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The Liberal Backlash against Juno

Any father of teenage daughters knows that when they say, “Dad, you have got to see this movie,” you drop what you’re doing and head to the multiplex.

When the movie irks editorialists at the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Sun-Times, but fills theaters in Hutchinson, Kansas, and Sedalia, Missouri, it gets all the more interesting.

Juno is a seemingly simple film. It begins cartoon-like images of a teenage girl wandering through town utterly alone, drinking from a gallon of Sun-D juice, working up the courage (and trying to produce enough urine) to take a pregnancy test. The soundtrack offers a childlike song of longing, “All I want is you, will you stay with me, hold me in your arms and sway me like a sea.”

After testing herself thrice in the bathroom of a local convenience store, she calls the local women’s clinic to schedule an abortion. If she’d gone through with the abortion, her parents might have never known that she was pregnant.

Just fifteen years ago, the vice president of the United States accused Hollywood of undermining family values by portraying a single woman who decides to have a baby without getting married. Today, a movie about a pregnant sixteen-year-old who chooses pregnancy and eventually gives up her baby to a single mother is hailed as a pro-life paean. We’ve come a long way, baby, but it continues to be a long, strange trip.

Juno generated a few hand-wringing editorials, but they were not from moral majoritarians in Indiana. They were from liberal outlets on the coasts. Dana Stevens, in Slate, worried that the lead character would make pregnancy seem so cool that teenage girls will “cast their condoms to the wind.” Ellen Goodman, in the Boston Globe, thought the script undermined the notion that teens should become adults before they become parents. Caitlin Flanigan, in the New York Times, objected to the implicit idea that we have stopped protecting girls’ chastity and instead are raising them to be (gasp!) free. She warned that we mustn’t allow this “sappy fairy tale” to obscure the fact that “biology is destiny.” Jim DeRogatis, in the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote, “As an unapologetically old-school feminist, the father of a soon-to-be-teenage daughter, a reporter who regularly talks to actual teens as part of his beat and a plain old moviegoer, I hated, hated, hated this movie.”

The little indie film that could generated rave reviews, hundreds of millions in ticket sales, a liberal backlash, an antibacklash, and an academy award. Much of the controversy focuses on the same controversy that animated Dan Quayle 15 years ago. Are there right ways and wrong ways to have a baby?

The film was written, directed and acted by people under thirty. The story shows how sexuality is different these days. Juno deliberates about when she wants to have sex and with whom. She goes to the convenience store for a self-administered pregnancy test.

When the test comes back positive, her first call is not to an adult but to her best friend from school, who knows which abortion clinics require parental consent and which do not. Juno goes to the clinic, just as she went to the convenience store bathroom, all alone. When Juno decides to keep the baby, her friend directs her to ads in the local papers by potential adoptive parents seeking babies. They are, she says, right next to the iguanas and the used sporting equipment.

One can debate the effects of Supreme Court decisions on access to abortion or the legality of protests. But for many teens, the world is one in which choices about sexuality are theirs to make, abortions are readily available, and options for adoption are well understood. They have achieved the high level of freedom in matters of reproductive choice that feminists and pro-choice advocates have long sought for them.

Seeing the results, though, is troubling. We fear for Juno. She seems to be taking on more than she can handle.

Some liberal critics are troubled that Juno is not more damaged by her experiences. They criticize the film for candy-coating the emotional realities. This trope is stolen directly from the anti-abortion folks, who make the same sort of claims about the long-term psychological sequelae of abortion. Both concerns, no doubt, are valid. In between them, of course, is the idea of autonomy and choice.

There is religion in the movie, but it is subtle, understated, and thus perhaps representative of the role religion really plays in the most of our lives. Juno’s stepmom, accepting Juno’s decision not to have an abortion, says that some lucky infertile couple will get a present from Jesus. Vanessa, the infertile woman who longs to adopt Juno’s baby, says that Juno is the answer to her prayers. Juno’s boyfriend Paulie has a dreidel. There is no sense that the characters turn to religion to help decide what is right or wrong.

So is it feminist or anti-feminist? It is clearly a woman’s movie. The protestor outside the abortion clinic is a woman. The obstetrician is a woman. The women act, judge, and direct their own lives. The men are sweet, clueless, reactive, and almost irrelevant. Upon hearing that Juno is pregnant, her father’s first absurd reaction is to wonder who the father is. This seems so irrelevant to Juno that when he asks, “Who is the kid?” she thinks he is referring to her fetus, not to the father.

One mystery of Juno’s mystique is why it raises hackles on the coasts and plays so well in the heartland. Perhaps it is because the movie’s gentle satire is directed primarily at the liberals who created the world in which teens shape their own sexual destinies. It imagines a sixteen-year-old who is self-directed, thoughtful, and as mature as such a minor can be. It hammers home, too, just how immature she is, how vulnerable, how in need of adults to help. Luckily, heartwarmingly, she finds them. Her experiences highlight the lonely independence of teenage girls today, a loneliness offered to them by their liberal parents as a reward and an achievement but experienced by them, perhaps, as a burden or a curse. One senses, in the liberal commentaries, a fear borne of the recognition that we’re not sure we like the world that we have created for our daughters.

Published on: March 27, 2008
Published in: Bioethics, Media

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