FILM THEORY & CRITICISM
Juno: A Text of the Colonized Body
In 2007 Fox Searchlight released the independently produced film Juno (Jason Reitman) about the unexpected pregnancy of the title character. Directed by Retiman with a screenplay by Diablo Cody, Juno was nominated for several Academy Awards and won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. The movie, wonderfully put together by the production team, including the visual and graphic design, grabs the spectator right away and positions him/her immediately within the emotional perspective of the precocious teenager Juno, who is about to find out that she is pregnant. The problem with the film begins here, as this character is not believable or sympathetic. Although the formal structures of the film, with its pencil graphics during the opening credits and artsy music and mise-en-scene, creates an impression of an art-cinema text that bears a provocative narrative, it is actually a film that reinforces western capitalist ideals of property, labor, the role of the artist, and reproduction. Most significantly, the film reinforces western capitalist ideals of the human female as a vehicle for the production of human life as a commodity1. Film theorists Jean Narboni and Jean-Luc Commolli remind us that the placement of a film within the "independent" genre does not guarantee its freedom from hegemonic signification or even intent. "The majority of films in all categories are the unconscious instruments of the ideology which produces them" (Braudy and Cohen 689).
The ideology of western patriarchal capitalism has various roots, many that I do not know, but the main thrust of capitalist praxis in the United States hinges powerfully on the concept of the individual, his abilities, and his rights. According to legal historian Harold J. Berman "The key to the renewal of law in the West from the sixteenth century on was the Lutheran concept of the power of the individual, by God's grace, to change nature and to create new social relations through the exercise of his will. The Lutheran concept of the individual will become central to the development of the modern law and contract....Nature became property. Economic relations became contract" (29, 30). The rights of the individual to self-determination become conflated with the acquisition of private property and the accumulation of capital, leading to a social morality that attributes virtue to those who own wealth.
Supporting this philosophy is the theoretical model of commodities as arbiters of exchange in an economy of trade. Under colonialism all of the resources at the mercy of the colonizers instruments of oppression are commodities, including human flesh. It is impossible to separate the capitalist from the colonist (although the means of oppression are probably more insidious and therefore harder to identify and defy in a society that allows a certain amount of civil liberties to its citizens). Within a hierarchy of capital-colonialism, the poor are the property of the wealthy. In the psychology of the poorest of the poor the colonist/capitalist occupies the very self, the body and mind. The body is depersonalized, desacralized, and commodified. In the text of the film Juno, this commodification of the female body and her reproductive capacity is represented as unproblematic. For this reason I again assert that the film is an articulation and affirmation of the dominant ideology of capitalism and its twin, colonialism.
With her glib wit and bantering personality, the audience is positioned to view this particular sixteen year old girl as someone who will make her way through the crisis in good American fashion, stiff upper lip and all, which she in fact does within the diegesis of the film. Now, I don't know any teenage women who are as self-possessed and verbally quick as Juno, and if I did I am sure I would not like them (as I would feel subtly ridiculed by the constant barrage of detached, post-modern commentary). So, beginning with the character construction of Juno, the film builds a relationship to her and the central issue of her pregnancy that is removed from any true adolescent female psychology and/or experience of her sexuality and body. We are removed from Juno's body by Juno's constant displacement of her pregnancy into an abstract idea or "problem" to be solved by her assurance and wit. Juno is removed from her own body, and repeatedly refers to the baby as "it" or "the thing" and "handing it over" (to the adoptive couple). That the story is narrated extra-diegetically by Juno add another layer between the spectator and the possibility of sympathetic bonding with Juno and her unborn baby. Essentially, Juno serves as a vessel for the screenwriter to grandstand her personal cleverness, and the pregnancy is a plot device for social humor which bears little relationship to the human dilemma of the character she has written. The character of Juno, and the film itself, serve the writer in much the same way that Juno's body serves Vanessa Loring in the diegesis—as a passive instrument for the production of a commodity (for Diablo Cody, a successful film and a coveted film industry award; for Vanessa Loring, a newborn white infant).
