1.23.2008

teenage movies, teenaged mothers

We saw "Superbad" last night, perhaps the last people in Canada to see the movie. The writers are Canadians, and famously began writing a script together when they were 13, which eventually turned into Superbad.

As the movie was hyped out of all proportion here, and I was prepared to be disappointed - but I loved it. (We both did.) It was hilarious, sweet, and very well written and well acted. Superbad is created from a classic mold - our heroes go out into the big scary world to have adventures, and find their way home safely, lessons learned. The characters are believable and appealing; even when they're acting horribly, you only cringe for their innocence and naivete, you never dislike them.

I love good teenage movies, and I find so few that really work for me, and this did.

Now the teenage movie that everyone in Canada is talking about is "Juno". Ellen Page, the young star who was just nominated for an Academy Award, grew up in Halifax, and Michael Cera, of Superbad fame, is also Canadian.

I keep hearing and reading how sweet this movie is. Too bad I won't see it.

I can't bring myself to see a movie celebrating teenage pregnancy, and assuming - in typical Hollywood fashion - that abortion is not an option.

I've been pleased to see this phenomenon documented everywhere I turn. In the Globe and Mail, Judith Timson asks "When did abortion become a dirty word again?" (Answer: In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected.) Macleans asks "Suddenly teen pregnancy is cool?"

Antonia Zerbisias, writing in the Toronto Star, notes that
But, just when the hit movie Juno debuted last month, the news about the climbing teen birth rate hit the headlines. Everybody began drawing connections to celeb baby mania and the recent spate of other flicks about unplanned pregnancies (Knocked Up, Waitress, Bella, Quinceañera) that end so cute you want to have morning sickness in your popcorn bag.

That's because, in Hollywoodland, the pregnancies bring all sorts of wonderful things to the pregnant characters – career boosts, huge inheritances, pie shops, toad-fathers-turned-into-Prince Charmings.

Not so much in real life. Which isn't surprising. That's show biz.

But is the entertainment industry so cowed by the religious hordes – or incapable of conceiving a strong woman who chooses not to go to term – that it can't come up with a script that doesn't end with a crib?

Maybe not: Not only does the U.S. have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world – more than double that of Canada's – it also makes it harder for women to get abortions.

Not surprisingly, the best of the lot comes from my great hero (and former Haven Coalition colleague) Katha Pollitt, in her column in The Nation.
Maternity Fashions, Junior Size

Teens getting pregnant: bad. Teens having babies: good. If this makes no sense to you, wake up and smell the Enfamil. It's 2008! The hot movie is Juno, a funnyquirkybittersweet indie about a pregnant high school hipster who gives her baby up for adoption. The hot celebrity is Jamie Lynn Spears, 16-year-old sister of Britney and star of Nickelodeon's Zoey 101, who's pregnant and having the baby because she wants to "do what's right." The teen birthrate, after falling for fourteen years, is up 3 percent, a phenomenon perhaps not unrelated to the fact that abstinence-only sex ed, although demonstrably ineffective at preventing sexual activity and linked to higher rates of unprotected sex, is the only sex ed taught in 35 percent of our schools. (Although maybe teens are having babies for the same reasons grown women are--the birthrate for adults is up, too.)

. . .

Juno is sensible enough to realize she's just a kid and makes the choice that not long ago was forced on middle-class white girls. These days, 29 percent of pregnant teens have abortions; 14 percent miscarry; of the 57 percent who carry to term, less than 1 percent give up the baby. Paradoxically, the women's movement destigmatized single motherhood and thus helped make a world in which some of the old justifications for abortion no longer seem so forceful. Now it's abortion that is a badge of shame and "irresponsibility."

