Juno and the Culture Wars

How the movie disarms the family values debate.

Ellen Page and Michael Cera in Juno

I braced for a skirmish in the culture wars when reviews of Juno appeared the very same week that newspaper headlines announced a rise in the teenage birth rate—the first uptick in a decade and a half. “Not many [movies] are so daring in their treatment of teenage pregnancy, which this film flirts with presenting not just as bearable but attractive,” wrote the New York TimesA.O. Scott, who added a wry homily: “Kids, please! Heed the cautionary whale.” If the critic at liberal-media headquarters was mildly clucking, it was only a matter of time before anti-Hollywood moralizers would be up in arms about the corruption of youth (at the hands of a former-stripper-turned-screenwriter, Diablo Cody, no less). But among Juno’s distinctive charms is that it seems to have disarmed both sides of the family values debate. And the feat gets pulled off in the wry style of the eponymous hero: The film doesn’t offer up a formulaic or fervent call for family harmony. Instead, it takes idiosyncratic aim at everybody’s pieties.

One by one, polarized positions on the hot-button issues get defused by a 16-year-old girl who has evidently never considered marching with any crowd—an approach hard enough to manage in life, never mind in high school. Let’s start with Juno MacGuff’s own profile. She has a blue-collar background, complete with parents who’ve never heard of Pilates and hoard kitsch in their house. But there isn’t much sign of the red-America attitudes that either radio talk-show hosts, or snooty liberals, assume go with the pedigree. A heartland family, hers is not an intact one. An off-beat girl, she’s a very good daughter whose dad adores her.

Supersmart but neither a teacher’s pet nor a pariah, Juno eludes hip vs. square student stereotypes, too. Early on, she jokes about herself as the kind of freaky girl—”with horn-rimmed glasses and vegan footwear and Goth makeup” or Converse All-Stars and cello skills—whom jocks secretly want. But in fact she and her friend Bleeker, in his dweebily short running shorts, confound their peers’ social categories altogether—and adults’ preconceptions, too. Subverting age and gender expectations, Juno seems at once peculiarly mature and oddly childlike as she fearlessly figures things out for herself; she’s neither the suave teen whom liberal types invoke nor the old-fashioned innocent whom the Christian right celebrates. And with her funky get-ups and wit, Juno is in no way sexualized, but she isn’t de-sexed either, as her ever-bigger belly shows us.

Her take on the roster of family values issues is as heterodox as her image. Consider her sendup of the term sexually active, a trope of the sex-ed wars. Liberal advocates of honest, open sexual communication with teens embrace the epithet as though it were part and parcel of puberty. Abstinence promoters invoke it as the plague to be avoided at all costs. For Juno, it’s ridiculous, an Orwellian phrase that in no way speaks to her actual experience (sex, once, in a chair)—as is surely true, when you stop and think about it, for the majority of high-school juniors who aren’t virgins.

The real flashpoint issue in the film, of course, could have been abortion. Here Cody’s politics (presumably pro-choice) are at odds with her plot needs (a birth) and, who knows, maybe commercial dictates, too, if studios worry about antagonizing the evangelical audience. It’s a tension the screenplay finesses deftly, undercutting both pro-life and pro-choice purism. Pregnant Juno at first reflexively embraces abortion as the obvious option, and her best friend is at the ready with phone numbers; she’s helped other classmates through this. But just when pro-lifers might be about to denounce this display of secular humanist decadence, Juno stomps out of the clinic, unable to go through with it.

She isn’t moved by thoughts of the embryo’s hallowed rights, however, but by a sense of her own autonomy. And for her, that doesn’t mean a right to privacy, or to protect her body (“a fat suit I can’t take off,” she calls it at one point). Juno is driven by the chance to make her own unconventional choice. Parental notification doesn’t quite follow the liberal or conservative scripts, either: Juno confides in her father and stepmother, initially portrayed as stock down-home folks who are completely surprised, not least to find themselves asking her if she’s “considered, you know, the alternative”—not that they’d presume to pressure her. These are neither old-style authoritarians nor enlightened empathizers. They emerge as people who respect, and would do anything to support, their independent-minded kid.

Here Juno moves into the realm of marriage and childrearing, by way of the vexed terrain of assisted reproduction in its most traditional form, adoption. When Juno finds the perfect yuppie adoptive couple for her unborn baby—fussy Vanessa and mellow Mark—the film gets to address a bundle of politically charged questions: class mores, parenting styles, gender relations, and family structure. On every count, Juno skewers the assumptions of ideologues on both sides. She refuses to be either an exploited female at the service of the affluent, or a sacrificial vessel of life. She counters Vanessa’s materialist and hyper-maternalist solicitude with her own hard-boiled attitude; appalled by the notion of open adoption (or compensation), she tells the couple she’d love to give over the kid immediately, but figures it needs more “cooking” until it gets cuter. And she quickly starts bonding with the laid-back husband, who is still nursing rock band dreams, where the uptight wife, worrying over the color palette for the nursery, turns her off.

Juno has a fun-loving adolescent’s enthusiasm for the prospect of what sounds like a permissive family with a cool dad—until Mark suddenly upsets that ideal vision of the future. He—spoiler alert—stages a display of just the kind of egotistical guy regression that regularly induces female groans on the right and left, and that Slate’sMeghan O’Rourke recently examined in this piece about Knocked Up.(Suffice it to say, Vanessa finds herself stranded.) Stunned, Juno is suddenly furious at the infantile male and frantic that what she calls “the big-ass bump” end up in a family “not shitty and broken like everyone else’s.”

But Juno doesn’t end there. Another twist, and the film closes with a celebration of single parenthood—anathema to family traditionalists. Yet Juno, in deciding to hand her baby over to a now-solo Vanessa, doesn’t endorse the dour, who-needs-men-when-we-can-go-it-alone ethos of progressives who defend “permeable” arrangements, either. A great comic scene in a bustling mall has convinced Juno—and us in the audience—that Vanessa isn’t actually a vain control freak whose life plan won’t be complete without a perfect little appurtenance. Juno has stumbled on a woman who actually finds kids, of all things, fun and lovable. That is a figure whom both liberals and conservatives often seem to have forgotten, or lost faith in, as they endlessly lament the embattled family. If sharp-eyed girls can spot her in the fraught landscape, though, there’s reason to hope the culture wars will wane and the American family, in its many forms, won’t.