by Eileen Malloy
Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 5-7
KRAMER VS KRAMER is Hollywood's answer to contemporary questions of male parenting, the erosion of the family, and the women's movement. The film defines the problem as how to preserve the preponderant influence and authority of the male father figure as this figure makes its way from the public to the domestic sphere.
We can use the film as a test case for the feminist analysis of the family. Any analysis of the family will state the assumptions that need to be held in order to value the family as an institution. If the feminist analysis describes the family in a way that can be used to read the ideology of this movie, then it is an explanatory and accurate analysis.
Capitalist ideology dominates Hollywood movies. Ideology is anything in language and in material practice which serves to maintain the existing means of production without physical force. The family is an important means of producing a certain kind of person. As a Hollywood movie. KRAMER VS. KRAMER will maintain, not question, the structure of the institution.
As the myth has it, the family consists of two opposite sex parents and their biological offspring. Each is an individual; they have egos that can be strong or weak. The hone, or the domestic sphere, is a haven from the other part of modern life, the public sphere. These two environments are mutually exclusive. A woman's biological role in child bearing makes her ideally suited to operate in the domestic sphere. The male parent, operating in the public sphere, provides for all the material needs of the family; the woman provides for the emotional needs. The antithesis of the individual as an individual and the individual as a member of society is located most generally within the family. Restated by feminists, this antithesis has become their slogan — "the personal is political."
This set of assumptions is the substance of the myth of the nuclear family. It's a norm, a standard that represents as desirable one specific set of relationships. The myth can only be realized by an upper-class family. If the nuclear family exists anywhere at all it's not in the lower classes, where economic necessity dictates either two wage-earning parents or state-paid parenthood. Likewise the myth has nothing to do with many black families, gay couples, or single or remarried parents because they simply do not fit the physical description of two opposite sex parents raising their own biological offspring.
Despite the fact that KRAMER VS. KRAMER shows a family that gets reorganized, the reorganization is not based on a confrontation with these issues. The film reaches an ambiguous position in relation to the family that allows the audience to occupy any and all positions in relation to the subject matter of the film.
An instance of this ambiguity occurs in a conversation between Hoffman and his boss. The boss is worrying about Hoffman's ability to perform on the job and care for his son besides. The boss says. "We need you seven days a week, 100%." Hoffman replies by promising eight days a week, 110%. "I'm no loser," he says. This is an example of the perversion of basic human values that accompanies the sexual division of labor in the family. To produce advertising copy is to be a winner; to care for a child is to be a loser. Is there anything in the depiction of the boss, in Hoffman, or in the work environment that suggests a criticism of this ethic?
The assumption that needs to be confronted here is the one that says that two mutually exclusive value systems operate — one in the home, another in the public sphere. All human values reside in the home, usually in the mother. To the father are left the public and most dehumanizing roles.
In the first place, Streep leaves the marriage, and though it is not stated as such in the dialogue we can gather that it is the typical breakup of a professional couple. The wife is unfulfilled and the husband is preoccupied with his career.
Further, once Hoffman has assumed the mother role, sparks fly when his public and domestic roles come into contact with each other. The boy spills soda on his father's papers at home, and a fight between then ensues. Billy calls the office and Hoffman is interrupted in the middle of a conversation with his boss, so Hoffman experiences the call as an embarrassment and an intrusion. The boss has just been saying when Billy calls. "Frankly. Ted, I'm worried. Why don't you send the boy to live with relatives for a while?" Hoffman misses a closing because he has to stay home when the boy is sick. Hoffman finally loses his job because of these problems.
But the ghettoization of human values in the domestic sphere is left ultimately uncriticized. The ad world doesn't look all that bad in this movie. The values of non-contractual re1ationships — things like unconditional love, empathy, and trust — may not abound, but Hoffman and his boss chat on personal grounds. It's hard to keep in mind when watching KRAMER VS KRAMER that Richard Nixon recruited his hounds and henchmen from this very advertising profession (but then Hoffman was on the opposite side in that movie).
