This week on Feminist Flashback Friday, we remind you that feminism is for men, too, by featuring one of the top dads in cinema history: Ted Kramer from Robert Benton’s 1979 drama Kramer vs. Kramer.
Who Is He?
When we first meet him, Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a workaholic father of a young boy whose wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) reveals that she is leaving him to raise their young son Billy while she goes off to “find herself.” Ted, who has never had to play the role of primary parent (or barely of a parent at all, really) is suddenly thrust into the uncomfortable situation of taking care of every need and whim of his young son and does so with apparent distaste. Billy is equally unhappy with his father’s new role and misses the gentleness and affection of his mother, which he has been used to his whole short life.
Eventually, as the movie progresses and Ted and Billy fall more comfortably into their new lifestyle, Ted is shown to have the same “maternal” instincts that are traditionally attributed to mothers and Billy begins to depend on his love and affection in the same manner that he used to his mother.
What Makes Him a Badass?
The whole plot of Kramer vs. Kramer revolves around the custody battle between Ted and Joanna, who returns suddenly after 15 months away. There are long trial scenes juxtaposed with Ted and Billy’s very normal, functional life despite their traditionally dysfunctional situation and the best thing about Ted is that when Joanna fights him for custody, he refuses to just give in. He opts to fight her in court to retain custody of his son, even though fathers rarely ever won cases like these because of the old-fashioned and sexist viewpoint that mothers were naturally the better caregivers.
Ted is established as the definition of a successful “man” at the start of the movie and by the end of the movie he’s established himself equally fitting of the definition of “mother.” He panics when Billy gets hurt just as any conscious parent would, he puts Billy’s well-being ahead of his, he works a full-time, high-stress job while raising his son simultaneously just like mothers are expected to. And he does all this in a time when he is the strange one for doing it: in a time when gender roles were still very much strict (though very slowly starting to crumble) and when being a primary parent was still considered the mother’s job. In a time like this, Ted Kramer boldly said, “Fuck that!” to these roles and did whatever he had to out of love for his son.
Why Does He Still Matter Today?
Regardless of how ridiculous it sounds to the ears of the educated, there are still far too many people today who still believe that mothers naturally are better parents than fathers. There are still too many people who believe that custody of children should be granted to mothers for this case, often disregarding the both parents’ situations in favour of the one who probably happened to bear and birth the child. Ted Kramer is a perfect (albeit fictional) example of how fathers are just as capable as being primary parents — and being them well! — as mothers are. Ted proves that, in fact, sometimes fathers can be better parents than mothers can.
We live in an age when people still think that feminism is a word used by man-hating lesbians who can’t find love. These are the same sorts of people who think that feminism is only concerned with the trials and tribulations of women (and only cisgendered women at that, apparently), but Ted is such a great example of how inappropriate that way of thinking is and is a perfect example of how feminism actually liberates men just as much as it does women.
I’ve always believed that feminism, at it’s core, is all about the ability to have choice. The choice to be a stay-at-home parent vs. a working parent; the choice to not have sex until marriage vs. having lots of sexual partners and never getting married; the choice to be a parent vs. not being a parent. Ted Kramer may not have chosen to become the primary parent at the start of the film, but very soon we discover that this is something he wants to do and is willing to find ways to do.
In fact, you could even argue that Joanna’s leaving him to find herself is an act inspired by feminism since she did what was right for her and went out to make sure she herself was well and capable before dedicating her attentions to anyone else. And it was her act of feminism that thrust Ted into the role of both caregiver and breadwinner and made him realize that that was something he enjoyed doing.
Kramer vs. Kramer is just an continued example of not only good filmmaking and storytelling, but of some of the core principles of feminism, which is that feminism is for everyone.