Planning to terminate her pregnancy with a clinical abortion, Juno is stopped outside the clinic by a fellow student protesting abortion by chanting that "All babies want to get borned!" The student, who is Asian-American, is depicted as incapable of mastering English well enough to properly articulate her ideology. Thus, while the anti-abortion sentiment is mocked and belittled on the one hand (by its weak articulation), the ostensible superiority of the white patriarchy is subtly reinforced. Juno, in spite of her tough veneer, is too sensitive to end the pregnancy, but the film expects us to believe that this same woman will endure her pregnancy and childbirth without forming an attachment to her child. It is this ideology that that seeks to control women's access to birth control and illegalize clinical abortion, while legitimating offensive warfare and militarized seizure and occupation of foreign lands with valuable resources. The female body is similarly appropriated as a colonized territory by the white patriarchal culture of capitalism/conquest/occupation. When the female body does not serve the interests of sexual consumption, it is viewed as the "means of production" in an economic model of life. There are numerous social models of reproductive strategies among primates, and considerable differences within human cultures as well. The European model of patrilineage and patriarchal dominance is fiercely biased toward the assumption of resources by the male. That this primitive strategy is linked with a moral ideology rooted in monotheistic religion and then falsely appended to capital-economic propaganda and praxis is what makes it so hostile to single motherhood.
When Juno tells her parents about the pregnancy and the plan to give the infant up for adoption, her stepmother Brenda (Allison Janney) tells her "that is a tough thing to do", and later defends Juno when the ultrasound tech mumbles something about the "poisonous" affect of teen parenting on a child. Other than this bit of discourse into the emotional and familial profundity of giving away a child of one's own or a family member to non-relatives (in fact to strangers), nothing else about the wisdom or ethics of adoption practice is questioned by the filmmakers.
Juno's boyfriend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), meanwhile, has been passively morose and melancholic about the whole thing, while Juno and her parents deal with the pregnancy and keep the truth of the baby's paternity from Bleeker's mother (who just may have an interest in her grandchild after all). Granted, the man is only sixteen years old, but the child is after all his, and it is only in very recent decades that parenting has been considered optional, or delayed into the post-adolescent years. Under capitalist patriarchy, nuclear family units are supposed to function without filial or economic ties to the extended family, which creates the need for greater exertions of labor (productivity) for the greater acquisition of material goods (commodities) to maintain the family. Houses are needed, for instance...like the grand suburban home occupied by Mark and Vanessa Loring (Justin Bateman and Jennifer Garner), who wish to adopt Juno's baby. In single nuclear units the onus of childcare is placed on one member of the family, usually the mother of the infant. During the "golden years" of post-war (WW II) economic growth this may have been economically feasible, if psycho-socially inadvisable, but for at least the past twenty years most couples have needed two incomes to maintain their material well-being.
When Juno and her father drive through the "Glacier Valley Hills" subdivision to meet the Lorings the editing makes use of the realist mise-en-scene of house after house after house of nearly identical architecture to comment on the banality of Middle America. The film first mocks, then embraces, the suburban sensibility of the least sympathetic character in the film, Vanessa Loring. Her hands are seen in discrete close-ups dusting, polishing, and arranging the home and its furnishings to fit the idealized model of suburban order and composure. She lacks a sense of humor, and is portrayed as a partner who controls her husband, or as Juno herself says to Mark, "keeps him on a long leash". Later in the film, she is humanized through her association with her friend's child at a suburban shopping mall play-space. Juno eyes her interaction with the child admiringly even as she laughs at her friend Leah's (Olivia Thirlby) joke that Vanessa is "going to steal that one for her collection". By the end of the film, we are supposed to feel that the infant rightly belongs with Vanessa, simply because she desires one so badly and has the material luxury to pamper and spoil the child (and turn it into another consumer). There is a conflation of the shopping-mall playground with an idealized childhood, and the two times that Juno visits the Loring household (after she has signed pre-birth relinquishment papers), Vanessa Loring returns home loaded with bags of baby paraphernalia. Vanessa obsesses about the colors of the baby's nursery and refers to a popular text on parenting that stresses the importance of "nesting" to help the mother bond prenatally with her coming infant. While there is nothing wrong with these impulses in themselves (to buy baby clothes and prep the nursery), it suggests without criticism the assumed superior capability of wealth to nurture and provide for an infant. The biological facts that the newborn will want to be with its mother (who is known to him/her by the sound of her voice, her smell, and other factors neurologically determined during gestation), and that the infants mother will probably be able to provide the infant with nutritionally superior colostrum and breastmilk are completely avoided.
