Maybe teen pregnancy is not the national scourge it has been made out to be, I started to think in the cab on the way home from a Monday night screening of the indie film sensation "Juno." Maybe it really is feasible for a teenage girl to get pregnant, carry the pregnancy to term or have an abortion, and give the child to a pair of desperate, infertile parents without hand-wringing, angst, or shame.
Luckily, I caught myself as soon as I realized that had Juno, the protagonist who finds herself pregnant, been black, or even just a little less hilarious, her decision to bear her child would have seemed far less harmless.
Harmless is just what nine months of pregnancy look like in the film. After running out on her appointment for a "hasty abortion" (for reasons that remain unclear, probably in Juno's mind as well as the audience's), sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff locates the perfect adoptive family for her baby after just one skim through the want ads. The physical manifestation of pregnancy itself is isolated to a neat, symmetrical bowling ball that grows (rather adorably) in Juno's abdomen. And perhaps most stunningly of all, aside from a fervent outburst towards the end of her term, the pregnancy doesn't seem to affect Juno's flippant M.O. – annoyance, hope, fear and overwhelming sensation alike are all vanquished by her signature deadpan one-liners.
Yes, plenty of pregnant women go nine months without swollen feet, radiant skin, or morning sickness, but it seems like more than mere coincidence that Juno is one of the lucky ones. And though Juno's endless well of quips is winning, it can't all really be that easy to deflect with jokes, can it? During that singular eruption, Juno tells her sometime-boyfriend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, and her co-conceiver) about the way that her classmates have treated her. Her isolation, pain and indignation are obvious, but the outburst doesn't take root – we never see any interaction between her and other students or the school administration, let alone her or her parents advocating for better, more supportive and caring treatment for her. The silence, on both ends, is deafening. What did Juno's teachers, administrators, fellow students and students' parents all say? And what did Juno – elsewhere outspoken, if too dry to be sassy – say back? Bleek's mom thinks Juno's a tramp (and apparently did before she started to show), but the story line never comes into fruition – no satisfying stand-off in which Juno gets to demonstrate the astonishing integrity that she practices in private. Juno mostly holes up with her street-smart friend Lea (Olivia Thirlby); is that because she's a one-best-friend kind of girl, or because she's being harassed by classmates? Maybe bringing a pregnancy to term – even as a smart, poised white teenage girl in a suburban American high school – is a lot more challenging than the movie is willing to reveal.
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While Juno is clear that she does not want to parent, and dabbles with using the pregnancy as a learning experience – "What are you doing, Juno?" her father asks her; "Oh, just dealing with things way beyond my maturity level," she cracks back – the fact that carrying a pregnancy to term can be, for her, a valorized, character-building experience is clearly tied to her whiteness and her willingness to give the baby up to a wealthy suburban family, desperate for the very thing – a child who looks just like them – Juno needs to give away. Would Juno's pregnancy have seemed so happy-go-lucky if she and her parents – the loving, and charming, J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as air-conditioner repairman and nail technician, respectively – had decided that they would raise the child, and it wouldn't all be over in nine (albeit artificially turbulence-free) months? What if, in their humble means, they might have needed government-sponsored health insurance? A day care program for the child? What if Juno was of color? What if her parents hadn't been so supportive? As Leslie Grant, a once-young mother who now works with Sistas on the Rise, an organization for young parents in Brooklyn, put it, "We would love to see…a different perspective on how young women are viewed in society, and being honored for being mothers and taking that risk of creating life and bringing life into this world." And not just the mothers who, like Juno, don't rattle the bars too loudly.
Perhaps what's really wrong is our steadfast intolerance of teenage sexuality and its inevitable consequences. "Kids get bored and they have intercourse," Juno's stepmother tells Juno's father. Doubtless, they always will. And, doubtless, even in a world with a dream sex ed curriculum, sometimes they'll get pregnant. Teens should always have the right to a safe, accessible, funded abortion, free of parental interference or biased counseling. But what if they decide to carry the pregnancy to term, or to parent? Teen parenting can surely lead to poverty for the parents and their children alike, but that does not account for the depth of the phobia around it in high schools – as if it's catching. What could be contagious about pregnancy? Perhaps school administrators believe that destigmatizing it would result in more of it – in other words, they know that shame is an integral component to any school's teen pregnancy prevention curriculum.
According to conservative blogger Jill Stanek, I'm supposed to hate this movie, and I certainly don't – partly because the look of maternal rapture on adoptive mother Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner)'s face is so entire, and so utterly natural, that in one gaze it undoes any disbelief about how natural adoptive families can be, and because – spoiler! – when supposed adoptive father Mark Loring (Jason Bateman) turns out to be irresponsible, and more than a little creepy, Vanessa comes into her own by deciding to parent alone. But I liked the film in equal measure because pregnancy inspires none of the same romantically maternal feelings in Juno herself — none of the "unplanned joy" Feminists for Life suggests might befall her (even if we don't get to see that more than an absence of joy, there might also be an abundance of real pain). "Juno" is a movie not for anti-choicers. It's a film for the people who love the many imperfect ways families take shape and people grow up.
Contributor Arthur Shostak would strenuously disagree with this review! Check out his take on Rewire right here.