But feminists aren't the only ones over a barrel here. It has been amusing watching the anti-choicers squirm as they laud Jamie Lynn Spears's "life-affirming decision" to add a new member to pop culture's most notoriously dysfunctional family. Even Mike Huckabee--the candidate who protested that he was too busy to keep up with the NIE report on Iran's nuclear program--called it a "tragedy" before adding, "Apparently, she's going to have the child, and I think that is the right decision, a good decision, and I respect that and appreciate it." Off the campaign trail, Jamie Lynn has been getting a royal slut-shaming: a football player could probably have killed someone and gotten less criticism--as long as he didn't kill a baby, that is. Especially a really cute one. Or a dog. Even the New York Times ran a front-page story about how "disappointed" are the parents of the young girls who adore Zoey 101. As if it's unusual for 16-year-olds to have sex. Maybe if so many parents didn't have the idiotic idea that "perfect" girls like Zoey actually exist, they would talk to their daughters about birth control instead of assuming, as Jamie Lynn's mother did, that Jamie was "conscientious" because she always met her curfew. Mama Spears's parenting book has been put on hold, reportedly replaced by a million-dollar baby-photo deal made by Jamie Lynn.

Just to bring the whole reproductive carnival full circle, Florida's "Choose Life" license plates, of which more than 40,000 have been sold, have raised more than $4 million for low-income single moms. But there's a catch: only women who choose adoption qualify. A woman who wants to keep her baby can just go starve in hell. Since only a handful of women want to give away their babies--even among pregnant women who plan on adoption, 35 percent change their mind once the baby is born--the money is just sitting there. Maybe someone, someday will make a movie about that.

Pollitt praises the movie very highly, especially the title character, who she describes as "prickly, winsome, complex and original person: she wears work shirts, plays the guitar and has a luminous intelligence and a pixielike nonsexy beauty, and that is a way young girls are almost never portrayed in films." She likes that the girl initiates all of the decisions (including the sex) and controls her fate the entire time. That was great to read.

But although the two female friends that Pollitt saw "Juno" with both cried, she writes,
Still, and maybe this is why I remained dry-eyed, I couldn't get over my sense that, hard as the movie worked to be a story about particular individuals, not a sermon, it was basically saying that for a high school junior to go through pregnancy and childbirth to give a baby to an infertile couple is both noble and cool, of a piece with loving indie rock and scorning cheerleaders; it's fetal fingernails versus boysenberry condoms. To its credit, the film doesn't demonize teen sex; still, a teen who saw this movie would definitely feel like a moral failure for choosing abortion. Do we really want young girls to feel like they have to play babysanta? The mother in me winced at Juno, that wisp of a child-woman, going through the ordeal of pregnancy and childbirth.

At this point, at least one reader is contractually obligated to tell me to lighten up. Juno is not meant to be political, it's just meant to be fun. Why can't I just enjoy it?

I can only sigh. I've been hearing that question in varying contexts all my life. No matter how I answer it, I've learned that people who are not political generally will not understand.

When you are a political person, your worldview informs everything you do: everything you see, everything you read and as many of your actions as you can manage. Perhaps it's the same for people who are deeply religious: their faith informs their entire lives. For me, as an atheist, my political worldview functions as my religion: it's the lens through which I see the entire world.

That's the general context. But there's a specific context, too.

I write for kids and teens, I used to work with teenagers (and loved it - and miss it), and I'm passionate about girls' issues. I've been involved in the reproductive rights movement for more than 25 years. And I've chosen to be child-free.

These are all very basic and important parts of my life and of my self. So how could I, for the sake of two hours' entertainment, watch this movie with no context? How could I switch off my thoughts and feelings about girls, teenagers, pregnancy, abortion? Even if I wanted to compartmentalize my life so thoroughly, I don't think it's possible to do.

That's what it is to be political.

Sometimes you have to see the movie so you can write about it. If I were Katha Pollitt and writing one of the most widely read progressive columns in the US, I would. But sometimes you can just skip the movie, and the anger and disappointment you'll inevitably feel afterwards. And since I'm me, writing this blog, that's what I'll do.

28 comments:

Amy said...

OK, first off, spoiler alert for anyone who still may want to see the movie. Some plot elements are revealed here.

