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The Politics of Juno: How to Sell Fundamentalism to Liberal Audiences

Juno (2007)

As a vehicle for pro-life propaganda, Juno is a Trojan horse. It won over liberal hearts, and somehow managed to smuggle in its conservative baggage. It is not, as accommodating film critic Roger Ebert suggested, a masterpiece. The only thing it does masterfully is conceal it’s fundamentalism from moderate audiences. For that, it deserves recognition.

Many liberals were simply too charmed by the film to admit it was pro-life. “Why do you think that?” a ladyfriend of mine asked. As I waffled through my rehearsed arguments, she glared at me, as if I, the spoiler and politicizer of everything great and innocent, was once again trying to ruin something for her. “I would say it’s pro-life,” I further pontificated, “but I refuse to use the enemy’s jargon.”  I was surprised how few of my fellow lefties agreed with me. After all, the plot leaves little room for interpretation.

Juno MacGuff is an irreverent, 16-year-old tomboy, wise beyond her years though not entirely immune to the salacious pitfalls of youth. Despite having been subjected to stringent sex education (as a flashback reveals), Juno gets pregnant. Quite nonchalantly, her first impulse is to get an abortion (they’re all the rage on campus, it seems).

Before the doors of her local clinic, Juno runs into a pro-life protester. It’s Su-Chin, a classmate of Juno’s, who has the endearing tendency of mispronouncing English words (“All babies want to get borned!”).  Anyone who has witnessed a pro-life rally will attest to the fact that docile and sweet participants are more the exception than the rule. (The last such protest I witnessed was outside the democratic convention in Denver. The group in question was shouting “Obama Babykiller”, while a truck circled the block, sporting an enormous picture of a late-term fetus that looked like it had been char-grilled, stir-fried and drowned in Tabasco.)

Su-Chin, on the other hand, is soft-spoken and sensitive. “Your baby has a beating heart, you know? It can feel pain…and it has fingernails,” she yelps innocently as Juno enters the clinic. The latter detail clearly resonates with Juno, as incorrect as it may be.

The pro-choice crowd doesn’t receive quite as good a rap in the film. When Juno enters the clinic, she is entering their realm, and it’s not a pretty place. The receptionist is a vulgar, pierced insensitive nihilist (the screenplay lists her as “Punk Receptionist”). While hacking away at a portable game console, she lazily recites what appears to be the Clinic’s mission statement, “Welcome to Women Now, where women are trusted friends. Please put your hands where I can see them and surrender any bongs.” This scene is sure to put the fear of god into any aspiring abortionist. The procedure is shown to be intrusive (“we need to know of every score and every sore”) and depraved. (“Would you like a free condom?” punk secretary asks. “They’re boysenberry…my boyfriend wears them every time we have intercourse, it makes his junk smell like pie.”)

“I’m off sex,” Juno tells Punk Receptionist. The grave consequences of unprotected copulation have turned our hero Juno off the protected kind as well. She has learned a lesson; in abstinence. How convenient.

As Juno sits down to fill out her form, the sound of tapping fingernails overwhelms the diagetic world of the screen. She turns around to see her fellow abortionists (these, by the way, are the only African-Americans you’ll see in this film) tapping away at their boards with a glib sense of routine. Nearby, fingernails are being filed. The sounds blend together into a terrifying chorus, haunting Juno like the Telltale Heart. She bursts out of the clinic. “God appreciates your miracle,” Su-Chin shouts ecstatically.

“It smelled like a dentist office in there,” Juno tells her friend, “The magazines were covered in water stains,” small details that might well make teenage skin crawl. The whole experience has informed our even-handed heroine’s decision. “I’m staying pregnant….but maybe they’ll, like, canonize me for being so selfless.” And they do. The filmmakers bestow a saintly temperament on their lead character. She does nothing objectionable or mean-spirited; her only bad decision precedes the film’s narrative. Thus, her way is the right one.

Juno’s parents are frank, earthy, hearty characters; everyday American heroes.  Though their party affiliation goes unmentioned, there are subtle indicators that they are culturally conservative. They are also somewhat quirky and irreverent to take the edge off their conservatism (or, rather, to give them an edge.) Her father is a veteran, small businessman and traditionalist (“that guy with the ponytail…he just doesn’t look right to me”) or simply the most reliable demographic of the Republican Party.  The stepmother is a feisty nail-care specialist with a penchant for tame profanity and Jesus talk.

When Juno tells her parents of her intention to offer the baby up for adoption, we hear the last mention of abortion in the film. “Have you considered the alternative?” her stepmother asks. “No,” Juno replies. “Well.” the stepmother grins approvingly, “you’re a little Viking!” One wonders whether the news of a pending abortion would have garnered similar praise. After discouraging abortion, the film has offered a viable alternative.

The film doesn’t make the mistake of an essay film, by endlessly moralizing or sacrificing entertainment for the sake of its broad message. Thus even its most propagandistic elements are packaged in snappy, irreverent dialogue. The most pious thoughts are deeply embedded in edgy conversations.

Mac MacGuff: “Did you see that coming?”

Bren MacGuff: “Yeah… but I was hoping she was expelled, or into hard drugs.”

Mac MacGuff: “Or a DWI… anything but this.”

Bren MacGuff: “Think of it this way: Somebody else is going to find a precious blessing from Jesus, in this garbage dump of a situation.”

