17 December 2007

Juno: teen pregnancy is the new black?

I'm like a fish to water when it comes to pregnancy. Thus, when I read about Juno a few months back, I knew I had to see it..and I did yesterday. Juno is a surprisingly delightful comedy about an unplanned teenage pregnancy and particularly poignant given the recent statistics suggesting a 3% rise in American teenage pregnancy.

Juno is a 16 year old girl who unwittingly finds herself pregnant after her one and only shot with the boy of her high school dreams. A quick-wit with a razor sharp tongue, Juno is not a girl who is a 'victim' of her pregnancy as so many 'young' mothers are represented in popular culture. Rather, the story takes a few interesting twists and turns as Juno unhesitatingly begins her search to find a home for her unborn child.

There are a lot of reasons why it is easy to love Juno. Juno is a fearless heroine who sees pregnancy as literally a 'bump' in the road and not the end of her life. She finds humour in the nuances of pregnancy but she is also 'human' in a way that Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up never seemed to be able to convey. When it comes down to it, Juno is still only sixteen; she is painfully aware of her classmates staring at her belly, of the whispers down the hallway, and of the looks of disappointment she encounters in her town.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of reasons why Juno and Knocked Up, both in dealing with the issue of unplanned pregnancy, cannot seem to get it right for me. In both films, the female protagonists spend only a fleeting moment considering the 'A' word. Seth Rogan in Knocked Up can't even say the word when Allison considers abortion. Juno actually visits a clinic, Women Now (as she says, because she's a woman and she needs a 'hasty abortion'..now), but can't go through with it after seeing a highschool classmate half-heartedly chanting 'Every baby deserves to be born'. After all, Juno wouldn't be much of a movie if the main character decided on termination. The spectacle of teen pregnancy is literally pregnant with openings for jokes and that Juno is so strangely at ease with both being pregnant and giving her baby up, it makes for some seriously compelling viewing.

However, as much as I would like to give the film the benefit of the doubt for presenting a new and fresh perspective on teen pregnancy (always positioned as the worst experience any young girl might encounter), the lived experience of teen pregnancy is quite often a much more difficult road to traverse than what we see in the film. After all, these are teenagers were are talking about. Of the 3% rise in teen pregnancy last year, 95% of those pregnancies were to young women between 15-19 years old. This is a serious problem. Only last night, MTV's True Life followed a pregnant 18 yr old fighting for custody of the unborn baby with her deadbeat boyfriend. Unable to finish high school with literally 1 cent in her bank account, the one-hour docu-drama was as compelling as it was horrifying and sad. Whilst this young woman had a supportive mother, the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy were terrifying in that this particular young women didn't think she could get pregnant because her boyfriend told her she couldn't...and she believed him. This is surely a scenario that is not uncommon. The last ten minutes of the show featured her in the delivery room, literally screaming and in tears. It was real and raw and scary. The hairs on my arm were standing up as I watched this scene; Juno did not make me feel like that.

Don't get me wrong; I love a light-hearted comedy. However, women's bodies are becoming the fodder for jokes at a time when women's bodies (especially in pregnancy and birth) are at the most risk than ever before. These movies, as funny as they are, actually represent a roll-back of reproductive rights in the United States. For so long, the most popular American comedic films revolved around what I call 'gross-out' humour or young male stupidity along the lines of Jackass. Now, women's bodies are the punchline. Juno is a brilliant piece of fantasy; teen pregnancy is not easily resolved. Most young women do not have the luxury of rolling easily back into their lives with supportive parents and a boyfriend that inexplicably appears as the hapless hero despite being an equal contributor to the central focus of the film.

Katherine Heigl recently declared that she thought the premise of Knocked Up was 'sexist'. She was harangued online for seeming ungrateful for a role that clearly has made her star rise exponentially. However, she has a point. No matter how you phrase it, the female characters in movies like Knocked Up and Juno, are ultimately positioned as inferior for having failed at motherhood, pregnancy or the expectations of female beauty and selflessness that popular culture demands of them. In both films, birth is depicted as either absolutely repulsive (KU) or invisible (Juno). This sends a clear message that as 'funny' as a pregnant body is, actually getting a baby out into the world is too horrific, too ugly and too 'unfeminine' for the average joe to actually watch. We would rather pay $10 to see characters shot and maimed, women raped and abused or horrific scenes of war than the birth of child. We are perfectly happy to show women's naked bodies when they are plastered on billboards, in magazines and on TV, but when it comes to motherhood, the picture gets a bit blurry.

Source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20071215.wschneller1215/BNStory/Entertainment/?page=rss&id=RTGAM.20071215.wschneller1215

3 comments:

Aceface said...

To be technically accurate, the protestor is saying, "Every baby needs to be borned," because the one anti-abortion protestor in the film is shown to be naive and illiterate.
In general, yes, Hollywood avoid the subject of abortion (Fast Times at Ridgemount High and Dirty Dancing are the rule-proving exceptions) but Juno isn't stupid about it. I think the right to abortion is taken for granted though the sentiment of the movie is against it.

Chris Carter said...

"No matter how you phrase it, the female characters in movies like Knocked Up and Juno, are ultimately positioned as inferior for having failed at motherhood, pregnancy or the expectations of female beauty and selflessness that popular culture demands of them"

Isn't that what made Juno slightly different because she didn't feel inferior for being pregnant. She was aware of the people staring at her, but she also states that she just wanted to take their hands and let them feel the kicks. She didn't feel worse because she was pregnant, and she never thought of failing at motherhood. I doubt motherhood ever crossed her mind.

And she went to Women NOW because "they help women....now"

herself said...

GREAT quote: "We would rather pay $10 to see characters shot and maimed, women raped and abused or horrific scenes of war than the birth of child. We are perfectly happy to show women's naked bodies when they are plastered on billboards, in magazines and on TV, but when it comes to motherhood, the picture gets a bit blurry." Well put!

 
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