I happened to have loved this movie, and although I agree with what you and the others said in large part, that is, that the movie seems to downplay abortion as a choice for teenage pregnancy, I still think the movie is beautiful, touching, and thought-provoking. The character does consider abortion; her choice to continue the pregnancy is not based on religion. There is no obvious anti-choice agenda here (although arguably a subliminal one)---just a portrayal, and I think an accurate one, of how a 16 year old girl might think and feel. She continues the pregnancy based on emotions, very adolescent emotions.

I also do not think the movie made her a hero because she helped an infertile couple. Juno's decision is portrayed as naive and unrealistically idealistic, as you would expect from a 16 year old. The infertile couple look like narcissistic fools and in fact split up before the baby comes. And the movie makes it very clear that surrendering a baby to adoption is not like selling a used car. Yes, Juno goes on to try and get back to being a regular teenager, and the movie ends without us knowing whether she will be scarred by her experience. But it does not glorify teenager pregnancy or her decision to give the child up for adoption.

Not trying to convince you to see the movie, but I thought the other point of view should be articulated.

L-girl said...

The character does consider abortion; her choice to continue the pregnancy is not based on religion.

Amy, if the character had not had an abortion because of religious convictions, I would feel much better about that!

I have no problem with religious conviction. It's abortion as social evil, something disgusting that good people don't choose, that I can't stand.

But it does not glorify teenager pregnancy or her decision to give the child up for adoption.

I think by its very existence and that, as you say, it is beautiful and touching, it must glorify teenage pregnancy. By definition.

Not trying to convince you to see the movie, but I thought the other point of view should be articulated.

Everyone I know loved this movie, so while I respect what you're saying, it's the mainstream line. The movie's huge popularity attests to that.

Amy said...

I have no problem with religious conviction. It's abortion as social evil, something disgusting that good people don't choose, that I can't stand.

I did not at all sense that the film maker was suggesting that abortion was a social evil. In fact, I think it was portrayed in a fairly neutral way, as a possible and moral choice. Juno's friends and her parents seem to assume, perhaps even want, her to make that choice. The one character who is protesting the abortion center is portrayed as downright goofy.

But Juno makes a different choice. I am pro-choice 100%, and that means also respecting the right to continue a pregnancy, whether for religious, emotional or other reasons.

Amy said...

I think by its very existence and that, as you say, it is beautiful and touching, it must glorify teenage pregnancy. By definition.

I have to contemplate this one a bit. You may be right. All I can say is that the message I took from the movie is that teenagers make many unwise decisions---to have unprotected sex for unwise reasons, to continue a pregnancy on emotional grounds, to give up a child for adoption on unrealistic and naive grounds. If anything, the message I got was that teenagers are in no way ready to be adults and should not be pregnant and certainly should not be parents. If I had a teenage daughter, I would take her to see the movie for just that reason---to open up a dialogue about these issues.

M@ said...

We saw Juno and came away with some discomfort about how teen pregnancy was handled. Though I agree with Amy that it handled the abortion option neutrally, and as one of many choices that the protagonist had, the theme of "hey, teenagers can handle pregnancy, it's cool" was a little too strong. I enjoyed the movie, but I didn't like that one fundamental stance. That's me; Laura, I suspect you're right about how you'd react to the movie.

Come to think of it, even if Juno had, later in the movie, expressed something about how abortion might have been a better choice, or if, say, her parents suggested abortion as a possible alternative (showing an acceptance and positive view of that choice), I wouldn't have felt so uncomfortable. But this is the second movie I've seen in recent weeks where abortion was considered and rejected for an unwanted pregnancy. (The other one was Waitress.) And I'm not really satisfied with either of them.

As for Superbad, I went in with the same expectations and laughed through the whole movie. I'm glad SuMei and I aren't the only ones!

Amy said...

There was also Knocked Up. For some reason Waitress and Knocked Up disturbed me more than Juno. Those were adult women who were pregnant by men they did not love. It seemed extremely unlikely either of those women would have continued a pregnancy, given their characters' overall situations. I saw Juno's decision as immature, as one might expect from a 16 year old.

I see your point, M@, and I agree that more could have been done in Juno to portray abortion as a realistic and even good choice in those circumstances.

