Revisiting “Juno” in a Time of Instagram: The Luxury of Being Desperate

You didn’t see me I was falling apart
I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park
You didn’t see me I was falling apart
I was a television version of a person with a broken heart

“Pink Rabbits,” The National

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

“This World is not Conclusion,” Emily Dickinson

Near the end of the film Juno, Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), pregnant teen, gives birth, and the teen father, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), appears at the hospital room door, having run straight from his high school track meet and adorned in the infinitely silly red running shirt and gold shorts with matching gold sweat bands around his head and wrists.

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Before she gives birth, June and Bleeker confess their love at the high school track with Bleeker in his recurring track kit.

Juno’s father, Mac MacGruff (J.K. Simmons), leaves his daughter’s side, pauses to squeeze Paulie’s shoulders, and then leaves. There is a wonderful tension in that moment since after Juno confesses her pregnancy to her father and step-mother, Mac tells his second wife, Bren MacGruff (Allison Janney), that he’s “gonna punch that Bleeker kid in the wiener next time [he] see[s] him.”

Instead Mac leaves the young Bleeker unharmed, and Paulie circles Juno’s bed, ceremoniously takes off his sweat bands, climbs into her hospital bed, and then spoons her as she cries.

I sat on the couch rewatching the film last night, crying for the 7th or 8th time during the film.

I love Juno in the same sort of very conflicted way I love teens and high school.

And while I want to revisit some of the reasons I love the film, I also must confront the main and most powerful character in the film that receives no credits at all: white privilege.

Juno is technically wonderful, smart, funny, and well crafted as a film, reminding me in many ways of the Coen brothers’ same artistry—and similar whitewashing.

I love the use of drawings to guide film transitions, the music is wonderful, and the acting/actors along with the diamond of a script are equally beautiful.

“Smart” is a fair word to describe the film in the same way the characters are hyper-smart—linguistic virtuosos all of them, that is at least hyperbole (and not unusual in film and literature; think J.D. Salinger and To Kill a Mockingbird, as just a couple literary examples) if not cloying ultimately (I suspect as many people love as hate the film for the clever word play; think Aaron Sorkin or Little Miss Sunshine).

The slang that characterizes teens—as acts of resistance—is exaggerated and, I think, perfect as a medium for carrying a film that is  mostly real in its unrealistic portrayals.

The film also depends on the actors as well as their crisp acting to keep the viewers distracted by the humor and the bittersweetness of the story and those characters (there is a sadness, a desperation in every single character) so that we avoid the elephant in the room, or rightly the white elephant not credited in the film.

Juno is a PG-13 whitewashing of teen pregnancy in the same way Breaking Bad is a dark TV whitewashing of drug dealing.

Unintentionally, the film is a powerful message about how privilege allows the luxury of being desperate.

Mark Loring (Jason Bateman), the husband of the very pretty couple who cannot have children so seek to adopt Juno’s baby, is (ironically) a case of arrested development—a man-boy who is handsome, charming, and ultimately stunningly selfish.

Mark, I think, is a minor character but the ideal example of where Juno is a problematic film, one that unselfconsciously ignores the white privilege.

Everyone is buoyed, protected by white privilege in the film so that these very real conflicts—teen sex, teen pregnancy, divorce—are rendered PG-13, harmless, the fodder for mirth.

Even the sensitive teen sex scene—both Juno and Bleeker looking pre-pubescent, childlike—fits perfectly into the Instagram culture or today: Instagram, where scantily clad women traffic in product placement but there is no room for the very dangerous female nipple.

If we admit Juno is a technically fine film, that it depicts some wonderful and touching aspects of human frailty, especially during our teen years, we must also accept that all of this is wrapped in the safe blanket of privilege.

Juno the character as a black pregnant teen is a much bleaker story.

Consider the documentary Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later, which includes “Maya, a 16-year-old black student who had her first baby at 13 and another before she was old enough to drive.”

Even though this documentary shows that Maya is often very much still a child herself, the real-world consequences for those not sheltered by white privilege are a much different tale than Juno.

But Juno is just a movie—I feel some people say. And yes, there is something to art, or pop art, as a vehicle for escape.

I am not trashing Juno; as I noted above, I do genuinely love the movie.

But along with the moments of adept artistry, the abrupt humor, and the sincere homage to the bittersweet realization about love and human affection that confronts everyone moving from childhood to adulthood, Juno fails to admit how white privilege has shielded these mostly compelling characters from the consequences that black, brown, and poor people cannot afford to set aside for a few laughs.

 

3 comments

  1. vendija723

    Interesting take on it. I know the adoption community considers Juno to be a very problematic film for some of the same as well as some other reasons. And yet, it’s a hard movie to dislike.

  2. Nigtingale

    I also enjoyed the film JUNO. While you have an interesting take on the lack of minority representation in the film, how would you suggest addressing it. While people belonging to minorities suffer, in general, more than most whites, placing a black pregnant child as a foil for Juno would have been patronizing in its attempt to raise white consciousness. Furthermore, there are many white communities that suffer from poverty and face the same struggles and hardships as any minority. Visit east Ky. and West Virginia. Poverty is the norm and that is why so many of them turn to Oxycontin which killed both my daughter’s uncle at 35 and her cousin of 30. Both left orphaned children. So Juno and her family reside in a quickly dieing white society, but Juno is aware of it and realizes that she is better off than many. How else would you deal with the white problem of knowing they survive better than many others–since they are aware of it and probably count their prayers and have sympathy with those who have less even if it isn’t explicitly shown in the film.

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