The strategy that is used to trivialize the issue of human values in the workplace is to slide the conflict off of Hoffman's dual role and to place emphasis instead on Hoffman's manly pride. There's nothing really wrong with the business world. Hoffman gets scolded for missing a closing when his son is sick. But during the scene when Hoffman is fired, his boss offers him a cash loan, and Hoffman responds with. "Shame on you." I guess that means "shame on you for not treating me with more respect." Hoffman feels that he personally has lost the respect of his superior, so he storms righteously out of that job.
There never is a reconciliation of the conflicting roles. Does Hoffman choose to be a "loser"? Not exactly. He quickly regains omnipotence in the business world; he gets a new job within twenty-four hours of being fired, and when his son asks how he got the job, he answers simply, "I told them I wanted it." Does he decide that he can't care adequately for the child? No. In the end he still has the kid. Nothing changes. How does he do it? What accommodations has he made? What concessions to the conflicting demands has he worked out?
Hoffman's job change doesn't just miss the point of the conflict between the public and domestic roles; it represents a gross misrepresentation of the analogous situation in the case of single mothers. Hoffman's salary drops from $33,000 to $28,200. In 1977 the average U.S. family income in a household headed by a woman was $7,742 (U.S. Census figure). When a married woman loses her job to become a parent, that career interruption can last anywhere from a few days to her lifetime. For a woman, married or single, the stakes being played with in the sexual division of labor are a thousand times greater than Hoffman's or Streep's in this film. The parallel implied in the film is a false one.
Hoffman's situation is of course greatly eased by his financial security. The salary sited for him is high, but the lifestyle depicted in the film would actually require an even higher salary than that. The lifestyle and salary given for Hoffman are at variance to facilitate identification with the family. Presumably the lower the character's income, the easier it is for average viewers to project themselves into the roles portrayed on the screen. But the roles must be optimally pleasurable to occupy, so financial worries are not admitted into the story. The emotional and psychological problems' of the characters are trivialized in comparison to average real-life counterparts of the Kramer family, and a fantasy financial security is compatible with the general ease of their existence. It's clear from the financial picture of the Kramer family that the film is sincere only about perpetrating the upper-class myth of the nuclear family.
This fraudulent misrepresentation of real-life situations continues in the depiction of the father-son relationship. Maybe Hoffman really does do both; maybe his childcare tactics are exemplary. But the real demands and conflicts of a parent-child relationship are never shown.
The child is used to develop tension in this emotional vacuum. Billy is played in the super-cute, super-real, "Life Cereal" commercial style. The style becomes more and more insipid as the story unfolds and the child is manipulated to perform specific functions in the family melodrama. The child strikes a chord of fear and empathy in the audience that strengthens the sense of immediacy and trauma in the plot. When Billy hurts himself on the playground, it provides a dramatic scene in which Hoffman rushes to the hospital on foot, with the child in his arms. Here especially Hoffman is shown as noble for being a man and meeting his son's needs. Yet women do that all the time and probably with more sensitivity.
The audience identifies with Hoffman's emotions through the child, and through this identification the film plays on the audience's own fear of loss within the family. There is a scene towards the end of the movie in which Hoffman tells the boy that he is going to go back to live with his mother again. The child asks questions like, "Where will my toys be now?" and "Who will kiss me goodnight?" These seem intended to give us the child's experience of the changes in his life. But most of the scene is shot objectively or from Hoffman's point of view, so the questions become painful details of Hoffman's emotional loss.
An illusion of father-son equality is created because the boy is used as Hoffman's tutor in Hoffman's period of apprenticeship in the kitchen. When Hoffman tries to make breakfast the first morning they are alone together, the child displays more knowledge and control of the workings of a kitchen than his father has. The boy makes rigid demands when they go grocery shopping together.
The domestic scenes that are shown take on a men's club atmosphere. The two "men" carry on silent morning ritual. They pee in the sane way each morning and read at the breakfast table together. A breakfast scene is shown at the end of the film that rhymes humorously with that first breakfast scene; everything is the sane, except that the boy and Hoffman work together like a well-oiled machine. Billy has facilitated Hoffman's control of domestic space; the men are now as smooth and natural together in the kitchen as if the anther had never been there.
