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February 10, 2008

Why Juno Is Loathsome

I mentioned yesterday that I loathed the movie Juno and that was all I was gonna say about it. But now Lauren, who is normally smart as a whip, says she liked it, publicly defending it against the wannabe macho dismissal of a critic who thought No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were the best moobies of the year. I share her argh about the latter, but argh back at her about the former so much that I must write this blog post.

David Edelstein of New York Magazine, goes to bizarre extremes to attack Juno by criticizing both director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody (whose name he snarks on) for having successfully “engineered every response” from the audience, as if that’s not what filmmaking is at its heart.

... I think it’s also important and darn fascinating to pay attention when a bona fide cultural phenomenon is prancing tweely across your radar. Juno is that dancer. Among the many wonderful things about this movie is the fact that it could not have been made at any other time in history. It is positively fresh on the subject of teen sexuality and reproductive choice and it manages to be hilariously funny and gut-wrenchingly poignant at the same time.

Yes, Juno's twee, and that's annoying, and no, twee is not the argument against that stupid flick that I want to push. All teen films are either twee or outright sentimental, so no big deal. Harold and Maude was twee, but I love it anyway.

But Lauren's argument that all films manipulate the audience doesn't hold water. It's true that all art is manipulation in the purest sense of the word. But the art that we treasure as great is that which manipulates the senses to mediate an experience in a particular way. That experience must overwhelm the audience sensually so that their senses (perhaps not all of them, but the ones engaged by that art form) are employed wholly in the service of the piece for its duration. The experience must also short-circuit the audience's sense of the normal and the ordinary, so as to present them with the spectacle of some element of mundane life in a manner that makes that element fresh.

So much for great, or even good, art. There are also films--art--that are successful without overwhelming the senses with new input, or making the familiar intelligible by rendering it strange. These films rather grab hold of our expectations, both sensory and narrative, ... and fulfill them. That simple.

Of course, that's not easy to do because experienced filmgoers have highly developed bullshit detectors and a hunger for novelty that almost--but never quite--overwhelms their demand for fulfilled expectations. So these not-so-good films succeed insofar as they are able to disguise with successful handwaving their ability to give you exactly what you've had before.

Juno is one of the latter sort of films. It belongs in a genre of film whose structure is derived from the gestation period of homo erectus. "Conception--pregnancy--birth" is the  "incentive moment--rising action--climax" of this subgenre, point for point. The purpose of this subgenre is to "celebrate" the "renewal" of "human" life and "hope" in the form of the "next generation" and to "reaffirm" our current family structure or to affirm and confirm (some kind of "firm") a new one. It is a genre that, intentionally or no, cannot accept the presence of abortion ... quite simply because abortion is a narrative party pooper: you can't end a story before the climax.

Subgenre All-Stars include: Nine Months, Parenthood, Father of the Bride II, The Seventh Sign, Fools Rush In, She's Having a Baby, The Snapper, The Object of My Affection, and and and. The only title I can think of belonging to the category of "classic" is Rosemary's Baby, a precursor to the curse of eighties and nineties pregnancy flicks, and a pre-deconstruction of them all. The rest are, at best, B movies. I didn't seed the list. I seriously couldn't think of a single top-ranked or top-critiqued movie in this genre, nor find one on a google search.

And for a very good reason: the genre is crapulous, status-quo-reifying, herd-placating "family fare." It's not about questioning anything, but rather making everyone feel great about the way things are.

In the new millenium this genre has taken on new life. The three 2007 avatars are Waitress, Knocked Up, and Juno. But wait, didn't everybody loooooooove all three films last year? I mean, looooooove them?

Well, of course. After all, Gen X is both in charge of movieland AND making babies now. So we've updated the genre to satisfy our own ideas of what family must be and placate our feelings of having sold out ... whatever our generation was supposed to stand for ... in favor of parenthood, condo purchases, and stay-at-home-somethings.

The major difference in new-millenium-Gen-X pregnancy movies is that they are all about confirming "alternative" families, which is, of course, all the to good, if you consider giving alternative families their own crapulous sub-genre "good." Juno and Waitress are ultimately both affirmations of single motherhood, when necessary, as it clearly is when the father leaves you because he's a child or you leave him because he's abusive. Both are, not coincidentally, written by women.