Similarly, though oppositely, the text creates sympathy for Mark Loring, a creative individual trapped in commercial work and the suburban life that is not his dream, but his wife's, before turning the text's criticism on its own head to belittle Mark's urge be a musician instead of writing commercial jingles. Juno had earlier articulated a desire that her child be raised in a creative environment while perusing the "Penny Saver" ads for prospective adopters, and is in fact drawn to the far more interesting emotional and creative life of Mark than she is to Vanessa's cold perfection. As she begins to spend time with Mark while Vanessa is away, a strange emotional dynamic grows between them. I find this a teensy bit troubling, even if honest. A man in his late thirties is not likely to cross the sexual/romantic boundary with a girl of sixteen who is carrying the child his wife wants them to adopt. It seems like a manipulated plot-device to throw a "page 60" obstacle in Juno's narrative arch. It also serves to make Mark seem like a creep for not desiring the same American-dream lifestyle as his wife. When Juno is shocked at Mark's ardor for her, and his plan to leave Vanessa, he asks her "How do you see me, I mean why are you here?" Juno replies that she likes to be a "piece of furniture in his weird life". In his own state of shock, he says to Juno "This? My life is in boxes. I'm underground. This is appealing to you?" For any creative person who has ever had to practice their art/craft on the sly, in the basement, underground/after hours and in-between the necessities of making a living this is a completely sympathetic comment on the role of the artist in a capitalist society. But the articulation of this frustration is belittled by the dialogue of the next few minutes of the film, and the film's ending (where the suburban professional woman with a mass of material resources is rewarded with an infant from another woman's body). The subversive potential the film carries is here twisted into an unfortunate apologia for Juno and Bleeker's prolonged adolescence2 while it abuses the spirit of creative exploration that we associate with that time of life.
While Mark is told by Vanessa to "grow up", the young man who impregnated Juno is infantilized and exonerated from any responsibility in the matter. Further, he is enshrined by Juno as "golden" and wins her back after they have given up the child they conceived together and she bore alone. The couple chooses not to see the baby after the birth as "He never really seemed to belong to us...he was always hers" Juno narrates in voice-over. Trust me, I am no infant ogling pronatalist who dreams of "custard" colored nursery walls or is aroused at the smell of baby lotion, but that is a sentiment that can only be sold to pregnant women because we have been so removed from the sacrality of the flesh by the teachings of dualistic theology/philosophy.
