Kramer vs. Kramer

Kramer vs. Kramer is the story of a custody battle, but in its time (1979) and place it becomes a battle of mothering vs. fathering and over how men and women should lead their lives.  Ted Kramer, a Madison Avenue art director is so consumed with his career that he doesn’t understand the basic needs of his son or even the grade he is in school.  Joanna Kramer, a former employee of Mademoiselle, had left her career to care for their son, Billy.  Joanna finds herself overwhelmed with feelings of worthlessness and leaves her son and husband to find herself.  Ted is forced to learn to be a parent and Billy loves being with his father more.  After a period of fifteen months, Joanna returns.  She is not looking for forgiveness but rather to obtain custody of their son.  Their battle leaves us questioning the very definition of gender in our society.

Ted and Joanna Kramer had a life that was defined as our society would have seen fit.  Joanna, being biologically suited, would remain at home and care for their son.  She provides for the emotional needs of the family.  Ted, operating in the public sphere, would provide for the families material needs.  This is what American culture has defined as the nuclear family.  This is the standard that our society would define as desirable.

This ideology is so clearly spelled out in the courtroom.  Part of the case that Streep presents for herself during the custody trial is a simplistic appeal-to-the fact that motherhood is powerfully persuasive as a social institution. “I’m his mother. He’s my child. I love him. He needs me more than he needs his father. I’m his mother.”

The simple fact that Streep as the boy’s biological mother is supposed to outweigh, in court, any particularities of their individual case. And on the basis of this argument the court grants custody to Streep. As Hoffman’s lawyer says, “They went for motherhood right down the line.”  The movie insists that gender is the primary factor in child custody determinations at the time of divorce. Having established gender as the key, the movie then goes to court, where proceedings are seen from a distinctly male perspective.

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Attorney Shaughnessy warns Ted Kramer that courts favor mothers in custody battles over young children. The task, Shaughnessy is certain, is to prove Joanna is an unfit mother. Shaughnessy also apparently overlooks the fact that the parties had already divorced, and Ted had custody, so the issue was not custody but rather custody modification. Even assuming a maternal preference rule, modification hearings place great weight on maintaining child care continuity.  fictional Judge Atkins sees things the way attorney Shaughnessy does. Atkins’ award of custody to Joanna Kramer relies almost completely on the “tender years”

When the Kramers do in fact have their day in court, viewers are propelled to defend Ted.  It seems unfair when Joanna’s attorney asks Ted on the stand about his move from one advertising agency to another for lower pay. Viewers are angered by the suggestion that it was Ted’s negligence that caused Billy’s playground fall. But somehow, this does not seem quite as bad when Shaughnessy questions Joanna about her sexual liaisons since the time of her divorce from Ted.

Even Ted sympathized with Joanna at the legal proceedings seems. With Joanna wilting on the stand from a brutal cross-examination, Ted shows no vindictive pleasure. With Joanna struggling with the question “Were you a failure at the most important personal relationship of your life?” Ted establishes eye contact and supportively shakes his head no.

Even after the legal proceedings conclude with a decision adverse to Ted, we continue to reflect on developments from Ted’s perspective. When Ted asks Shaughnessy about an appeal, Shaughnessy warns that it would be necessary to put little Billy on the stand. Ted realizes how destructive this would be. The viewer shares his appraisal of the legal process’ twisted ways and seconds his decision to back off for Billy’s sake. Ted continues to win our sympathy.

Kramer vs. Kramer, this issue is gender inequality.  In New York, where the movie takes place, the courts were no longer going to rely on gender to decide custody battles, but gender was still a topic on the minds of the public in the 1980’s, when the movie was released.   I believe that in a large proportion of our population today, there continues to be gender issues when parenting or custody issues are reviewed.  There still exists the notion that women are built to be parents and nurture a child, something men are not emotional enough to do.

In this case, Kramer vs. Kramer, the court’s finding of Joanna as the custodial parent, does not appear to have been a decision based on anything other than gender.  The decision was made on the societal belief that a mother will be the better parent, it is what women were built to do.  Ted is denied custody on the basis of gender, he cannot possibly be a better or even equal parent.

The demonstration that Ted is not an adequate provider because he lost one job and took a lesser paying job, and that this somehow makes him unfit because as the father he is to be the breadwinner and this outweighed the fact that Joann had abandoned her child.  The belief that Joanna should have stayed with her family, despite her own desires or wishes, and the portrayal of her as promiscuous because she had other relationships, further highlight the gender issue.

The inequality of the decision in this case, is inequality to both the parents.  Both Ted and Joanna had the ability and means to be a good parent.  The court did not evaluate the case on that basis.  The court evaluated the case on the basis of gender roles and who should be doing what given the society beliefs present.

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