Ethical Matters in the Film Juno

The 2007 movie Juno raises many ethical issues through the perspective of Juno, a sixteen-year-old girl who becomes pregnant in high school. The movie is based around the moral struggles she faces during the pregnancy, as well as how she handles other characters intervening and imposing their personal beliefs upon her. Being so young, Juno receives an abundance of advice from her parents, friends, and adoptive parents who all believe they know what is best for her. However, she is at an age where she has developed her own set of values, and she intends to continue to be guided by them. Battling between living by her own ideals and allowing others to help guide her, Juno faces an abundance of internal conflicts during her pregnancy, which illuminates a large amount of ethical concerns and principles in the film.

The film is based around the already-controversial idea of teen pregnancy, which raises an ethical matter in itself. Although Juno can physically have a child, it can be argued that she, and other teen mothers, have not yet developed a mature emotional state capable of handling the process of motherhood. Juno often mentions how she is not quite sure who she is as a person, and that she is still “just a kid.” Because of this, Juno decides not to keep her child. First, she considers getting an abortion, and is quite content with the idea. This raises another moral issue concerning whether or not terminating a pregnancy is ethical. Abortion is often deemed unethical because it involves ending a life, and is frequently considered with young people doing so on the account of making careless, irresponsible mistakes. Juno, however, soon discovers that she could not emotionally go through with the plan of abortion, so she decides search for a set of adoptive parents.

Mark and Vanessa, the adoptive couple, see the adoption as a selfless act on Juno’s part, and that she has “answered their prayers.” What Juno’s family sees as a burden on their life, the couple considers a blessing. Although they seem like a perfect couple to raise Juno’s child, the characterization of Mark and Vanessa, and Juno’s relationship with them, both expose a number of ethical matters. One issue involves the husband and wife’s relationship with one another and their decision to get a divorce. The idea of divorce is controversial, especially when it takes place during the adoption process. Although it is very common in today’s society, divorce is still considered a “wrong” thing to do. In many religions, divorce is frowned upon because marriage is supposed to be permanent. In general, a divorce signifies that the promise of love and devotion was broken, and promises in general are not supposed to be broken. The divorce process in Juno illuminates the true differences between the couple and the morality they each have toward receiving a child.

Vanessa tries to encompass the values of a perfect, textbook image of a mother, while Mark has doubts that he is actually ready to become a father. He sees it as “bad timing” and feels as though he wants to do more with his life before having the responsibility of a child weighing him down. Juno brings this attitude out of Mark by making frequent visits to the couple’s house. This can be seen as immoral because Juno and Mark developed a friendly, almost-creepy relationship without Vanessa’s knowledge. Although it was not a sexual relationship, Juno was overstepping marriage boundaries and interfering with Mark’s feelings with Vanessa by regularly stopping by and calling. This can ultimately be viewed as positive, however, because it brought out Mark’s false happiness about Vanessa and having a child. Instead of deciding to live in suppression of these feelings, Mark was honest to himself and to his wife for the first time. This process saved Mark’s piece of mind, and possibly Vanessa from getting even more hurt in the long run, even though it involved the issue of getting a divorce.

Juno, a didactic story, incorporates moral reasoning into its plot in order to both provide entertainment to its viewers, and to offer different perspectives, solutions or ways to face similar situations in real life. People are often curious about teen pregnancy because it is not glorified, and is considered as a relatively bad thing. When people see a pregnant teenager, they are generally concerned for her or perhaps even disgusted by it. The film offers ways to satisfy this curiosity by exposing the realistic, ethical issue of teen pregnancy and allowing the audience to empathize with Juno during the process.

Womanhood and Family: Challenging Cultural Values in Juno

Juno (2007), directed by Jason Reitman, is the story of a 16-year-old Minnesotan girl named Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) who discovers that she has become pregnant after a one-time sexual encounter with her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). The film, which is divided narratively into four seasons, details the year of Juno’s pregnancy and her relationships with Bleeker, her parents, and the couple whom she chooses to adopt her child. Unfortunately, Juno finds out that the people whom she believes to be the future “perfect parents” have their own relationship and personal flaws, and she must decide who to trust to raise and love her unborn child. In Juno, Reitman challenges the American cultural values of the necessity of women’s purity and the traditional nuclear family.

Barbara Welter’s (1996) article “The Cult of True Womanhood” outlines the “four cardinal virtues” by which women at the time were judged, and these expectations are largely still in place in American society today. One of these virtues is purity, which includes the cultural beliefs that premarital sex is inherently immoral, and that if a woman does get pregnant out of wedlock, she should immediately get married and raise the child. Reitman approaches this concept radically differently in Juno. Although Juno and Bleeker are only juniors in high school (and not even in a committed relationship) when they have sex, Juno views the experience positively, describing it to her friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) as “magnificent.” She only expresses regret about it when she tells Bleeker that she is pregnant, saying, “I’m real sorry I had sex with you. I know it wasn’t your idea.” Although Bleeker responds, “Whose idea was it?” this line implies that Juno was autonomous in the decision, and that she likely encouraged it.