Nutritional concerns are not represented in the meals of Tab and TV dinners or donuts and orange juice. The breakfast meal is relaxed but silent, and the figure of the mother in housecoat and curlers trying to make conversation is conspicuously absent. These scenes depict the utopian promise of a family as safe refuge from the stressful life of a corporate big shot.
This men's club atmosphere replaces a depiction of the emotional conflict that would result if a man who had previously thought of little more than his career was suddenly forced into facing the emotional demands of child care. Has Hoffman ever considered what values he would like to inculcate in his son and what means he would use towards that end? This film makes no concession to less easily trivialized aspects of single parenting. Everything, down to the degree of Hoffman's ineptitude in the kitchen, is a caricature of everyday situations.
The father's position in relation to his son is glossed over and made humorous, and his role as a newly single man is approached in the same way. Hoffman knows a woman at work who can read his mind (she accepts an invitation to dinner that's on his mind but unspoken). When Billy encounters this same woman naked in their apartment, it's just made into a joke. I know children who reject their mother's male friends with tactics like neglecting to call her to the phone to changing the lock on the front door or calling the police to get them out of the house. The film doesn't begin to touch on the complexities of relationships in and outside the family.
What is ostensibly being called into question by showing a male as a single parent is the assumption that the only real mother is a biological mother or that women are ideally suited to be housewives for the biological reason that they are the ones that bear children. Hoffman gives an excellent argument against this position during the film's custody trial scenes.
It's proof of the film's liberalism that even when motherhood is threatened by Hoffman's advances into domestic space, the mother-child relationship remains an unassailable, ahistorical object. The film opens with a tender shot of Streep and her child against a black background, seemingly floating in timeless space. 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.
The simple fact that Streep is 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."
Motherhood and the ad world stand up to situations raised by the plot of the film largely because Hoffman is allowed to multiply by dividing in two. He is businessman turned businessman/parent. The structure bears a resemblance to stories of superheroes whose powers are concealed until dire need triggers a metamorphosis. Dustin Hoffman as Mighty Mouse. That makes Streep into Sue Storm, The Invisible Girl.
The institution of the family fares as well as motherhood and the business world, but Joanna Kramer does not. Hoffman has come to occupy the place of the mother in the domestic sphere, so Streep is expendable as far as the family is concerned. But her actions directly imply a negation of the traditional family structure, so an ambiguous position in the family is reached by demolishing Streep's character.
The reason Streep leaves the family is to attain some measure of purpose and competence in the world; she wants to fulfill herself. This would seem to be in keeping with the stated purpose of the nuclear family — it is, after all, the source of emotional and psychological development for individual egos.
The myth of the family is supported by the cult of the individual (and vice versa). One frequently heard argument says that if not for the family, where else would people grow to become whole, principled, strong individuals? In the first place, this "how else?" argument is just unimaginative. Besides that, it ignores the very thing that every child is supposed to learn inside the family: that is, to the extent that an individual sets itself in opposition to the group to which it belongs, it is wrong, bad, faulty, crazy. A family supports its members as long as they buy into the family line.
"Nurturance" translates into the mother's role of caring for, tending to, feeding, and keeping. So families do not nurture anyone, women who are mothers do. And no one nurtures mothers; the role itself satisfies women, as the myth has it. Balanced against this is the "socialization" role of the family. "Socialization" is the academic euphemism for the psychological and emotional manipulation that intimidates children into thinking and behaving conventionally.
Thus the contradiction in the myth holds that the family both nurtures (through the woman who is the mother) and does not nurture family members (through socialization and because the mother is not cared for). When Streep is shown leaving the family, it is in response to this contradiction in her family. Instead of explicitly confronting this contradiction, the film contains it. In order to uphold the cult of the individual, KRAMER VS. KRAMER puts any problems encountered in institutions directly onto the shoulders of individual characters. The business world remains ultimately unscathed while Hoffman is booted out of it. The domestic scene remains a site of serenity because it still looks like the warm hearth, even without the warm breast.
