Teen girl power comes of age

Director: Jason Reitman
Screenplay: Diablo Cody
Fox Searchlight, 2007

Teen girl power has grown up with this film. Before, American TV had given us shows like ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ (1997-2003) in which teenage girls assumed dynamic, leadership roles and knew stuff that adults didn’t. The grown-ups were the innocents whilst the youngsters inhabited the ‘real’ world; yet the daft plot-lines made it all, well, puerile. Still, Buffy and other teen TV and film protagonists were emotionally and linguistically adult, clearly sexual although not yet having sex; and this was a lot edgier than, say, the 1980s Walt Disney universe of girls rehearsing for human relationships by becoming besotted with animals.

‘Juno’ goes much further. The gamine, eponymous 16 year old heroine (Ellen Page) has not only had sex but is pregnant. Significantly, it was she who selected and initiated the classmate she had sex with; her only failure of control was a technical failure over her fertility (and that, surely, was at least partly the boy’s fault.) This is entirely typical of a film in which women (of three generations) wield the decision-making and relationship-making power, herding the men before them.

Juno’s response to her biological predicament is cheerfully pragmatic. She rejects abortion as being too gross, and instead selects a childless couple in early middle age as candidates for a ‘closed adoption.’ Before the pregnancy comes to term the adopting couple’s relationship breaks up, largely because the (hen-pecked) father-to-be finds Juno cute enough to rattle him out of his marriage and into an effort to recapture his own youth as a rock star wannabe. Juno, anticipating this, instantly reaches an understanding with the adopting mother, who gets to keep the baby anyway as a maternally empowered divorcée, while Juno goes back to controlling boys her own age.

Many critics have complained that the film either trivialises or ‘glamourises’ teen pregnancy which in real life is invariably harrowing. True; but, four decades after Brian Forbes’ excellent ‘The L- Shaped Room’ (1962) launched the unwanted pregnancy movie genre, it is hardly necessary to tell us again how tough it really is. That is largely beside the point. For ‘Juno’ is as much a fairy tale as ‘Buffy’ but of a more interesting and provocative kind. It does not merely tell us that teenagers are fully fledged and, in many cases, perfectly capable people but, much more adventurously, offers a glimpse of a world that is managed by women who iron out life’s technical and emotional complications in a practical and orderly way, without becoming weak and hysterical in the process and without having to shoot, punch or humiliate anyone.

Women can handle anything sensibly, even reproductive misfortune (whether that consists in bearing or in not bearing a child.) It hardly needs stating that this is a highly individualistic and singularly Western vision, underpinned by the typically American (and characteristically generous) premise that we can all be happy in this world. Equally needless to point out that this vision conflicts with the mores and beliefs of most of humanity, including all people who profess any religious faith. (With such sensible and capable women around who needs God to order human affairs?) Yet such is the cultural power of Hollywood that this aggressively secular and uncompromisingly libertarian fairy tale not only scoops up Oscar nominations at home but reaches the shelves of DVD stores serving (often through piracy) the global elite around the world. The net effect of this is uncertain.

Many global elite girl teens will get (and hopefully modify to their own circumstances) the emancipatory message; but there will of course also be forces of reaction. One woman’s empowering vision is another’s nightmare of moral decay and nihilism. Yet ‘Juno’ itself needs to be understood as, in part, a reactive film. For, while reflecting changed social realities in the West to some extent, its vision remains largely wishful, prescriptive thinking.

The world is not really like this: it remains full of predatory and sometimes violent men who are now just a click away from Internet sites that offer a rather different view of girl teens, ‘babes’ and even pre-pubescent children. In this context, ‘Juno’ deserves to be seen not as feminist polemic but as an important assertion of reality against male fantasy.

Nick Young
October 6, 2008, Kampala