Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Juno" as a "fairy tale."

I haven't yet seen the movie, "Juno," though it's been well reviewed and on several of the lists of top films for 2007. Something about a film that takes a "comedic and jolly" approach to teenage pregnancy makes me a bit uncomfortable, I guess, but this op-ed piece in today's New York Times takes up some of the film's more serious moments. As contributor Caitlin Flanagan writes, the scene when young Juno tells her father of her "condition" is one of them. He responds with a disappointing shake of the head and says, “I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when.” Flanagan then reminds us of that enduring consequence of biology: women (including pubescent ones) bear the consequences of sex in a way that men never do.

In spite of its serious themes, Flanagan calls Juno a "fairy tale" because of the ease with which she parts with the baby she gives birth to. Flanagan writes that "Juno finds a yuppie couple eager for a baby, and when the woman tries to entice her with the promise of an open adoption, the girl shakes her head adamantly: 'Can’t we just kick it old school? I could just put the baby in a basket and send it your way. You know, like Moses in the reeds.'” Juno's sentiment "turns out to be genuine," as she and her boyfriend "resume their carefree adolescence, the baby -- safely in the hands of his rapturous and responsible new mother -- all but forgotten." Flanagan opines that seeing "a young daughter, faced with the terrible fact of a pregnancy, unscathed by it and completely her old self again was magical."

Flanagan continues: "As any woman who has ever chosen (or been forced) to kick it old school can tell you, surrendering a baby whom you will never know comes with a steep and lifelong cost. Nor is an abortion psychologically or physically simple. It is an invasive and frightening procedure, and for some adolescent girls it constitutes part of their first gynecological exam. I know grown women who’ve wept bitterly after abortions, no matter how sound their decisions were. How much harder are these procedures for girls, whose moral and emotional universe is just taking shape?"

I am not sure to what extent I agree with Flanagan about the "steep and lifelong cost" of giving up a child or having an abortion. Surely circumstances matter. Would a victim of rape necessarily feel a "steep and lifelong cost" at giving up a baby for adoption? Would a woman living in poverty experience that cost at having an abortion? If so, wouldn't the circumstances that prevented her keeping the baby be part of the angst? So, I find myself wanting to clarify the "why" part of the angst Flanagan describes, which brings me to Justice Kennedy's opinion in the April 2007 decision in Gonzales v. Carhart. There, Kennedy focused on the "maternal bond," giving credibility to recent anti-abortion strategy of highlighting the regret experienced by women who have abortions. This argument, now endorsed by some members of the Supreme Court, relies upon this regret as a harm that justifies abortion regulations such as informed consent and waiting period requirements.

But what is the source of the regret that women who have abortions may feel, or that women outside the "Juno" fairly tale may feel about giving up a baby for adoption? Is it biological, as Kennedy and others suggest? or do the regret and angst stem from socially and culturally created expectations about how all would-be mothers should feel in these circumstances? Further, given the power, the reality of social expectations about motherhood (or perhaps more precisely, who should feel like a mother), does their source matter? It seems futile to question the legitimacy of these expectations of "motherhood" (including when it begins) when they are virtually unassailable in our culture. For, whatever their origin, it is these collective, social expectations about motherhood that make "Juno" a fairy tale.

1 comment:

Meredith Wallis said...

I think the article ignored a couple key moments (maybe because they were understated?). First, there is a quiet scene of Juno crying in the hospital right after she gives birth. Second, the movie ends by showing how the new (adoptive) mother has memorialized her connection to the (birth) mother. (I'll leave out how.) It's certainly not clear at the end of the movie that Juno will "never know" her baby as the author suggests.

I agree with Prof. Pruitt's point about the rhetorical punishment of mothers. I would think that one of the "steep" and "lifelong" costs of choosing to give someone else your baby would be constantly being told by articles like this that your (probably wise) choice is going to haunt you MacBeth-style.

I would be surprised if the author has not known grown women who have wept bitterly about their choice to have children and to keep them. I certainly have. But that's not really an appropriate narrative, is it? Certainly, the gentlemen of the Court wouldn't think so.

Moreover, what the author fundamentally misses about Juno is how it celebrates alternate family structures. Given how the normative one has been working for women, isn't that worth something?