Apparently criticized by the film, the institution of the family is really protectively upheld even in its fracturing. Each individual family member takes the blame for the breakup onto his or her own shoulders. The child asks, "Did Mommy leave because I was bad?" Hoffman answers, "The reason Mommy couldn't stay was she couldn't stand me, Billy. She didn't leave because of you; she left because of me."
Hoffman doesn't even blame his job for keeping him too occupied. Likewise Streep blames herself. To justify herself when she leaves without her child she says, "I'm no good for him. I'm terrible with him; I have no patience." To Hoffman she says. "It's not you; you just married the wrong person, that's all. And I don't love you anymore."
Looking away from the contradictions that forced Streep out of the family, the film depicts the problem as resolvable in terms of the individuals involved.
The question of the family as an institution is finally reduced to a battle between the two parents over custody of their child. The parents have switched roles so that Hoffman is the representative of domestic space. Streep is depicted as the foreign element that embattles the safe inner world from the outside.
Streep is ultimately demolished as an individual character; she is sacrificed to the institution. Streep herself is shown performing the execution, but first her relationship with her best friend is negated, the appearance of her morality and psychological soundness are eroded and her claim to a position of self-determination is denied. As a result, Hoffman's grossly overdetermined male right to privilege of ownership and position comes across as fitting and neat.
Streep's best friend, Margaret, visits Hoffman a few hours after Streep has left for California. Hoffman asks Margaret, "Did you set my wife up to this?" and says, "It just occurred to me, Margaret, that Joanna and I never had any problems until you and Charlie split up … Sisterhood!" Margaret's support of Streep is made crystal clear in this conversation. Margaret defends Streep by citing the courage of her decision to leave her family. The film pointedly shows that Hoffman gets no sympathy from Margaret.
Streep leaves the family to find a new place for herself in the world, and Hoffman's comments imply that this move was motivated by a consciousness raised through feminism. When two housewives share their discontent and reach a point of action because of that sharing, it's true that this was historically, and is, feminism in action.
The film defines feminism, then. It establishes a woman-to-woman relationship as a category to contend with. Although the story never does depict a non-domestic, non-maternal woman, the category is acknowledged when Streep leaves the home. Streep writes a letter to Billy that states her case without the hysteria that characterized the leaving home scene. She writes, "I have to find something interesting for myself in the world. Everyone has to and so do I."
But for Streep to leave her child is perhaps the one crime too heinous in the film's terms to explain away by pointing a finger at the guilty individual. So feminism, or at least "sisterhood," is used as a boogeyman in the situation. For whatever reason it's brought up in the first place, it's subsequently handled with a resounding thoroughness and callousness that must indicate the depth of the fear that it provokes.
The feminist implications of Streep's actions and motivations are undermined when Hoffman asks, "How much courage does it take to leave a seven-year-old child?" implying that Streep's feminism is just weakness and selfishness.
Moreover, when Streep leaves she is on the verge of an hysterical binge, an emotional breakdown of some sort. Here she becomes what family therapists call the "identified patient" of the Kramer household. Having one crazy person in the house masks the culpability of the whole family as a system of neurotic interdependencies. Streep's solution is to go to California to find herself. What she finds in California is a therapist — "a good one" — and good feelings about herself. Ego strength. This implies that Streep isn't a sister at all; she's just neurotic. A political, feminist response to the family situation is replaced by the opposite of that — an emotional, psychological interpretation of the problem.
Next Margaret is used as a Benedict Arnold. In the course of occupying Streep's place in the domestic sphere, Hoffman also colonizes her position as Margaret's best friend. There is not a scene in the movie that includes a conversation between the two women friends. But Hoffman and Margaret enjoy relaxed intimacy, and they share the experiences of single parenthood. By the end of the film Margaret is talking about getting back together with her husband.
