna's supreme crime as a mother — she is "not there."

After her departure, Joanna's absence is a continual undertone, and the sense of Joanna as absent constitutes the film's strongest portrayal of her. During Ted's first attempt at making breakfast (he seems to have never made breakfast before) he tries valiantly to maintain his composure. But when he burns himself, his inner emotions explode; he mutters, "damn her." It is no accident that Ted's anger at Joanna's absence comes out when Ted is making breakfast (not, for example, when he is alone in his office). His damning of his wife can certainly be read as natural and justifiable anger at being deserted — and yet the damning comes in the midst of Ted's grudgingly and desperately performing Joanna's function — as mother and cook. The scene brings out a significant type of structure in the film; a surface of humanity under which lies a subtle striking out at a woman for being out of "her place."

Even Joanna's initial contact with her child emphasizes the absence that is to come. The film opens with Meryl Streep alone, seen against a black background, talking. It is not clear at first to whom she is talking. Initial images have particular power, and here Joanna is seen isolated, not in relation to her son. The scene significantly does not grow out of a connection between them. When we do see Billy, he responds simply to her "I love you," turns away and goes to sleep secure in his mother's presence and in her connection to him. Yet the powerful first image has shown Joanna isolated and we soon find out that she is leaving the family. Thus the only connection that we see between Joanna and Billy (until their reunion much later in the film) takes on an ironic edge — it seems cruel that the child is so secure in his connection to his mother. We are seeing Joanna in the process of severing that connection.

After her departure the pain of Joanna's presence is reawakened by images of her that remain in the Kramer home. We see Ted, after he becomes reconciled to her having left, packing away pictures of her — he closes a box on an image of her face. Later Ted finds a picture of her in Billy's drawer — he takes it out and leaves it on display. Not only does this emphasize her absence but also Ted's humanity — he doesn't cruelly cut Joanna out of his son's life.

Ted's growing competence as a father also points up Joanna's failure. While Joanna has tearfully said on her departure, "I'm not good for him' [Billy], and "He'll be better off without me," we see Ted over the course of the film increasing his competency at fathering smoothly, mathematically. The sort of mathematical increase in Ted's fathering capacity is underlined by the symmetry of the early breakfast scene and a later one in which Ted handles the cooking with ease and efficiency. Instead of portraying parenting as it is in the real world, a process of continual learning and continually different joys and frustrations, Ted's success here makes it seem as though people only need to turn their attention to parenting and it will become more and more easy as time goes on. Joanna, though, is seen as stopped, stymied, not able to make the smooth progression at parenting that Ted, once he really tries, achieves with relative ease. Joanna's failure to progress smoothly adds to her portrayal as unfit; her later account at having grown personally through therapy pales next to the change we have seen in Ted.

The attention to Joanna's absence even extends to the areas of bodily functions. One of the film's jokes is that we hear Ted pee and then see Billy walk into the bathroom in the exact same way and make the same sound. The joke is that both can make the same sound because they both have penises. It is an assertion of Ted and Billy's bond. They cannot only do without a woman but they can now do things together that are particularly male and that might be interrupted by a woman's presence.

When Ted reads Billy Joanna's letter in which she says that she is still Billy's "mommy of the heart," it is clear that the letter arouses anger in both Ted and Billy, who turns up the TV instead of listening. Both of them fail to acknowledge the love and concern in the letter. It is not enough that Joanna be a "mommy of the heart." She is nothing to them if she is not a mommy-function.

The argument is made that Joanna is sympathetic in absentia, and becomes especially sympathetic in her reunion with her child in Central Park. Yet this is really the only time we see Joanna as a mother or at all humanly connected or touching anyone. We even only hear about her relationship with her woman friend, Margaret, who was supposedly close enough to her to support her exodus from her home. Joanna is emotional but, with the exception of the reunion scene, she is physically visually detached from human contact. She is cool, blonde, always impeccably dressed and looks like she wouldn't want to get wrinkled, let alone really touched or loved.

At crucial moments it is Joanna's looks that are brought to attention rather than her relationships. Her last words before she is to say a final goodbye to her son are, "How do I look?" to which Ted replies, "Terrific." Compare the film's portrayal of Joanna's saying goodbye to her son to Ted's scene with Billy when he loses custody. We don't see the potentially dramatic moment between Joanna and Billy, but instead we see Joanna alone, again, and oddly concerned with her appearance. The analogous scene between Ted and Billy has taken place in a beautiful natural setting in which the two are physically close and expressive.

But this is not the only instance in which we are shown Joanna and Ted's differing relations to their son. When Billy is injured and requires stitches in his face, Ted's face is close enough to his to be nearly grazed by the needle. Later, Joanna is pictured observing Ted and Billy from a coffee shop. She is not only framed in long shot but is seen behind the glass window of the shop — a voyeur of her own family, an invader on paternal bliss. She looks so immobile as to appear slightly insane. We see Ted progress from a cold workaholic to a warm and caring father. Yet Joanna is portrayed as isolated, absent, disconnected. He is humanized by parenting, but by the time she returns for her custody battle with Ted she has been effectively, within the film, dehumanized by her need not to parent.

The tip-off really comes in the court sequence from Margaret, the Kramer's neighbor. She occupies a position in the narrative that would be closest to that of the spectator in the audience. She is sympathetic to both Joanna and Ted, an ostensibly "feminist" supporter of Joanna's initial struggle for independence, an observer of the battle between the parents and the development of the child, a woman who becomes admiring and warm to Ted as the story progresses, a witness metaphorically — and literally in court. She blurts out, trying to transcend the inhumanity of the court, to Joanna that, "If you could see them now [meaning Ted and Billy], you wouldn't be doing this." Indeed, as the audience, by the time we get to court we have "seen" Billy and Ted in a way that makes us cry out against Joanna's attack on the father-son bond.

