Kramer vs. Kramer

Kramer vs. Kramer

I may be alone in this, dear readers, but watching Dustin Hoffman is a slightly different experience for me post-creepy sexual harassment allegations. Kramer vs Kramer is one that I avoided for a long time under the entirely correct assumption that it would be very very depressing. But I can’t help but wish that I had watched this back when I still thought the world of Dustin Hoffman. It’s a very good movie and he’s very good in it, but his career sort of has an asterisk next to it now.

Kramer vs Kramer is in a lot of ways a groundbreaking work on gender dynamics and sexual politics. It begins with a bombshell, as Meryl Streep prepares to leave her husband and, by extension, her very young son. No matter how far women have come in society in terms of not being seen as simply child-bearing and child-rearing vessels, people have a really hard time with the idea of a mother abandoning her child. Dads walk out all the time, and it’s bad but there’s nothing incredibly unusual about absentee fathers. But for some reason, this notion of a mother leaving is seen as fundamentally unnatural. What is novel about Kramer vs Kramer is that it attempts to tell her side of the story and help the audience understand what led her to make the decision to leave with as little overt judgment as possible. The viewers may not agree with her decision, but at least they have been given the tools to empathize and see how desperately unhappy she must have been to take such a step.

This film also pioneers the revolutionary concept that sexual discrimination hurts men as well as women. It doesn’t just stifle women and handcuff them to a role they may not be personally well-suited for, it also assumes that a man is fundamentally incapable of caring for his own child just because he happens to have a penis. This is why when people talk about challenging the patriarchal system, it’s not just about making the world better for women, but for men too.

Dustin Hoffman’s character is a workaholic, checked-out parent who now has to become a primary caregiver to a very sad and confused little boy. It’s difficult at first and occasionally hard to watch, as he’s constantly frustrated and impatient, as he demands the type of behavior from his son that just isn’t developmentally realistic. But as time goes by, they begin to bond on a deeper level, building a relationship that is solid and loving. His development into an involved single parent is incredibly emotionally satisfying to witness, as he learns to understand and value his relationship with his son. The quieter moments of the film are particularly effective at showing this transition, as father and son wordlessly prepare french toast, for example, settled into an easy and comfortable routine.

But just as they seem to have found some sort of equilibrium, the paradigm shifts again. The mother returns, distance having given her a new sense of perspective, and she decides that she would like to have a relationship with her son. What’s more, she plans on suing for custody.

What follows is as emotionally conflicting and upsetting as anything you’re likely to see in a family drama. They go to court over this custody battle, and it gets ugly. Divorce was becoming more common at this time, and was just beginning to lose its stigma as a dirty little secret people didn’t really talk about too much. So for many people, this was likely their first look at the divorce process and contested custody arrangements. What Kramer vs Kramer presents her is honest and unflinching, imbued with hostility and hurt and cynical maneuvering. But there is also a balanced approach to the narrative between the two parents that articulates clearly their point of view. We’ve just watched Dustin Hoffman work himself to the bone to make his son the sole priority in his life, so to the audience it seems unjust to strip him of his parental rights. But at the same time, the strength of Meryl Streep’s performance combined with the choice to have her take the stand to defend herself only to be bullied and humiliated by the prosecution allows us to empathize with her as well. It’s easy to imagine being trapped in an unhappy relationship, your mental state deteriorating until you’re convinced that you have so little value as a person that your own child would be better off without you. And it’s clear from her testimony that she was in survival mode, plain and simple.

But does she have more of a claim to custody of her child? Personally, I think that if you want to have custody of your child and can provide a safe living arrangement for them, you shouldn’t be denied a relationship with them -- that’s what joint custody was made for. 1979 apparently disagrees.


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