Upon finding out that she is pregnant, Juno decides immediately that she is unquestionably going to have an abortion, a choice that she is not particularly emotional about. Leah encourages the decision, asking as soon as she realizes that Juno is not joking, “Well, are you going to go to Havenbrooke or Women Now for the abortion? You need a note from your parents for Havenbrooke.” She even offers to call the clinic on Juno’s behalf, which she did “for Becky last year.” Bleeker is similarly indifferent about the prenancy, leaving the decision up to his friend. He asks her, “So, what do you think we should do?” and she answers, “I thought I might, you know, nip it in the bud before it gets worse…So that’s cool with you, then?” to which he responds, “Yeah, wizard, I guess. I mean do what you think is right.”

Juno schedules an appointment with Women Now, “calling to procure a hasty abortion,” and goes to the clinic. However, the protests of a classmate outside of the building, saying that at this point, Juno’s baby has fingernails, prevent Juno from going through with the procedure. She tells Leah, “I’m staying pregnant,” and immediately decides that she could turn the situation into a gift for a couple who is desperate for a child, a plan which she presents to her parents subsequently after announcing her pregnancy. Her parents are naturally shocked and upset at the news, but when she tells them, “I’m not ready to be a mom,” they jump into action, with Juno’s stepmother, Bren (Allison Janney), hurrying to make a to-do list and her father, Mac (J.K. Simmons), making arrangements to meet the prospective adoptive parents. Perhaps in part because of this support system, Juno remains fairly unemotional about her child throughout the pregnancy, describing herself as wearing “a fat suit that I can’t take off” and “a planet.” This subverts society’s (and the Lorings’) expectations that she would change her mind and develop a maternal instinct. Overall, the ideas that premarital sex is dangerous and that becoming pregnant changes one’s entire life are completely defied in this film. At the end of the film, Juno and Bleeker are able to reconnect, sans infant, and they emerge from the situation completely unscathed and able to return to their teenage lives better off than where they were a year ago.

Reitman also challenges the cultural value of the traditional nuclear family, which, even when this film came out in 2007, was not as prevalent a theme in films as it is now, a decade later. Juno picks Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner), who appear to be perfect, and describe themselves as an “Educated, successful couple,” out of the Penny Saver, saying in voiceover, “…they were beautiful even in black and white.” When Juno and Mac arrive at their home, they find that it is clean, well-furnished, and clearly expensive, and that any child of theirs would certainly be financially comfortable. The couple seems prepared to expand their family, and Vanessa is especially eager to welcome a child. Mark tells the MacGuffs, “Vanessa has wanted a baby since we got married,” and she chimes in, “I want to be a mommy so badly!” The audience is first able to see that Mark is not as invested as his wife when Mac asks if he is excited to be a father and he responds, “Sure, why not? I mean, every guy wants to be a father. Coach soccer, help with science projects and… I don’t know. Fatherly stuff.”

This conflict deepens as Juno naively trusts the potential future father of her child and they begin to develop a close relationship that Vanessa is intentionally left out of. When Juno arrives at the Lorings’ house by surprise, she asks if Vanessa is there and Mark responds, “Nope. We’re safe.” It culminates when Mark tells Juno after they share an inappropriately intimate dance that he is leaving Vanessa and that he’s “getting his own place in the city and [he’s] got it all planned out.” It is only after he asks Juno how she thinks of him that he realizes that she is a teenager who saw him as a friend, and will never become anything more to him. After initially running away, Juno changes her mind and leaves Vanessa a note, which is revealed in the penultimate scene of the film to read, “Vanessa—if you’re still in, I’m still in.” Even though Vanessa’s family will be unconventional, Reitman shows the single mothers’ love for her child when she cries upon hearing that she has a son. Later, Juno says in voiceover, “I think he was always hers,” and Vanessa is shown feeding the infant, looking happiest that she does in the entire film. She may raise him alone, but it is clear that he will have a full and happy life.

Juno’s immediate family reinforces this challenge as well. Rather than existing as a nurturing presence in her life, Juno’s unnamed mother was divorced from her father when Juno was five years old, lives far away with a new husband and children, and is largely out of contact with her eldest daughter. However, although Juno and her stepmother do not seem particularly close, Bren is supportive throughout Juno’s pregnancy. Bren attacks the ultrasound technician who makes a comment about how having a teenage mother is “a poisonous environment for a baby to be raised in.” She is also concerned early on about Juno’s relationship with Mark and told her that spending time with him was a mistake. Rather than looking down on nontraditional families, Juno celebrates them.

Although at face value Juno may appear to be merely an entertaining teen indie comedy, Reitman folds opposition to American cultural norms into every scene. Unlike many of those in classical Hollywood cinema that have perpetuated cultural myths, the female characters in this film are interesting, opinionated, and strong agents of their own lives. His message that women who have had unexpected or nontraditional parenting experiences can be happy and fulfilled lives is best demonstrated through Bren’s words to Juno as she lies in her hospital bed after giving birth, “Someday you’ll be back here, honey. On your terms.”