Juno – Redefining Womanhood

[vc_row][vc_column][title type=”subtitle-h6″]Haley McNiff[/title][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”11/12″][vc_column_text]

I was ten years old when I first saw Juno.

Juno is one of those films that has stuck with me for many reasons – a film that I’ve been able to return to and find new meaning in, time and time again. Considering this, it was a little jarring to realize that a decade had passed since I had first given myself over to its beautiful whirlwind of love, youth, and growth. Seeing my affection for the film represented in numbers – ten whole years of viewership – struck me.

I was recently ushered into the world of “adulthood”, and yet I feel no different today than I did when I was still considered a teen. But, looking back, so much has changed from when I was that ten-year-old settled in between my parents in our living room, my eyes glued to the screen. I wasn’t alone in my love for the film. Juno received critical acclaim and was a box office success despite its release as a relatively low-budget, independent film in 2007. Its lasting cultural power is but a testament to its creativity, innovation, and most importantly, its humanity.

Despite being set in Minnesota, Juno was filmed in Canada. Regardless, screenwriter Diablo Cody’s script features suburban Minnesotan landmarks that imbue the film with a sense of unparalleled familiarity. One doesn’t hear mention of Ridgedale Mall, a place I once frequented, in many films – let alone popular ones. So, understandably, young me was incredibly excited to be confronted with a reinterpretation of my home turf on the big screen. I could  relate even further to a film that already placed emphasis on celebrating the “real” instead of the glamorous, something the Midwest is decidedly not. Furthermore, the characters embody that peculiar Midwestern modesty without coming off as dowdy caricatures (I’m looking at you, New in Town). All in all, returning to the film feels like coming home. Watching Juno is a heartfelt homage to the Minnesotan suburbs of my childhood.

Let’s be honest: the setting wouldn’t matter if the protagonist, Ellen Page’s Juno MacGuff, didn’t hold her own. Juno is a fully-developed female character, a rare sight in films, especially considering that she’s an adolescent female. Unlike so many depictions of teenage girls in popular culture, Juno isn’t muted by the same list of stereotypes that hinder female characters from coming across as compelling or realistic. She’s confident, intelligent, confused, funny, strange, and precocious – all things that young girls generally are. The existence (and success) of an iconic female character such as Juno is a huge step toward the reclamation of the young adult female character in popular culture as a representation of authentic adolescent girls.

Image courtesy of Bustle

It meant so much to the ten-year-old me to see a teenage girl engaging with characteristically un-feminine aspects of culture, such as punk rock music, a unisex style, and horror films. I had never related such interests to someone so much like me, and it was incredibly freeing. Yet, the film doesn’t demonize young women who are drawn to traditionally feminine forms of expression, as teen-oriented movies often do. Juno’s best friend, Leah, is a bubbly cheerleader. It isrefreshing to see two vastly different women lifting each other up rather than pitted against each other.

Juno’s authenticity is heightened by the fact that she is flawed. As a coming of age story, Juno involves personal growth. What makes it stand out from other films is that the protagonist matures through one of the most explicitly adult scenarios – that of bringing a child into the world. Juno’s immaturity is exhibited through her disregard for the use of protection leading to her unplanned pregnancy and overall confusion about her place in the world. Yet, she isn’t defined by her mistakes. “Juno” asserts that what really matters is what you do with the mistakes you’ve made and who’s beside you along the way, helping you through.

Sex is not condemned in Juno. Instead, Juno offers one of the most honest depictions of teenage sex – and its consequences – in modern cinema. So many interpretations of teenagers’ engagement in sexual acts in film are incredibly glamorized and drawn out, often coming across as taboo or exploitative. In Juno, the act itself is handled with absolute delicacy while being far from glamorous. This allows sex to be portrayed as natural, effectively demystifying the act and focusing on the physical and emotional consequences.

While the movie makes the case that one should be careful, it does not belittle teenagers by asserting that sex is something they should be kept in the dark about, as is often the standard in American society. Juno responds to the faulty and often patronizing American sexual education system, saying, “I hate it when adults use the term ‘sexually active.’ What does that even mean? Can I deactivate someday, or is this a permanent state of being?” The paradoxical societal judgment of young women who have sex and become pregnant while not providing them with the adequate knowledge in regard to how to do so safely is effectively challenged in Juno.

The handling of the issue of abortion is incredibly fair. Upon its release, Juno was accepted by both pro-life and pro-choice advocates, cultivating a sense of unity that is unheard of in relation to such a sensitive topic. This successful and tactful treatment of abortion is fostered by addressing Juno’s choice in a realistic and relatable way. The fact that Juno’s character initially pursues an abortion illustrates the importance of choice and does not vilify the women that choose to terminate their pregnancies. It is made clear that, given the demonstrated difficulty of carrying a child to term as a teenager, it would have been a valid choice for her to make. Yet, once Juno arrives to the clinic, she finds that it is a choice she personally cannot see through. Her election to give her child up for adoption is promoted as a legitimate alternative to abortion for her. Juno treats the issue of abortion as a case-by-case issue, relating it to the needs of individual women making such difficult choices.

Finally, Juno is an authentic and moving portrait of what it means to be a family in contemporary American society. Juno’s immediate family does not ascribe to the typical nuclear model. Her step-family is dysfunctional, yet loving, as so many families are. They don’t condone her pregnancy, but they support her, providing necessary care and guidance for Juno when she needs it most. This theme is further explored through the characterization of the adoptive mother of Juno’s child, Vanessa. Through Vanessa, the film asserts the validity of the single-parent, adoptive family. This is especially notable when represented through a female character, as Vanessa is a successful businessperson and a dedicated mother, defying gender norms. Juno celebrates the family in all its forms, be it biological, adoptive, stepfamilies, or single-parenting. The presence of love is what matters most.

In an especially touching moment between Juno and her father, she expresses doubt in whether or not people in love can stay together for good – a question many young people face in a divorce-riddled world. Her father replies, “It’s not easy, that’s for sure. Now, I may not have the best track record in the world, but I have been with your stepmother for ten years now, and I’m proud to say that we’re very happy. In my opinion, the best thing you can do is to find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person will still think that the sun shines out your ass. That’s the kind of person that’s worth sticking with.” This promotion of love over perfection is especially necessary in today’s world, where the structure of the family and the embodiments of love are anything but static.

In light of these themes, what strikes me most after ten years of living and growing with Juno is the constancy of my own family throughout my life. They supported me as I made the transition from teenager to “adult” in my own right (pregnancy excluded). I will never forget how excited my parents were to show me Juno after they had first seen it in theaters themselves. I’m so thankful that they trusted me, at ten years old, to face such adult topics with them, actively facilitating a dialogue in regard to their importance. They exposed me to a positive, flawed, honest portrayal of a young woman at a critical time in my life, encouraging me to be as unapologetically myself as she was. Something as simple as watching Juno, a movie about what it means to love and be loved, became so much more because my parents gave it to me. It was permission to love, be loved, and be open about whatever that meant to me. When the credits roll, I’m taken back to my place on my father’s lap at ten years old, my mother’s arms around me. I see how much I’ve grown thanks to their unending love and support.

For me, Juno will always remain societally and personally important. That remains in spite of  the constant change of which life otherwise consists. In ten years’ time, I have no doubt that I will still be singing its praises exactly as I do now.
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