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.”