From Juno; Fox Searchlight Pictures
First, Manohla Dargis, then David Edelstein. Now, Village Voice critic J. Hoberman criticizes Juno. Hmm... could this be the beginning of a Juno backlash. (I hope so!!!!) Also, Sasha Frere-Jones hates it too, as do some other people. (We are few, but we are mighty.)
Back to Hoberman: he has quite an insightful reading of recent American pregnancy comedies (Juno, Knocked Up, Waitress) and compares them with the Romanian pregnancy/abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which won the Palm d'or at Cannes last year. A film using an unwanted pregnancy for comedic fodder is odd enough, but three films doing so in the same year is somewhat disturbing. Perhaps the filmmakers/screenwriters can see comedy in the situations because they -- and their pregnant protagonists -- are middle-class and white. Money, religion, class, struggle, the judgment of society, the damage to their futures: these are not the primary concerns of these characters. The issue of unwanted pregnancy is significantly more complicated for a woman who does not have the money to raise a child OR to have an abortion -- or someone who lives in a totalitarian state that has banned abortions, as in 4 Months. (As Hoberman writes: "Had the protagonists been poor, black, illegal, or Jamie Lynn Spears, the movies necessarily would have been more serious and scarcely as much fun.")
Hoberman doesn't slam these films for their being pro-life (a criticism of several critics of Knocked Up), but for not allowing their protagonists a choice:
Knocked Up, Waitress, and Juno are proudly fantastic and a priori pro-life; their female protagonists have no choice other than to bring their pregnancies to term. Obviously, these movies could not exist if their preg protags elected to have abortions. What's more crucial is the fact that the Knockee, the Waitress, and even the hyper-articulate 15-year-old hipster improbably named Juno are unable to express why they feel obliged to give birth to unplanned and unwanted babies. They have no choice and they have no say. It is simply their fate.
There can be no female agency in Knocked Up, Waitress, and Juno -- not because they are comedies, but because, in each scenario, unwanted pregnancy is the joke played (by God?) on the female lead. As the most successful of the preg protags, she who is Knocked Up is necessarily the most smacked down -- the glass ceiling turns out to be Alison's own uterus. Jenna and Juno are less formidable, but unexpected fertility mocks their dreams of autonomy. All three are taught their place by their own bodies—and what's more, they learn to like it.
I do agree that the "choices" to have the babies in these films are overly simplistic and not fully developed (I mean, I would imagine even a devout Catholic who got pregnant outside of wedlock would struggle with the choice of whether to keep the baby or not.) One thing that I have found problematic (and, frankly, so bourgeoise) about other critics' dismissals of KU is the argument that no woman in her right-mind with a good job would have that baby. Well, there are plenty of reasons to choose to have a baby; the problem with these narratives is not that the women go ahead with their pregnancies, it's that they don't have free will, which Hoberman acknowledges:
If Knocked Up's Alison were a devout (or even lapsed) Catholic in addition to being a glamorous newsreader, if Waitress's guilt-ridden Jenna imagined that a child would improve her disastrous marriage, if little Juno were planning a welfare scam to fund her alt-rock band or simply wanted to gross out the neighbors, these narratives would still function, but now with the added aspect of free will.Hoberman is critical of all three films, though he seems to have at least enjoyed Knocked Up: "at least cathartic in its humorously blatant misogyny," he writes. He calls Waitress "pathetic," but saves most of his ire for Juno: "Juno, which was written by a woman and has become something of a fetish (albeit mainly among male film critics), is positively creepy."
Juno's knocked-up 15-year-old is at once provocatively precocious and primly pre-sexual. Her pregnancy is a miracle of bad luck—she simultaneously loses her virginity and conceives a baby. It's all but immaculate... Juno decides to have her baby. Not to worry: It won't be for keeps. She will donate the infant to a deserving careerwoman with a deadbeat husband and a stopped biological clock.
Even more than Juno's understanding father and benign stepmom, this act of charity is the movie's essential fantasy. It scarcely seems coincidental that Juno was released in time for Christmas. Pivot its scenario 90 degrees to the right and you have a more spiritual version of Knocked Up. People love clever little Juno because she isn't really a teenager, let alone a person. Juno is an angel.
Wait, she's not a person? Maybe that explains why she says stuff like "I'm forshizz up the spout." Honest to blog!