Juno and the culture wars.

Keeping an eye on kids and parents.
Dec. 18 2007 4:31 PM

Juno and the Culture Wars

How the movie disarms the family values debate.

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She isn't moved by thoughts of the embryo's hallowed rights, however, but by a sense of her own autonomy. And for her, that doesn't mean a right to privacy, or to protect her body ("a fat suit I can't take off," she calls it at one point). Juno is driven by the chance to make her own unconventional choice. Parental notification doesn't quite follow the liberal or conservative scripts, either: Juno confides in her father and stepmother, initially portrayed as stock down-home folks who are completely surprised, not least to find themselves asking her if she's "considered, you know, the alternative"—not that they'd presume to pressure her. These are neither old-style authoritarians nor enlightened empathizers. They emerge as people who respect, and would do anything to support, their independent-minded kid.

Here Juno moves into the realm of marriage and childrearing, by way of the vexed terrain of assisted reproduction in its most traditional form, adoption. When Juno finds the perfect yuppie adoptive couple for her unborn baby—fussy Vanessa and mellow Mark—the film gets to address a bundle of politically charged questions: class mores, parenting styles, gender relations, and family structure. On every count, Juno skewers the assumptions of ideologues on both sides. She refuses to be either an exploited female at the service of the affluent, or a sacrificial vessel of life. She counters Vanessa's materialist and hyper-maternalist solicitude with her own hard-boiled attitude; appalled by the notion of open adoption (or compensation), she tells the couple she'd love to give over the kid immediately, but figures it needs more "cooking" until it gets cuter. And she quickly starts bonding with the laid-back husband, who is still nursing rock band dreams, where the uptight wife, worrying over the color palette for the nursery, turns her off.

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Juno has a fun-loving adolescent's enthusiasm for the prospect of what sounds like a permissive family with a cool dad—until Mark suddenly upsets that ideal vision of the future. He—spoiler alert—stages a display of just the kind of egotistical guy regression that regularly induces female groans on the right and left, and that Slate'sMeghan O'Rourke recently examined in this piece about Knocked Up.(Suffice it to say, Vanessa finds herself stranded.) Stunned, Juno is suddenly furious at the infantile male and frantic that what she calls "the big-ass bump" end up in a family "not shitty and broken like everyone else's."

But Juno doesn't end there. Another twist, and the film closes with a celebration of single parenthood—anathema to family traditionalists. Yet Juno, in deciding to hand her baby over to a now-solo Vanessa, doesn't endorse the dour, who-needs-men-when-we-can-go-it-alone ethos of progressives who defend "permeable" arrangements, either. A great comic scene in a bustling mall has convinced Juno—and us in the audience—that Vanessa isn't actually a vain control freak whose life plan won't be complete without a perfect little appurtenance. Juno has stumbled on a woman who actually finds kids, of all things, fun and lovable. That is a figure whom both liberals and conservatives often seem to have forgotten, or lost faith in, as they endlessly lament the embattled family. If sharp-eyed girls can spot her in the fraught landscape, though, there's reason to hope the culture wars will wane and the American family, in its many forms, won't.

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