Knocked Up is a more traditional pregnancy flick. It's written, produced, directed, and from the point of view of men, which is why it posits that ugly losers with no jobs, income, responsibility, charm, or personality can walk into a complete family life with a beautiful, successful woman, just by going into a nightclub one night that the real world wouldn't let them in the door of. It posits the only family that straight guys would want, then "reaffirms" it with a "funny" birth scene involving your buddies and a beautiful, happy ending.

Juno manages to disguise its genrehood slightly by being about both the family for whom the baby is destined, and the birth mother. But, although the dialogue is snappy, nothing is questioned or subverted. We don't want to reify teenage motherhood; teenage mothers are supposed to be confused, so this one is confused. We want to support adoptive families, which we have more and more of as the "me, too!" generation puts off childbearing even longer than the Baby Boomers, so we make Juno not bother considering abortion seriously. We want to affirm single motherhood, so we get rid of the adoptive husband while turning him into a plot-point/red-herring.

Most importantly, we treat motherhood as a reward for virtuous women. Juno is not virtuous: she had sex when too young and undereducated; she had sex without considering herself in love; she had sex without thinking responsibly about it. Clearly she doesn't deserve a baby. Her weeping after the birth is the seep of remorse.

The Jennifer Garner character--played by an actress who, already popular, swept the hearts of America by marrying Ben Affleck and naming their adorable baby something both slightly unusual and not at all rock-star-weird--clearly possesses sufficient adulthood, responsibility, and virtue, and is rewarded with motherhood at the end.

One more point: Juno, as many critics have remarked, is given Gen X hipster dialogue. No kiddie today, not even Frances Bean Cobain, could possibly have all the Gen X indie cultural referents that Juno pretends to. That's the tip-off, folks, that you're being manipulated: your teenie hipster protag, cooler than school and wrestling with things way beyond her maturity level, still has the time to flatter your taste.

It's a flat, empty, manipulative, masturbatory, neck-chaining, nose-to-grindstoning, mainstream-behavior-mold of a piece of shit of a movie. And no, it's not a coincidence that it topped off a year of other such movies in the same year that the US Supreme Court upheld the first federal abortion ban since Roe v. Wade.

'Nuff said.


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Wow, that was some serious passion there. I totally applaud that. However (there was always going to be a however, wasn't there), I think you've loaded this film up with far too many pre-conceived agenda bullets. The main arc (both plot-wise and emotionally) was NOT about the creation of a family. The movie was called Juno, not Juno's Baby. Moreover the final scene was not about Jennifer Garner and the baby. The final scene was about Juno and her boyfriend returning to teenhood by sitting on the stoop and playing the guitar for a long time. Juno was, more than anything, about a teenage girl grappling with things well beyond her ability to understand, relying on her gut instincts, and, rather than being tragically destroyed, somehow managing to be alright. She does consider abortion and she opts out because of a believably immature squeamishness about fingernails. That was a pro-choice, act. Nobody pressured her. You get the sense that her family would have supported an abortion. They do ask her about it. People choose to have abortions for all sorts of reasons and people choose not to have abortions for all sorts of reasons. As long as the word choice is in there, it's pro-choice.

As for manipulation, I didn't fully understand what you were saying but I do know the difference between a film that crassly attempts to manipulate me lamely and one that wholeheartedly gets under my skin and makes me cry. They're both forms of manipulation, but, yes, one has dignity and one doesn't. I'm about as jaded as they come re: movies and Juno made me cry. A lot. It also made the entire row of teenagers sitting next to me cry.

Maybe I'm a sap. Or maybe I'm just a member of that great unthinking majority who can still get teary-eyed over the subject of children and families (when handled well, of course). I respect your alternative view on that subject but I'm glad it's a minority one. And, incidentally, if you want to find evidence of its expression, look in the pages of any "lad" magazine, like Maxim. Ain't no love for families there.

i don't know why you brought in maxim or what that has to do with this subject. there's no hatred for families there, either. maxim isn't the expression of an alternative view of children and families. it's the expression of a manipulative view of masculinity as it relates to femininity.

if maxim were to make a children and families movie, it would be a lot like "knocked up," in fact. i'd be willing to bet that "knocked up" got a good review in maxim, if it got one at all.

i think you're suggesting here, underhandedly, that i hate children and families (that's why you're "glad it's a minority view"). i resent that suggestion and i think it's rather gross of you to try to associate my opinion with the softcore sexist misogyny of maxim.

i love children and families in the real world (okay, i don't love parents who refuse to control their children in public, but having worked for years as a babysitter and daycare worker, i have a finer understanding of what can be expected from small children in public than most people seem to.)

i WOULD love the treatment of children and families in movies, when it's done without crass manipulation. i'm just having a hard time thinking of an example of one that was done without crass manipulation.

maybe a movie that doesn't end when the baby is born, but rather shows us a little bit of what happens in the aftermath. children are worth it, but boy are they hard work. i'm totally sick and tired of having pregnancy and childbirth presented to me as the precursor to bliss. it's not. it's the precursor to family dynamics, which, if it were bliss, wouldn't be an even more popular movie trope than pregnancy.

