Revolution#121, February 24, 2008

Juno Has a Baby…

A Modern Tale of Traditional Morality

SPOILER WARNING: This review gives away the plot of Juno, so if you don’t want the plot revealed before you see the movie, see the movie before reading this review.

Sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff lives in the fictional suburban town of Dancing Elk, Minnesota. She wears boyish, punky attire and listens to folky alternative music.  Juno (played by Ellen Page) gives the impression of being tough and vulnerable at the same time. In her voice-over narration she dryly recounts how her parents divorced when she was small. Her mother remarried and moved to Arizona where she has a “replacement family.” Her mother sends Juno a cactus every Valentine’s Day. Juno wisecracks with resentment: “Thanks a heap, Coyote Ugly. This cactus-gram stings even worse than your abandonment.” This back-story with its prickly symbolism is the first hint of the outmoded moral boundaries which guide the tale: Juno’s mom was not a good mother. Period.

Juno (Juno is the name of the Roman goddess of fertility, childbirth, and marriage) loves her best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). He is a likeable nerd. Having sex wasn’t his idea, it was hers. Juno and Paulie have sex without condoms. Later, when Juno returns from what will be an aborted trip to an abortion clinic, she tells a friend, “the receptionist tried to get me to take these condoms that looked like grape suckers and was just babbling away about her freaking boyfriend’s pie balls!”

Now she is pregnant and worried: she is too young to have a baby. Joking darkly about suicide with her best friend, Juno phones a clinic to “procure a hasty abortion.” Cut to the “Women Now” abortion clinic, which is a grim, sordid place. Outside the clinic Juno encounters a young classmate who is standing alone, carrying a huge sign with the face of a baby on it and the words: “No Babies Like Murdering.” The classmate tells Juno, “Your baby’s heart is probably beating. It can feel pain. It has fingernails.”

Juno pauses when she hears the “fingernails” line, but enters the clinic anyhow. Once inside of this supposedly feminist clinic she is greeted by a receptionist who drones in a monotone, “Welcome to Women Now where women are trusted friends.” The receptionist hands her a clipboard, saying “we need to know every score and every sore.” Juno, disconcerted, looks around the waiting room, which is filled with depressed women anxiously drumming their fingernails. The sound of fingernails crescendos: Clickety clickety click, drum drum DRUM. Juno flees.

From the intervention of the sincere pro-lifer to the grungy clinic, you are supposed to feel relief when Juno runs from the place. Though the movie presents abortion as a “choice,” it quickly also presents killing a lump of cells as killing a “baby,” even though a fetus at the time of Juno’s trip to the abortion clinic would be little bigger than a period on this page.

When Juno tells her dad and stepmother that she is pregnant they are at first shocked and disappointed, but almost immediately turn supportive when she announces her decision to carry the fetus to term and put it up for adoption. Juno announces she has found the perfect couple to be adoptive parents. “Thirty-odd weeks, and we can pretend it never happened.” Juno’s stepmother, Brenda (Allison Janney), reassures: “Somebody else is going to find a precious blessing from Jesus in this garbage dump of a situation.” In the wink of an eye, all discussion of abortion, of a woman’s future, has been dispensed with and the pregnancy has become a baby and a “blessing.”

Later Brenda takes Juno for an ultrasound appointment. Brenda is a Unitarian—a kind of solid, “common sense” character. Watching the image of the fetus on the ultrasound monitor, Juno says, “It’s like it’s not even real. I can’t believe there are saps who actually cry at these things.” A moment later, Brenda cries. “What? I’m not made of stone.”

The Adoptive Parents

Much of the movie revolves around Juno’s interaction with the adoptive parents she chooses to raise the baby. Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner of TV series Alias fame) is a professional woman in her thirties who passionately declares that she is “born” to be a mother. In fact, we never learn more about Vanessa, her life, likes, hopes, dreams, than this. Her intensity around motherhood is almost frightening. She obsesses on whether custard or cheesecake yellow paint will provide the best “nesting” environment.