In court we are also struck subtly by Ted's humanity and by Joanna's insensitivity to Ted. When Ted's lawyer attacks Joanna for having failed at her marriage, close cross-cutting connects Ted and Joanna as Ted mouths a comforting "no" to her. But when Joanna's lawyer attacks Ted over Billy's accident, Joanna turns away at a crucial moment. When she finally apologizes to Ted later, the connection between the two is visually disrupted by the elevator bars between then.

TV promos are highly conscious presentations of films and show the basis on which the promoters expect to sell the film. The TV commercials for this film are fascinating. I have seen two. In the first promo Joanna is seen embracing Billy, but her image is undermined by Ted's voice saying, "I don't see why a woman is a better parent simply because of her sex." This is followed by images of Ted and Billy. In the second promo we see Ted and Billy and hear Joanna's voice saying that she was "his mommy for 5-1/2 years." But she is undermined again by the powerful father and son images that follow. Both promos end with Ted's description of what it means to "be there" for a child. Ted is then seen behind Billy, letting go of him and smiling as Billy rides his bike toward the camera.

The promos touch a whole range of reflexes of maternal guilt. Ted "is there" for Billy. Joanna is not. The film drives this point home. She is expected to "be there." How much paternal guilt is stimulated by the accusation that a father is not there for a child? Certainly not the powerful guilt that comes from the mother's traditional identity as the person primarily responsible for her child. In KRAMER VS. KRAMER we are so enamored of Ted's great love for Billy that we never question Ted's performance as a father before Joanna's departure. The father's absence from his child is seen here as redeemed, the mother's absence from the child unredeemable.

In the end of the promos we see Ted behind Billy, letting him go on his bicycle. He obviously "lets go" rightly, happily, supportively, unlike Joanna or unlike our other stereotype of the confining, possessive mother (often pictured as Jewish) who doesn't know how to let go at all.

Ted's life style is that of the bourgeois professional, and his being fired is not seen here as immediately threatening because of his loss of income but because of Joanna's having initiated the custody battle. Ted seems to need his job not to survive but to make a good appearance in court. The film pays attention to the incursions of parenting on Ted's professional life. Though Ted has ample money for childcare and a professional rank which includes secretarial help, parenting is still difficult — and funny because of the "inappropriateness" of a man of his rank having to parent. The film in its portrayal of Ted's struggle fails to recognize his tremendous privilege. Millions of single mothers work and parent without the benefits of professional rank or its attendant financial rewards.

The Kramers' court battle is not exactly a fair fight. Ted possesses all the nobility of having undertaken "women's work" and succeeded beautifully at it. Joanna has failed in her traditional maternal identity and is isolated, untouchable and unmotherly — though the effect is softened and hidden by Streep's rich acting and her consummate emotionalism. There is even a snipe at affirmative action when we discover that struggling, beleaguered Ted's job pays less than Joanna's creative position as designer. (As Ms. noted, "Who gets a reentry job at $31,000?") In addition, one feels Ted terribly oppressed by the court system for its usual siding with the mother in custody cases ("mother-right").

The film does not recognize our social system as one in which, despite "liberation," the primary work of parenting is the responsibility of the mother. In this system divorced mothers are constantly in court suing their husbands for usually inadequate contributions of monetary support; in which children are threatened with kidnapping by their fathers, often in retribution against the wife for wanting to separate from her husband; in which the whole family is often threatened with violence by the father.

Convinced that Ted Kramer's bond with Billy should be unassailable, we go into court with the Kramers ready to side with the oppressed Ted against a system that appears to find "mother-right" unassailable. This is far from the truth. Courts attack a woman's fitness as a mother on the basis of her poverty, her politics, her lesbianism, her heterosexual connections, her class, or her "mental health."

In KRAMER VS. KRAMER a comic scene finds Billy confronting Ted's naked lover in the hall of the apartment. Had Ted been a woman, that incident if discovered by a father would be grounds for a custody hearing. Had this story been true, I am not convinced that the court would have found with Joanna since she had abandoned her child to find herself, to become fully human. These struggles are ostensibly feminist and apparently flakey, especially when pursued in a place as notably unserious as California. For women as parents it's a no-win situation. If she is a good parent she gets little recognition — it is her duty and is seen as a matter of nature. If she is bad she is abominable. If a man is a bad father — well, gee, too bad. If he's a good father, he's a saint.

Shared custody doesn't come up in the film. In KRAMER VS. KRAMER, as the title declares, there is clearly an adversary relationship. Someone must lose. And though Ted appears to lose because of the "inequities" of the system, in fact it is the woman, the mother, who loses. In the end, Joanna sacrifices for her child in the tradition of the great melodramas. She recognizes Ted as the better parent and tearfully bids her child adieu. An apparently "rightful" order is reasserted. If a woman leaves her child; if a woman, as all mothers must (at least at times), feels trapped, narrowed and overburdened by the overwhelming responsibility of mothering in a society that offers her little support; if that mother needs a break, needs expansion, she will be denied a further deep relationship with her child as the punishment for venturing outside her role. A woman who leaves her child must suffer. KRAMER VS. KRAMER surely serves as a subtle and insidious (by its warmth, believability and apparent "reality") admonition to mothers: Mother in exactly the way society defines or you will be denied any relationship to your child. Repress and hide your oppression as a mother or you will end miserably. Remember, Mommy — it's all or nothing.


A shorter version of this article appeared in off our backs, copyright 1979. Subs to this important feminist publication are $7/year ($20 institutions), 1724 20th Street N.W., Washington, DC 20009.