Juno, Reconsidered

What with last year’s romantic-comedy trifecta of Waitress, Knocked Up and Juno, it was only a matter of time before opinion writers -- in, among others, the New York Times the New Yorker and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- weighed in on popular culture’s current infatuation with unplanned pregnancy.

The most recent of the three films, Juno, which has grossed $71.2 million in six weeks, is decried in some editorials for screenwriter Diablo Cody’s portrayal of teen pregnancy.

Writes Caitlin Flanagan in the New York Times:

“As any woman who has ever chosen (or been forced) to [give a child up for adoption] can tell you, surrendering a baby whom you will never know comes with a steep and lifelong cost. Nor is an abortion psychologically or physically simple. It is an invasive and frightening procedure, and for some adolescent girls it constitutes part of their first gynecological exam. I know grown women who’ve wept bitterly after abortions, no matter how sound their decisions were. How much harder are these procedures for girls, whose moral and emotional universe is just taking shape?”

The disconnect between the cinematic experience of Juno and reality is analogous to the discrepancy between the reviewers’ take and the opinion writers’. New Yorker film critic David Denby’s review, entitled (without irony) “Hard Life,” writes that Juno is a coming-of-age movie made with idiosyncratic charm and not a single false note.”

Presumably the first false note is sounded when opinion writers attempt to relocate the main character outside the “fairy tale” extended adolescence bestowed upon her by first-time screenwriter, 29-year-old Diablo Cody.

But Juno is only a “real” manifestation of the girl we wanted to be when we were adolescent girls, and nothing more. But nothing less, either: Diablo Cody didn’t accomplish -- wasn’t trying to accomplish -- the feat of coming-of-age authors like Judy Blume or Gary Paulson, who peer into the inner angst and insecurities of their adolescent characters. The wisecracking Juno’s seeming insulation from dire consequences doesn’t mean moviegoers won’t notice that very charmed-life aspect. Similarly, when we view pro-life and pro-choice propaganda through the lens of Juno’s extended adolescence, the distortion reveals aspects of both subcultures that we otherwise might have missed.

Juno hasn’t been lauded enough for its indiscriminate presentation of the inherent, conflicting absurdities found within pregnancy and abortion, as well as in pro-life and pro-choice milieus. And Juno, as a manifestation of our ideal adolescent selves, is discriminating. She doesn’t value the mythologization of new motherhood any more than that of adolescence. But she doesn’t buy into the propaganda squeaked out from the young “lifer” she encounters outside the abortion clinic, either.

When so much of adolescence and adulthood is consumed by pretending to be an ideal manifestation of ourselves (Paulie Bleeker: “I try really hard [to look like I’m not trying]”), here is an adolescent Lady Godiva traipsing bare-assed through a pro-(insert opinion here) culture, seemingly unaffected by it. And that’s the beauty of Juno -- it’s that unaffectedness, after all, that allows Juno to see the single-parent family for what it has the potential to be, as ideal as reality can be.

Likewise, the attempt by Post-Dispatch columnist Colleen Carroll Campbell and others to co-opt Juno into her “pro-life” agenda is laughable. Juno is pretty clearly not pro-anything but herself; she may be the Platonic ideal of an adolescent -- but she’s still an adolescent.

Unlike reviewer Robert Wilonsky, my favorite moment in the movie is not the parents’ reaction -- the fairy-tale reaction -- to the pregnancy, but Juno’s response to the meekly delivered propaganda espoused by one of her peers outside the abortion clinic:

“It has fingernails,” the kid says.

At this, Juno turns in astonishment.

“Fingernails?! Really?!”

Juno’s double-take is one of the movie’s few utterly gimmick-free moments; even she has nothing to say. And the absurdity of the “lifer’s” correlation -- that fingernails are what render us human -- is as jarring as Juno’s eventual, and unaffected, acceptance of it. (She even appropriates it, tossing it off as a smartass comment to her stepmother -- a nail technician! -- after she has made the choice to continue her pregnancy.)

Like Caitlin Flanagan, I had a maternal response to Juno, but one that’s unrelated to the movie’s incongruity with reality. I wondered what unscripted armament I might supply for my own young daughter, whose coming-of-age lurks around a not-so-distant corner.

I found myself compelled to look for propaganda-free literature on abortion. Sadly, the task is nearly impossible. I did, though, find a book called Experiencing Abortion: A Weaving of Women’s Words, a collection of accounts written by women who chose to have abortions. Their stories are difficult to read, much harder than Juno was to watch. But they also resonate more closely with Juno herself than some editorials might have you believe, especially with regard to the absurd divide between our experience and what we’re told (by coalitions, magazines, billboards, our parents...) we’re supposed to feel.

-Kristy Wendt

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