Saturday, February 9, 2008

Juno: The Ultimate Male Fantasy

Aren't my sunglasses, like, so ironic? Fox Searchlight Pictures

This blog is slowly becoming entirely devoted to one specific film: the extremely divisive family-friendly hipster pseudo-indie film about teen pregnancy Juno. (I promise I will change that eventually, but now is not the time.)

I realize that much of the Juno hate (mine included) is intensified by, and perhaps even rooted in, the idea of it being undeserving of lavish praise--or of its various Oscar noms. (I wrote about this specific type of hate -- which sometimes spins off to a backlash phenomenon -- about the critics who love to hate über-hip designer Marc Jacobs on my other blog.) Perhaps if Juno were a small film that got mediocre or tepid reviews, that few people saw, and that went about its innocuous, quiet way, we would not devote screeds to its unworthiness and awful screenplay. (Yes, there are screeds.) A recent Entertainment Weekly cover story on the film had studio people saying we should expect to see many more films with strong teenage film characters now, as though Juno were the first movie EVER made about a "smart," "different," adolescent girl--to which I respond: Heathers, Ghost World, Saved (also, incidentally, about teen pregnancy), and even, I would argue, Legally Blonde, which has a protagonist who is as much of an outsider (and is empowered by her outsider status) at Harvard Law as Juno is in her suburban teenage wasteland. The blog fourfour has an excellent, smart response to the EW article, which asserts that Juno is better than its forebears, because "those characters [in Heathers and Ghost World] were more weirdos than antiheroes. They were marginalized by their difference, whereas Juno is empowered by hers." Fourfour responds:

[A]ren't Ghost World's Enid and Rebecca empowered by being marginalized? Isn't a major theme in that movie how being an outcast gives you a great vantage point from which to view society? Ghost World is, after all, fundamentally a movie about the great American pastime that is shit-talking. I'm not sure how Heathers' Veronica isn't ultimately empowered either, since she escapes her clique without, you know, dying. In fact, I'd argue that what makes those teen-girl characters so awesome is their struggle with being marginalized and empowered. It's part of the whole process of uncertainty that defines the teenage years of so many people in this country. These characters are girls, not superheroes.

I would like to take this even further: Juno's message of girl-power through succumbing to motherhood and getting the guy is admirable but, ultimately, rather faulty and retrograde. Winona's character in Heathers rejects the guy, rejects the popular clique, saves school from burning down, and becomes her own person. The last scene shows her emerging victorious from the flames and asking a wheelchair-bound girl if she wants to ditch prom and hang out and watch movies instead. I mean, come on, that is BADASS. (This is why I wanted to be Winona Ryder at a certain period in my life.) How is that final scene not empowering? Beats me.

I don't want to devalue the suffering and the bravery required to go through an adolescent pregnancy--and I think the experience could lead to empowerment. But the sugar-coated world of the film doesn't lead to that. Instead, we have the man's (or society's) version of the idealized female: the girl who realizes that her purpose really is to reproduce and who gets fulfillment through having a baby and finding a man. Typical.

(Still to come: Juno and its references (in response to your comment from my last post, Chris).)


Alex said...

Sigh. This damn movie is rapidly becoming one of those cultural touchstones in that obnoxiousness gray area between indie overexposure and mainstream overexposure. Shit's almost Braffian that way.

In other words, I'm actually going to have to see it in order to participate in any sort of cultural analysis.

Raquel Laneri said...

Seriously, doesn't it suck when you have to watch movies you really don't want to in order to justify your irrational (but really rational) aversion to them?

And yes. Braf. Garden State. Vom.

Chris said...

I'm dubious of the belief that Juno will become a major milestone/cultural anything.

Remember Little Miss Sunshine?

That's my point. I love the shit out of that movie, but now the only thing that it exists as in the cultural discourse is a reference point for comparison (i.e. "No Little Miss Sunshine at Sundance this year"; "Juno is this year's Little Miss Sunshine," etc.)