Margaret has become so affiliated with the camp against Streep by the end of the film that it seems natural for her to testify in Hoffman's behalf at the custody trial. Margaret speaks above the sound of the judge's voice and gavel to tell Streep, "If you could see them (the boy and Hoffman) together, maybe you wouldn't be here today." Well, what I saw of them together did not convince me that Hoffman s the undoubtedly better parent. Margaret's testimony represents the theft of a vaguely feminist voice to assert a patriarchal reclaiming of "motherly" virtues for men.
At the same time, the judge tries to prevent her from saying it. The audience is invited to attend to either of two conflicting positions: the judge maintains fairness, openness to Streep while Margaret advocates Hoffman's position.
Even though Streep's solution to her frustration in the home is to find a headshrinker — a good one" — who assures her that she's a fine person, that whatever the problem was, "it's not you," the film's overwhelming visual effect gives the opposite impression that "it" is indeed Streep and nothing else.
The visual treatment of Streep intercepts audience identification with the character. Streep is segregated and eerie, and twice her eeriness is used to foreshadow a disaster. She is shown peering out of a window (she spies on her son at school through a coffee shop window) and in the following scene, Billy falls and hurts himself on the playground. She's shown another time at the window, looking like a life-sized, mechanical, fortune teller at a fair booth. The shot is followed by a phone call to Hoffman from his lawyer, telling him that Streep wants to see the boy. Neither the phone call nor the playground accident would seem quite as serious in another context; the strange sight of an ex-mother posed mysteriously in a dark window juxtaposed to the "disasters" gives them their ominous quality. The disasters echo back to implicate Streep, to reinforce her witchlike quality. When Streep is waiting for Hoffman to meet her in a restaurant, the camera zooms in on her figure, which is made to look strangely still against the busy restaurant background. It is quite necessary for the very believability of later events that the audience not identify with the mother.
Phallocentric compositions segregate Streep from the spaces within the film where most of the action takes place, as well as from audience identification. An upper, male-dominated domain is created when the camera pans up the sides of skyscrapers. The action takes place on the very top floors of these phallic monsters (the Kramers' apartment building and both of Hoffman's office buildings). Hoffman and the boy occupy the lofty space that's created with slow pans up the sides of skyscrapers followed by cuts to the interiors of the buildings.
All but two of Streep's scenes take place on the ground floors of buildings or outdoors on the ground. One exception is the scene of Streep leaving home. But here she's an hysterical mess, so the figure is too weak to pose any threat. Besides, it must be made graphically clear who exactly left whom, in order for Streep to be used as a scapegoat in the situation. Meanwhile, as Streep is pushed visually out of the home, the depth of field of shots showing Hoffman in the kitchen increases as the movie progresses, showing him to be more and more entrenched in domestic space.
The other time Streep is shown on an upper floor is in the courtroom. The opening shot of this sequence angles down on Streep as she enters an arched doorway. She clutches herself with her arms held tightly in front of her. Then we look up at Hoffman — way up. He's perched at the top of three flights of stairs. The angle of this shot is so severe that he looks in danger of falling through the front plane of the composition. The juxtaposition of these two shots establishes Streep's moral and emotional smallness in contrast to Hoffman's moral righteousness and emotional vulnerability.
Streep's guilt for the family problems is only implied when she is visually ostracized. Her guilt is made more explicit during the courtroom scene, and here the camera's gaze is used to create a sense of punishment. The camera cuts in closer and closer on Streep as she and Margaret and Hoffman are being questioned. Streep's cool face turns, she looks way over her shoulder more than once, and the effect is of her squirming to get out from under the camera's gaze as it closes in on her. The implication of her guilt is intensified to the point that if we were identifying with the mother the scene would be psychologically punishing to watch.
But all our hope lies with Hoffman and none with Streep at this point in the story. Where has Streep been? What job has she gotten after being out of the job market all her married years? Is she as dedicated and self-confident as Hoffman? Does she resist when she is not taken seriously as a professional because she is a woman? Would she handle the dual role of parent and professional any better than Hoffman does?