Now I will have to see Superbad!

Amy said...

the theme of "hey, teenagers can handle pregnancy, it's cool" was a little too strong.

Boy, I did not get that message at all. She was an outcast at school, she felt gross, she was clearly upset to give up the baby at the end. I thought that message was teenagers cannot handle this, as I said in an earlier comment.

M@ said...

Those were adult women who were pregnant by men they did not love. It seemed extremely unlikely either of those women would have continued a pregnancy, given their characters' overall situations.

I didn't see Knocked Up but I agree that those are different cases. It's a little more nuanced than the way I described it -- and I'd agree absolutely that in Waitress, at least, the choice was not presented well.

(The fact that the woman got romantically involved with the doctor in Waitress was even more unsettling!)

Boy, I did not get that message at all. She was an outcast at school, she felt gross, she was clearly upset to give up the baby at the end. I thought that message was teenagers cannot handle this, as I said in an earlier comment.

Yeah, come to think of it this was something my wife and I debated afterwards -- to what extent we perceived that message, and how it might have been handled better. But I felt many teenage girls would want to identify with Juno, and it might give the impression that they could handle a pregnancy with just a chipper attitude and spunky take on life. After all -- it was a happy ending with no loose ends, something that is not typical with an unwanted pregnancy.

However, I'm certainly unqualified to speculate about how a teenage girl would react to the movie. It just worried me a little.

Amy said...

Ah, isn't that the ultimate irony!? A teenage viewer might take the wrong message because, as the movie depicts, teenagers, even bright, articulate, thoughtful teenagers, make incredibly stupid choices and act on impulse and emotion, not reason. So if I had a teenage daughter, I would be sure to talk to her about the movie.

I do not now have any teenagers, but both my daughters saw the movie. They are 23 and 27, so not so far removed from being teenagers. I will ask them whether they think the movie depicted teenage pregnancy in a glorified, positive light or not and report back.

L-girl said...

I am pro-choice 100%, and that means also respecting the right to continue a pregnancy, whether for religious, emotional or other reasons.

Oh my god, me too, absolutely. But respecting the right to make a choice and believing that choice to be healthy and good are very different things. Earlier, you said

She continues the pregnancy based on emotions, very adolescent emotions.

I would argue that "very adoolescent emotions" are very, very bad reasons to have a baby.

I have spent a fair amount of time with teenaged mothers and their children. I have also interviewed a dozen or so people who are adopted, who, no matter what happy stories they were told in their childhood, live with a very real pain of knowing that their mothers gave them away.

I respect teenage girls' right to make their own choices, but I cannot regard teen pregnancy as neutral - just another choice on a menu of life choices.

I also think the movie has to be seen in context - of Waitress and Knocked Up (neither of which I'd see, for movie reason), of teenage pregnancy in the news, including celebrity news, and of the anti-abortion climate.

After all -- it was a happy ending with no loose ends, something that is not typical with an unwanted pregnancy.

Abortion can be without loose ends, despite the negative propaganda. My own was, and a few zillion others as well.

But if the unwanted pregnancy is carried to term, I'd say a happy ending with no loose ends is very rare. And that's a central point to me.

Many people don't realize that adoption is not without loose ends. If you know any adult adoptees well enough, ask them. They live with some very terrible loose ends. The open adoption Juno entered into helps (a lot), but it doesn't make it go away.

L-girl said...

I'm certainly unqualified to speculate about how a teenage girl would react to the movie.

No more or less than anyone else. It's not like all teenage girls will have the same opinion of the movie and its potential messages.

L-girl said...

Now I will have to see Superbad!

It is downright hilarious, and very sweet, but not sentimental. I'd actually see it again (VERY rare for me), as some of the very funny dialogue, especially at the beginning, flew by quickly.

M@ said...

Abortion can be without loose ends, despite the negative propaganda. [...] Many people don't realize that adoption is not without loose ends.

This is the point I was shambling towards -- that Juno ended with no loose ends, but that's a bit of a fantasy. Unfortunately I'm not very articulate these days.