It will be a movie that will catch on with some, be forgotten by others, and after the Oscars maintain a mild amount of relevance.

It's not The Graduate. It's not (insert movie describing its era here). It's Juno. And while I'm not about to say that it isn't worthy of critical analysis (I think that every film is worthy of this), I'm of the opinion that some of the people who are most upset and backlashy about Juno are overstating its importance.

Yes, it's popular. But if we've learned anything about popular culture, it's that being popular doesn't necessarily make you important.

This is why I am pushing for a more dispassionate analysis of this film, both in others and in myself. While movies should be passionate and demand passionate responses, we're entering into a point in the discussion where feelings might get in the way.

In other words, I like "Juno," but that doesn't mean I think it's a great film. I like "Juno," but I don't agree with some of its implications and subtexts.

I'm a bit all over the place.

Anyway, in regards to the "empowerment" level of's greatly debatable. The unifying force in this movie is the concept of woman as mother, and how that concept unites Juno, her step mother, Jennifer Garner's character, and her best friend. And the scene where her stepmother belittles the ultrasound tech (and simultaneously belittles her own job, which is odd, since she's introduced as a small business owner, which is a damn impressive thing to be).

And then I have the counter-argument that will probably make people yell at me: Not every woman in real life is an empowered super-woman.

Just like how every man is not some kind of...well, what the hell is the socially preferred description of masculinity at this point? Are we still in love with the beta male?

The thing I'm driving at is that while it is important to hold a critical eye to the politics and the depictions of films we watch, we should not judge these depictions based on an objective latitude of empowerment and longitude of...and now I'm off on a referential tangent.

Maybe I'm going somewhere with this, or not...I need to start actually taking time to formulate these before I type.

Raquel Laneri said...

Chris, I love your arguments! Seriously, you've given me a lot to think about.

It's silly, I know, to devote so much time to discussing this movie. (That's what they want!!! I'm playing into Diablo Cody's and Jason Reitman's hands!!! Noooo!!!) ANyway, in all seriousness, yeah, it's silly. It's a movie; it's inconsequential; the Oscars don't mean anything anyway blah blah blah. But somehow I can't just not care and see this little movie as an innocuous thing, which it really is, but I feel like it just has this PRETENSE about it, the film, the filmmakers, all that. It's not that the dislogue isn't that realistic, it's that it purports itself to be like a bastion of verisimilitude or something. It's not that Juno the character and her decision to have a child are anti-feminist (I don't believe that in the slightest) but that Diablo Cody thinks that she has created the uber-feminist-teen, the bastion of all teendom and awesomeness (she said in that EW story that she wanted to create the "iconic" female). It's that Ellen Page thinks the character is so real and awesome and quirky b/c she wears a sweater vest. I remember the "popular" girls in my hs wearing sweater vests from Abercrombie... they're not that quirky.

It's hard to tell how much of an effect the film will have on the cultural zeitgeist in the long (or long-ish) run. So, I'm not so sure it will just disappear quietly.

Anyway, this was a completely passionate and not well-thought response at all (sorry!! I am feeling rather sleepy). So, perhaps I will write some more intelligent, less babbly stuff later.

Oh, but Juno is portrayed as the super-woman; I don't care that she isn't (no one is), but she's made out to be a superwoman/angel figure. Which is what bothers me.

Good point about the beta male, however.

Alex said...

I'm more squicked out by 1. the film's dubious non-stance on reproductive choice (on which I have read a great deal but, of course, not seen for myself) and 2. its enduring buzz, choking our recent and current cultural dialogue like a cloud of gnats swarming up your nostrils. I'm squicked that a film that takes a controversial topic (teen pregnancy) and avoids deep discussion which actually makes the topic controversial (reproductive rights) gets fucktons of hipster cred and a great deal of critical props, even as nearly ever critic acknowledges how god-awful smarmy the dialogue in the film is.

Okay, so maybe I don't have to see it to participate in analysis.