These questions are not taken into consideration by the plot of the movie, so the asymmetrical treatment of Hoffman and Streep passes unnoticed. The asymmetry is not just visual. The two are questioned on very different grounds, with very different results. This is where the lack of audience identification with the mother begins to bear fruit.
Hoffman is attacked because he lost his job and because Billy had that accident on the playground while in his care. Streep is attacked for her sexual history and because of her employment history and because her marriage ended in divorce. Hoffman's lawyer says things like, "I would like to ask whether this model of stability and respectability has ever accomplished anything." He attacks Streep in a vicious, sexist manner, yet Streep ends up apologizing to Hoffman for the conduct of her own lawyer. Hoffman's lawyer makes some clever, sarcastic remark at Streep's expense, and the audience laughs out loud. The lawyer asks over and over, "Were you a failure at the one most important relationship in your life? Were you?" Streep looks over to Hoffman for absolution. Hoffman nods no; magnanimous little big man, marathon man, president's man, he clears her of the charge. Then Streep nods, she agrees, yes, she was a failure n the marriage. So much for her ego strength. So much for feminism. The mother's voice is used in her own prosecution.
There would be no way to pass this scene off as anything but an absurd injustice to the mother, except for the way the lines of identification and affiliation have been drawn throughout the film. Even this action in court is intercut with scenes of Hoffman and the boy together, just to remind us of who belongs with whom.
But then the court grants custody to Streep. Hoffman is shown depressed by the news but not rebellious. He explains the decision to his son without rancor or bitterness, in a heart-wrenching scene.
But then again Streep hands the child back to Hoffman. When coming to pick up Billy on the day decreed by the court, Streep calls Hoffman downstairs to the lobby of the apartment. She tells him she's decided that the child's home is here, in their old apartment, here with Hoffman. Here the phallocentrism of those pans up the sides of skyscrapers bear fruit. Streep refers to the decor of the boy's bedroom, saying how he really belongs in that bedroom, in that apartment. The physical configurations of domestic space have been visually elided with the father and son relationship.
This surprise twist in the plot duplicates the effect achieved in the courtroom when the mother's character is distorted to the point that she votes against herself. Just as Hoffman absolves Streep while she is on the stand, so also the court acquiesces to her argument that she is the child's rightful parent. And just as the mother's voice is used to seal her own culpability in the matter of their divorce, her depicted behavior at the film's close affirms her disenfranchisement in the face of Hoffman's cinematically overdetermined privilege of ownership of their child. She appears to have a powerful voice of her own, but in the end the mother's voice is entirely circumscribed and co-opted by the patriarchal structure that surrounds her.
In an unmotivated and unexplained action, Streep simply surrenders. As a reward for doing this, she can seek and get Hoffman's approval as a "traditional woman," i.e., about her looks. She asks him, "How do I look?" He says. "Beautiful!" She steps into the elevator that will bear her back up into the privileged wood of the nuclear family.
Ambiguity is maintained to the last moment but only at the expense of Streep's character. Does she intend to rejoin her family? Will she leave? Each interpretation of the ending is open to the audience depending on what stake they may have in a similar situation.
The film's double meanings can always be traced to what is familiar and conventional in our society, to what will reinforce the audience's position in relation to the subject matter. The film is meant to titillate by creeping to the edge of a dangerous cliff while at the same time providing covert security.
KRAMER VS KRAMER's popularity may be explained by how delicately it deals with emotionally volatile family situations. The film is effective because emotions are provoked but not in a threatening way. Many issues are simply trivialized or caricatured or the audience is given depictions of issues that allow for more than one interpretation. So the audience can fantasize themselves into familiar and significant situations with no danger of the situation suddenly and permanently turning against them. Men and women with a powerful personal stake in either very traditional or very nontraditional roles may insert themselves into the film because of the ambiguity that is structured into it.
The one group that the film does not concede to is single mothers. Single mothers should be incensed by the injustice done to the difficulty of their position by the trivial way that Hoffman's single-parent problems are dealt with.