I’ll say this right up front: I haven’t seen the movie Juno. (I haven’t seen any other Oscar-nominated flick either, because big-screen movies are no longer a central part of my life experience, now that I am a mother and hiring a nanny for a night out costs a gajillion dollars that I would much rather spend on handbags and chocolate and DVDs.) (Which, you know, really should be enjoyed together. Lounging in bed with a box of chocolates, watching the last season of Buffy while you fondle your brand new cherry-red leather bag with the multiple pockets and the extra-long strap? Bliss. But I digress.)
Where was I? Right. Juno. Haven’t seen it. But I’ve heard all about it and I plan to see it the minute I can get it on DVD and that qualifies me to comment upon it. Also? I am currently and have been in the past pregnant, and had a baby, and it’s a movie about being pregnant and having babies. So.
That’s the crux of it, actually: it’s a movie about having the baby. And, more to the point, about being young and being caught in some maternal web that you didn’t expect to stumble into and that you don’t know how to get out of and making the choice to just make yourself at home there until such time as you can extricate yourself in some straightforward manner. I’ve been there too. I didn’t handle it the same way, but I’ve been there, in that web, wondering how to get out.
There’s been a lot of critical commentary since the movie’s release about how the movie a) treats teen pregnancy too blithely, what with the snappy dialogue and the laissez-faire attitude of the heroine and all, and b) marginalizes abortion as the go-to solution for an unwanted pregnancy. In a recent article, a Vancouver writer (a man; is his sex is relevant to this discussion? you tell me) asked – discussing Juno and Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up as a piece – how it is “that neither (character) really considers abortion as a viable alternative to carrying a fetus to term? In the contexts of both films, all roads for our pregnant women (should) lead to the abortion clinic. This is not an ideological analysis, it is rational one, it is what both of these characters, as they have been written, would do. Instead, for the sake of the stories in question and the messages inherent in them, the writers have perverted their characters’ actions, giving these women no coherent rational (sic) for their actions, or lack thereof.
Whoa. Abortion is the only thing that either of these characters would do, the only road that they would take, full stop? And the fact that their stories centered upon them making other choices is a perversion of what would have been more rational actions? The writer goes on to say that what the monumental success of films like Juno – films that about unplanned pregnancies that evade the subject of abortion as the only real alternative for young, smart single women – reveal “is that behind the Indie soundtracks, hip, animated graphics, weed-smoking slackers and Mohawk hair cuts, we remain as a society utterly conservative in our views on what women should do with their bodies.”
It may be entirely true – in fact, I suspect that it is entirely true – that we remain, as a society, utterly conservative in our attitudes toward women’s rights v.v. their bodies. But that does not mean that the rejection of certain choices – or the pop cultural representation of the rejection of certain choices – represents a social step backward in women’s struggle for more control over the right to choose. Ensuring that women have choice – that they are able to control their maternal destinies – does not require that the so-called alternative choice be presented as the social norm. In fact, I’d argue that any socio-cultural pressure toward that end – making abortion the norm for dealing with unwanted pregnancies – actually militates against meaningful choice. The idea that ‘the right thing’ – or in the above-quoted writer’s words, the rational thing – for any bright young woman with a bright future who is facing an unexpected pregnancy to do is to have an abortion is a kind of anti-choice position, isn’t it? The idea that is there is only one rational choice for women – or, worse, for certain kinds of women – is oppressive regardless of what that ‘choice’ is, precisely because the idea that there is only one such choice makes that choice, well, no longer a choice.
I was pretty young when I had to make that choice. I was no longer in high school, but I wasn’t quite yet an adult (especially when I look back on it now, from the vantage point of old age), and I was fully vulnerable to the suggestion – the unspoken but nonetheless culturally pervasive suggestion – that nice girls (smart girls, girls with futures, girls like me) did not have babies before they’d gotten themselves properly established on some appropriate life path. This suggestion did not come from my parents – my mother held back from trying to influence my decision, but her pain over my ultimate decision was obvious – but from the culture. I was an older version of Juno, and a younger version of the character from Knocked Up, and amongst my peers, abortion was just what one did when faced with this situation. It was the only rational choice, the only option, understood within the context of my lifeworld. And to that extent, it wasn’t really a choice. Not a meaningful one.
To be clear, I don’t regret having taken the road that I did. I really don’t. I don’t not regret it, either – it’s complicated, but I will always be haunted in some difficult-to-articulate way by the choice that I was and am glad to have been able to make – but from the standpoint of my life as it is now, I wouldn’t alter a single footstep from the pathways of my past. But I do wonder, sometimes, sometimes more often than is comfortable, whether I might have made a different decision in a different life – in a life where I maybe knew a little more of what I know now about life and love and babies, in a life where I might have viewed the alternatives to abortion as more meaningfully possible alternatives. I might very well have ended up making exactly the same choice. But had I done so, under those different cultural circumstances, I might have done so without viewing the alternatives as completely unfathomable. And mightn’t that have been more empowering than just doing what everyone else was doing because that was just what one was expected to do? Mightn’t that have been a more meaningful choice?