No more or less than anyone else.

I am almost certain that this statement is false where I'm concerned. I had no idea what teenage girls were thinking even when I was a teenage boy. :)

Amy said...

I couldn't agree more that adoption does not often mean happy endings for either the birth mother or the child. In fact, almost every adopted child or adult I know has suffered in some way or had some long term emotional baggage. Although I don't know any women (or men) who gave up a baby for adoption (or at least none who have talked about it), everything I have ever read or seen certainly indicates that those parents never completely get over having made that decision.

For that reason, I think the movie should have done more to show that reality instead of simply ending with Juno trying to get back to her pre-pregnancy life. I don't think it would have necessarily worked "artistically," i.e., to project into the future to show how scarred both Juno and the baby would be, but it would have been more honest.

L-girl said...

Unfortunately I'm not very articulate these days.

Nah, I'm probably overexplaining, as is my wont.

I had no idea what teenage girls were thinking even when I was a teenage boy. :)

That's par for the course. (X-ref Superbad.)

I couldn't agree more that adoption does not often mean happy endings for either the birth mother or the child. In fact, almost every adopted child or adult I know has suffered in some way or had some long term emotional baggage. Although I don't know any women (or men) who gave up a baby for adoption (or at least none who have talked about it), everything I have ever read or seen certainly indicates that those parents never completely get over having made that decision.

Amy, I'm buoyed to hear this, I really am. I'm glad there's awareness of the pain of the "adoption triad," as it is called.

Some of the people I interviewed (adoptees and birth parents) suffered horribly, especially from the days of extreme secrecy, as it used to be. The more recent families were better off, but only by comparison.

Of course there's no way that could be shown in a feel-good movie. It's just more of why I can't see this movie!

Amy said...

Whether ending with abortion or adoption, I think every unwanted pregnancy brings the woman, whether teenage or adult, lots of emotional turmoil. Some women may handle abortion more easily, others adoption more easily. I believe that in Juno's situation, I would have chosen abortion because giving up a child would be far too painful and would have permanent effects not only on me but on the child. But I would never think that choosing abortion is easy and uncomplicated.

So the answer is better birth control, better sex education, and better protection of women from rape. I know there is no miracle cure for unwanted pregnancy, but I think both outcomes are so painful that we should do all we can to prevent these pregnancies in the first place.

impudent strumpet said...

Did you see this in last Sat.'s Globe and Mail? I know that column is satirical, but I think an abortion comedy as quest movie (a dry non-laugh-track type comedy, about as dark as Royal Tenenbaums, where the abortion is 90% MacGuffin and 10% Issue) could actually work.

Wild English Rose said...

I'm not sure that there are any easy answers as to how to reduce teen pregnancy - the Macleans article (thanks for the link) states that the rates of teen births and teen pregnancy are increasing in both the US and the UK and that the pattern of changes in the rates in the US, Canada and the UK are usually pretty similar. This is despite the fact that the cultural approach to sexual relationships, sex education and the political status of abortion (in the UK it is a non-issue) are so different - certainly when comparing the US and the UK. Either different social phenomena in the two countries happen to lead to exactly the same result - or there is an cultural force impacting on both countries that is causing the shift.

L-girl said...

Obviously it's best to prevent pregnancy in the first place. No offense, but: duh.

It's important to remember, though, that no prevention is perfect. No matter how much education we offer, and how much contraception is available, there will always be unwanted pregnancies. Birth control fails. There is human error. There is human stupidity. And there is rape.

So there will always be a need for abortion, and for others, adoption.

I would also like to note that unwanted pregnancy does not always cause emotional turmoil. This is a common projection, but there are many women for whom an unwanted pregnancy is not that big a deal, if abortion is available. I realize this is difficult for many people to believe and/or accept, but it's true.

L-girl said...

the political status of abortion (in the UK it is a non-issue)

WOW. My friends in the movement in the UK would be horrified to hear that. From what they tell me, it is definitely not a non-issue.

L-girl said...

better protection of women from rape

What would this look like? I'm not being sarcastic, I don't know what you mean.