The adoptive parents that Juno seeks out are an interesting case study. Vanessa and Mark Loring are an attractive, thirty-something couple that enjoy quite an affluent lifestyle. Early on, the film establishes Vanessa as the more invested of the two, and the more traditional. These two things go hand in hand. “I was born to be a mother,” she states with great pride. Her husband isn’t quite as settled in his gender-specific template. “Yeah…everyone wants to be a dad,” he says, with an undertone of sarcasm. Ultimately, the film demonizes Mark for being unsure whether he wants to be a father. His unwillingness to settle down, his rebelliousness, are treated as symptoms of egotism and irresponsibility. The same scenario could have been shown in a very different way. Instead, Vanessa could have been shown coercing Mark into the adoption (she is after all, a little baby-crazy). By making her crass traditionalism a positive asset, the filmmakers issue a statement of purpose.

Yet, many credible observers saw in the film the stirrings of feminism. A.O. Scott of the New York Times described it as a “feminist, girl-powered rejoinder.” On her blog, The Feminist Spectator, Jill Dollan, English Professor at Princeton University, gave the film similar blessings.

Each declined to mention Vanessa Loring’s mantra of ‘motherhood as only aspiration in life.’ It wouldn’t have complimented their point. After all, Vanessa is entrusted with the baby specifically because she is such a traditional female. Her unwavering dedication qualifies her. The baby doesn’t seem to stand in the way of any of her future ambitions, because it is her sole ambition.

The film culminates in the deliverance of the baby. For the first time in the film, Juno MacGuff is shown visibly uncomfortable. For nine months she has enjoyed perfect skin, good moods and relative painlessness (early on in the film she is shown throwing up into a vase; I wish I could puke with such poise.) Very few pregnancies run this seamlessly. Whether this is the intentional glamorization of the alternative to abortion, or simply another Hollywood convention is not entirely clear. It does, however, fit a greater pattern.

A friend of mine suggested that the film was pro-choice precisely because Juno enjoyed a choice. “She decided to have the baby; decided is the key word there.” All pro-life arguments made today, are made in the knowledge that the process is legal today. If Juno were to play in a post Roe v. Wade America, the main character would have had to make the choice between illegal abortion and legal pregnancy (coathanger vs. fabulous nails). In this film she has to make the choice between causing “pain” to an embryo with “fingernails” and a “beating heart” or helping somebody else “receive a precious blessing from Jesus.”

The filmmakers mislead Juno into keeping the baby. They create an unaccommodating, depraved abortion clinic, a sensitive pro-lifer and a false set of facts to further deter the young girl. Juno, our Identifikationsfigur, our moral standard-bearer, makes the right decision given the facts she is presented. Unfortunately they are false. Su-Chin’s lies (two month old embryos neither have fingernails nor the necessary neurons to feel pain) are never debunked. Therefore, in the film’s reality, they remain facts. Not knowing that these are misleading, could lead a logical person to agree with the pro-life argument. They make abortion seem like murder. This isn’t choice, this is coercion.

When laid out on paper, Juno’s plot seems conservative. This is obscured by characters, whose profanity, cynical intonations and musical tastes seem decidedly liberal. Modern conservatism has so long been the antithesis (or sworn enemy) of everything hip and cutting edge, that any piece of art that achieves a certain level of irreverence automatically seems left wing. (The fact that the comedian Adam Sandler votes Republican, for instance, struck me as decidedly counter-intuitive.) It is just utterly difficult to fight conventions while bowing to the Ultimate One.

The left wing has long held a monopoly on all things young and fresh. Juno is a sign that conservatives are at least capable of encroaching on that territory. My fawning liberal friends are living proof.

By Leon Dische Becker

Leon Dische Becker is studying History at Bard College and graduating this May. His Senior Project is called “The Myth of an Independent Ostpolitik”, which discusses the level of American control over German foreign policy during Willy Brandt’s chancellorship. He also blogs here.

6 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Tellingly, Juno made it on the list of the best conservative movies compiled by the National Review.
    BTW, Florian von Donnersmarck’s The Life of Others is on first place…

  2. Leon

    I found their regard for The Lives of Others to be brutally ironic, given their fondness for surveillance, intrusion, and their absolute disdain for civil liberties.

    They couldn’t even come up with 25 films that fulfill both criteriums of “good” and “conservative”. Many of these films are garbage, others (Team America) aren’t conservative in the slightest.

    The list also illustrates well what a muddled term “conservative” is these days. The Lives of the Others is considered conservative because it “chronicles life under a totalitarian regime as the Stasi secretly monitors the activities of a playwright who is suspected of harboring doubts about Communism” while The Dark Night is conservative because in his “fight against the terrorist Joker, Batman has to devise new means of surveillance, push the limits of the law, and accept the hatred of the press and public.” It is a solid indication that an ideology is bankrupt when even its most skillful propagandists cease to make sense…

  3. Yeah, I had to smile about the flexibility with which they apply the label. in this regard, accroding to NRO, the movie Brazil is conservative because it shows what happens when the government collects to much power: “Terrorist bombings, national-security scares, universal police surveillance, bureaucratic arrogance, a callous elite, perversion of science, and government use of torture evoke the worst aspects of the modern megastate.”
    Hmm, sounds like the Bush years to me.
    It proves that it’s really just a label and conservatives will claim anything to appear closer to the mainstream again.

  4. Dirk

    But then, Phyllis Schlafly didn’t like ‘Juno’, and that’s always a good sign.

  5. DXS

    Mr Becker: Thank you for writing your article. That movie gave me a sick feeling after leaving the theater, and it continues to bother me in the same way that Christian rock bothers me. I was arguing about the movie with my brother yesterday. He sent me links to interviews of the screenwriter claiming to be pro-choice. Thankfully, I was able to find your well-written, thorough, and insightful analysis.

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