I love your characterization of "Knocked Up." Incidentally, while there's a prevalence of the whole cute girl/ugly loser guy relationship in movies, why don't we ever see any movies about "ugly" women getting hitched with hot men? (The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Circle of Friends. Makeover flicks don't count.)

I think you'd have a hard time finding an ugly girl/handsome dude movie because ugly girls can only get in movies if they're funny; i.e, if we can laugh at them, you know, as punishment for not being hot enough.

Claire, point taken on the Maxim comparison. Glad you're not anti-family as I hope my future (adopted) child can meet you one day.

sorry, lauren, i'm having a bad week and am being oversensitive ... especially to how much things suck ;)

michelle, my cousin calls that "aesthetic imbalance syndrome," and we've noted that it rarely happens, even in real likfe, in favor of "ugly" women.

clearly, it's because of the power imbalance, and because we're still expected to be ornamental.

what chaps my ass more is that women characters can be loved in the movies for no other reason than that they're beautiful ... and that's acceptable. but male characters always have to have something more going on before women fall in love with them.

Hi Claire and Lauren,
I just thought of two other movies featuring the unattractive girl/handsome guy couple--The Truth About Cats and Dogs (though imo Janeane Garofalo isn't unattractive) and Shallow Hal--both of which fit into the humor stereotype Lauren delineated.

Claire, this is the first time I've heard that term but it so precisely describes the scenario! And I think you are right that this happens because we're still expected to be ornamental.

I think the reason why we have the scenario you described is due to the assumption that men are allowed to be shallow and superficial, but women are not. What do you think?

i disagree. i think it's the opposite.

i think the expectations of women--from men and women both--are low, so women are allowed to be intellectually pointless, as long as we get our hair styled frequently and keep that waist trim.

men are expected to be more well-rounded human beings--again by both other men and by women. women won't stand for a stupid, blank male partner, and men won't stand for an ugly female partner.

Please don't apologize, Claire. There are so few people out there worth disagreeing with. I mean that.

God, I love your smarts. I waited to see the movie before reading your critique.

Finally saw it last night on DVD and my initial reactions were:

1) The flippancy with which it dealt with pregnancy. In terms of my own families (both mom's & dad's) when an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy has happened, the family works to keep that baby in the family. My youngest sister is biologically my niece, and my half-sister has had the fortune to have her mom and brother help raise her child while she goes to college.

2) I couldn't help but feel 2 scenes were racist: a) when Juno meets her Asian classmate with the improper English; b) the step-mother's reaction to the sonagram(sp?) technician

You mention: "Juno is not virtuous:... she had sex without considering herself in love; ... Clearly she doesn't deserve a baby. Her weeping after the birth is the seep of remorse."

Is her having sex without considering herself "in love, " a sign of her not being virtuous or a sign of not being mature enough to admit her feelings? After all, she does come to realize she does have feelings for Bleeker. I didn't read her crying completely as remorse but as a signifier of her newfound maturity or life education. It's the only time we see her treat the pregnancy/birth without any flippancy or hipster cold coolness. It's the first time we see her actually treat Bleeker with any kind of tenderness.

Anyhoo...I chalk this up as a movie I liked because the actors did a great job, but also one I found problematic.

Okay, this is way late but I only just saw it and, well, I'm with you Claire. And even more with you Lito S.---I was really shocked by the two scenes you mentioned. The only two people who weren't white in the movie get totally vilified. WTF?

I thought it was overrated. WAY overrated. I didn't believe Juno was a teenager. I've met (and been one) teenagers who were deeply immersed in the pop culture of earlier periods. So that didn't bug me so much as it did you, Claire, but the way Juno spoke and thought and acted was way too old. I did not believe in her. Not for a second. The dialogue was way sharp and way wrong.

Everything was too glib and too easy. The movie left me unmoved and slightly bored.

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