A pivotal scene occurs when Juno, hugely pregnant, runs into Vanessa by accident at a mall. Juno encourages Vanessa to touch her belly and talk with the fetus. Vanessa puts her hand on Juno’s belly and asks, “Can you hear me, sweet angel?” And lo and behold, a miracle occurs. “Oh my God—it moved! I felt it!” Juno smiles. Vanessa beams. God has spoken. Juno and Vanessa bond in their joint mission to produce and raise a baby.

Vanessa’s husband, Mark Loring (Jason Bateman), chafes at his career writing stupid ad jingles. He wants to drop out and form a rock band. Juno and Mark hang out. They talk about horror flicks, rock music, and comic books. When Juno tells her stepmother that she spent time alone with Mark, she gets a warning: “Mark is a married stranger. You overstepped a boundary.” Juno balks. “Who cares if he’s married? I can have friends who are married.” Her stepmother replies: “It doesn’t work that way, kiddo.”

And so it doesn’t. Juno’s bonding with Mark leads to Mark hitting on her—exhibiting supposedly innate male impulses. Juno “learns a lesson.” The encounter with Mark is a cautionary tale about being in the company of men other than husband or relative for “the woman’s protection.” And Mark, as it turns out, betrays his patriarchal role altogether. He doesn’t want a baby. He runs off to the city to get a loft and start a band.

In one scene, when Juno discusses arrangements for adoption with Mark and Vanessa, she asks, “Can’t we just, like, kick this old school? Like, I have the baby, put it in a basket and send it your way, like Moses and the reeds?” Mark injects, “Technically, that would be kicking it Old Testament.”

And in that exchange, the punchline of Juno is articulated: Everything alternative in Juno is an alternative, updated version of deadly oppressive morality where having a baby is the be-all and end-all for a woman, the form through which she finds her meaning in life. And if you liked Juno, that’s what you got sold.

How Did We Get HERE and Where Do We GO?

In the 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a brother figures out that he has taken his high school sister for a needed abortion. It is a very affirmative, tender, positive thing that allows her to continue to have a life. In the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing (set in the 1960s), a young woman courageously sticks out her neck to help a friend obtain an illegal abortion. In Cider House Rules (1999), a young doctor-in-training goes through profound changes as he learns about life, oppression, and the morality of abortion.

Now where are we? Joseph V. Amodio wrote in Newsday, “Pregnant bellies are everywhere. It began, more or less, with last year’s ‘Waitress,’ continued on to ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Bella’ and, of course, the sleeper hit ‘Juno,’ which last month grabbed four Oscar nominations.” (“Topic of abortion scares Hollywood,” February 4, 2008).

Off-the-deep-end reactionaries like ex-senator Rick Santorum love Juno (and the spate of other anti-abortion movies). But more alarmingly, so does almost everyone else. David Denby gushed in the New Yorker that “Juno is a coming-of-age movie made with idiosyncratic charm and not a single false note.”

How is it that audiences who are not anti-choice are walking out of a movie like Juno without even realizing what hit them? For many years now, Christian fascists have been hammering a message that what America needs is a return to the oppressive values of 1950s (and in many ways, the 1850s), including a return to traditional woman’s role as mother. They have been setting terms very broadly, to the point that any Democrat who wants to run for president has to declare that abortion is morally wrong and tragic, while the movement to ban all abortion grows and shuts down clinics. And through all this, a morality has spread that accepts that we “all” supposedly abhor abortion as a tragedy. The fact that so many people have been taken in by Juno should serve as a wake-up call on how ominously far things have gone in that direction.

Juno packages itself as expressing an alternative to the heartless meat-market relations between people in general, and men and women in particular, in this society. The dog-eat-dog morality that flows from and serves capitalism is expressed in the domination of men over women in many forms, including the widespread commodification of women. But both “modern” commodification of women and traditional morality are two sides to the same coin.

A much better system, and a much better morality, are possible. A revolutionary society will open the door to rupturing beyond the concepts of wife and mother, and into partners and parents, and will eventually do away with the institution of marriage altogether. Revolutionary communist morality starts from, is consistent with, and serves the need to overthrow all class relations, and all the thinking that comes from and serves them. This includes the overthrow of all social relations and ideas that degrade and oppress women. And that is a truly radical alternative morality.

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