Although Juno is shown crying in the hospital after the birth of her son, and her father (J.K. Simmons) tells her that she will one day be there "on your own terms," I do not feel that we are given an accurate representation of the trauma of relinquishment for the young mother (and possibly other members of the original family). It is assumed that she made an informed and responsible choice, one from which she will recover and grow wise, and this is illustrated by the film's upbeat ending. In true Classical Hollywood Cinema style the film's ending shows several loose ends tied into lovely bows (Brenda with her dogs, Juno riding her bike with her guitar on her back to meet Bleeker, Vanessa stroking the baby's head) while Juno's voice-over narration reassures the viewer that her experience is behind her and the rest of her life is ahead of her, to be lived with perhaps some sorrow but with the nobility of female sacrifice to comfort and succor her. Frankly, it just stinks of Hollywood intervention into any possible social criticism that the screenwriter may have intended3 by invoking class and sex stereotypes that reinforces western capitalist tactics of oppression, and insisting on a sanitized resolution at the film's end. I do not deny that audiences may be capable of questioning the ideology placed before them in a text, though my experience tells me that very few ever do so. In fact, the boundaries between screen representation and reality are more permeable than ever given new social media and reality programming on television. Once again Comolli and Narboni remind us that "In direct continuity with political practice, ideological practice reformulates the social need and backs it up with a discourse" (689). Media functions at the service of the dominant system (in the U.S it is corporate capitalism, in the former Soviet Union it was state-totalitarianism, and so on...). Although I disagree with Comolli's pessimism toward the capability of using an "instrument of the ideology" to change the ideology, I see in the film Juno a perfect example of the dominant "ideology presenting itself to itself, talking to itself, learning about itself" (689). And further, it is an example of a film text/ideology indoctrinating viewers into buying an idea of adoption practice as a harmless and even "warm-fuzzy" institution.
As psychologist Judy Kelly writes in The Birthmother Research Project, "The beliefs of a dominant culture are generally uninformed by those of voiceless, marginalized groups. Listening to birthmother's voices compels one to question the basis upon which many of the assumptions and beliefs surrounding adoption and relinquishment have been formed" (Kelly ch. 3). Judy Kelly's graduate thesis on birthmother trauma is a detailed and methodologically complex study of social, economic and psychological factors that contribute to the practice of adoption, and the social, psychological, and somatic consequences of adoption on birthmothers. Absolutely none of this is discussed or treated in the diegesis of the film. It would be a more truthful film if we could see Juno, at six weeks post-partum, still lying in bed crying and wondering when she will fit into her old clothes again, her friends afraid to talk to her about the whole thing, and Bleeker wondering why she suddenly hates him. Perhaps we can take it further, and when she decides to ask Vanessa Loring to return the child, Vanessa responds with a registered letter from her powerful attorney telling Juno that she will have to fight for the child in court, if Juno can in fact afford to do so.
This is not to say that an adoption practice in reality (or representation) cannot ever be functional or even fruitful, but that the tone and texture of Diablo Cody's screenplay with Jason Reitman's artistic filmmaking tell a story of western capitalist exploitation in such an entertaining manner, that one is tempted to enjoy the sentiment provided by the hegemonic telling without tasting the bitter truth of loss and devaluation.
In the end, Juno and Bleeker accept their position as consumers/subjects of their parent's suburban empire, positioned securely within the social and economic colony of white patriarchal corporate dominance. That the price for their capitulation to forces both social and unconscious is their first born child is not supposed to be shocking or unsettling to the viewer. Instead, the audience is made complicit in the desacralization of life by an unquestioning acceptance of the values that determine the social-economic practice of infant adoption.
- "A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference" (Karl Marx 35). That Juno is a white female bearing the child of a white male is a crucial piece of the colonial/capitalist structure that values life extrinsically (as product), not intrinsically (as sacred).
- American teenagers are a huge consumer demographic; there is capitalist motivation for keeping teens hypnotized by their status as dependents who spend their extra income on entertainment products.
- I stress "may" as it is my impression the Diablo Cody has never given birth, and given the title and subject of her next film project (Jennifer's Body; a horror-comedy) I don't think my suspicion of her intent is altogether misguided. It seems to me that she is a female artist working out her own body dysphoria through her published/produced texts.
- Berman, Harold J. Law and Revolution: The formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, London; Harvard U Press, 1983.
- Braudy, Leo., Cohen, Marshall., eds. Film Theory and Criticism. 7th Ed. NY, Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2009.
- Engels, Frederick., ed. Capital, Vol. 1. By Karl Marx 1887. NY: International Publishers, 1963. 10th printing, 1983.
- Kelly, Judy. Birthmother Research Project (MA thesis).