L-girl said...

But I would never think that choosing abortion is easy and uncomplicated.

Sorry, I didn't see this before.

I can assure you that for millions of women, choosing abortion is both easy and uncomplicated, as long as abortion is available.

Please don't assume that if the choice would be difficult or complicated for you, that it would be for all or even most women.

Most women who have abortions are not the slightest bit conflicted. Every interview study or oral history project has shown the great turmoil around abortion to be way, way less than is commonly thought. When faced with an unwanted pregnancy, most women want to get rid of it as fast as possible. The most common emotion felt post-procedure is relief.

L-girl said...

Did you see this in last Sat.'s Globe and Mail?

I hadn't! It's funny. Thanks.

Amy said...

Yeah, I know saying prevention of unwanted pregnancy is a "duh." No offense taken.

And yeah, perhaps I am projecting my own assumed reactions on to all women.

And yeah, I have no idea how to better prevent rape except to create a society where people don't act violently in any way towards other people, including through rape. I guess today is just my day to be as simple minded as a teenager?

Amy said...

Here are my daughters' answers to my questions about Juno. I did not reveal my own views first, just asked them whether they thought the movie made it seem as it seemed anti-abortion and whether it glorified teenage pregnancy.

My 23 year old said:
"I don't think the movie was sending the message that it's cool for teens to get pregnant...I think the total opposite...that teens are too irresponsible and immature to be pregnant and have kids...and that's why she stood out in school..because it was abnormal and wrong for teens to be pregnant. i didn't think it said a lot about abortion...more that she was too young and goofy to have children."

Scary that she used almost the same words I did.

My 27 year old said:

"I did not walk away feeling that that it was "cool" for a teenage girl to get pregnant and to give her baby away to a couple. I did walk away thinking: Something like that can happen to a perfectly normal/quirky girl from a middle class family and it is a difficult choice to make. I did think that the abortion clinic was a bit extreme and incredibly unwelcoming/distasteful...but I thought perhaps it was a comment on how outsiders perceive abortion clinics and intended to be over-the-top for humor purposes. I thought it was in a way her own imagination/fear/guilt taking over which influenced her decision to not have an abortion. It didn't seem easy or cool when she waspregnant and confused and lonely. Nor did it seem cool when she had to give-up the baby and never even saw her own child. I thought she made a choice and dealt with the consequences - not exactly story-book but not exactly tragic either. It happens - white middle class kids get pregnant and there are a lot of white upper class women that can't get pregnant. And the women's lives goes on...Either way both women had to make a difficult decision and dealt with a challenge.

Again, I do think the abortion clinic scene could have been handled differently - but perhaps it just needed to be that way - because frankly if it wasn't she probably would have just had the abortion - as I am sure most middle class white teenagers do (which they have the right to do and should have the personal and private right to do.)"

L-girl said...

Amy, thanks so much for posting your daughters' thoughts! Please thank them for me as well. It's heartening to hear their views.

Also thanks for being such a great contributor to this blog community. You are so open-minded and non-defensive, that on those occasions when we see things from different perspectives, I often worry that I've offended - more so than with any other commenter. So many thanks for not taking offense. :)

Amy said...

Thanks, Laura, for your gracious comments about my daughters' contributions and also about mine. I really am not a defensive person, and I am not too easily offended. (It probably comes from working with other law professors; we are used to much more rancor and disagreement.)I am more than happy to hear good arguments about where my thinking may be unclear or wrong, and I would not participate if I was afraid of disagreement. Unless I feel there is an attack on me, as opposed to on my ideas, I try hard not to take things personally. (You may also have noticed that when discussion seems to get somewhat nasty, I usually don't participate, as with Partisan. I just don't get much but aggravation out of that kind of exchange.)

If we all agreed, there wouldn't be much to talk about here, would there?

Thanks as always for all the thought-provoking and insightful materials and comments you post on the blog.

L-girl said...

Amy, thank you and you're welcome. You are such a welcome addition to both wmtc and JoS.