This may go down as the year Hollywood forgot to wear a condom. Several prominent films—"Knocked Up," "Waitress," "Bella," "Margot at the Wedding"—feature women who unexpectedly find themselves in the family way. While they react to the news with varying levels of delight and/or despair, sooner or later they all accept their condition, as though motherhood has been a fait accompli from the moment of fertilization. Then there's the 16-year-old at the heart of "Juno." After downing gallons of Sunny Delight to facilitate multiple pregnancy tests, Juno MacGuff does what most women do in her circumstances: she calls her best friend. Then she has an awkward conversation with the baby's father. But finally, she does something hardly any other pregnant character in a film has done since Roe v. Wade: she goes to an abortion clinic.
Hollywood is generally assumed to be a bastion of political liberalism, but when movie characters find themselves unintentionally pregnant, one of two things happens: they keep the baby, or they conveniently miscarry. "Juno" is the only film in recent history in which the protagonist seriously considers termination. Upon learning of her pregnancy, Juno (Ellen Page) makes an appointment to, as she deadpans, "procure a hasty abortion." But on the day of the procedure, a schoolmate protesting outside the clinic tells Juno her fetus already has fingernails. Suddenly Juno changes her mind. Considering the pains the film takes to establish its indie cred—hand-drawn credit sequence, alterna-folk soundtrack—Juno's decision to carry the baby to term seems surprisingly timid. Conservative bloggers and film critics are applauding what they interpret as the film's pro-life message, which raises a question: in our politically polarized world, can a film in which a girl decides against abortion manage to be viewed as anything other than an anti-abortion film?
The filmmakers insist that they have no social agenda. "Teen pregnancy is simply a plot point in this girl's personal journey," says director Jason Reitman. "This is not a movie about having a baby or not having a baby. It's a movie about loss of innocence." But that may be wishful thinking. When "Knocked Up" came out this summer, some feminist critics bemoaned the protagonist's potentially career-jeopardizing decision to raise her baby with its jobless, emotionally immature father, while conservatives praised the film as pro-life and pro-family. Similarly, "Waitress," in which a woman in an abusive relationship leaves her husband but keeps her baby, and "Bella," in which a single woman loses her job but goes through with her pregnancy, have been hailed as furthering the pro-life agenda. "It's fascinating to watch the Hollywood and indie crowd handle one of our premises pretty much the way we'd like it handled," one commenter wrote on ProLifeBlogs.com.
Films like "Waitress" and "Juno" might not seem so politically potent if there were even a handful of counterexamples, but you have to go all the way back to "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) to find one that shows a woman choosing to end an unplanned pregnancy in a sensitive, realistic fashion. But if a majority of Americans support a woman's right to choose, why the on-screen taboo? One answer might be that while Hollywood likes to flaunt its political liberalism, it is fiscally very conservative—no studio wants to limit the size of its potential audience. And while audiences may support the right to choose in theory, that doesn't mean Hollywood thinks they want to see sweet-faced Keri Russell or angelic Katherine Heigl terminating a pregnancy. In the few cases where abortion has figured in a movie, such as "Dirty Dancing," it usually involves a minor character who is punished for her choice with medical complications or death. The message is that a female protagonist can't terminate a pregnancy and remain sympathetic.
But don't give the recent spate of pregnancy films the Moral Majority's stamp of approval just yet. While these films seem conservative in their attitudes about abortion, they are decidedly liberal in their interpretation of family values: most of the protagonists are unmarried and few plan to raise their children in the traditional structure of a biological mother and father. "Much is made of the perfect normal family, and this is a screenplay that explores what the modern family has really become," says Reitman. "Juno has a stepmother and a stepsister; you have another family adopting with a single parent."
This, also, is where "Juno" differs from other recent pregnancy films: at no time does the character think she can raise the kid by herself. After her attack of cold feet at the clinic, Juno turns to the local want ads in search of adoptive parents. "Most filmmakers use pregnancy really thoughtlessly," says Eve Kushner, author of "Experiencing Abortion: A Weaving of Women's Words." Juno, she says, "knows how hard it is to raise a baby, and understands that these things are above her maturity level. In other films, having a baby is seen as a cure-all for immaturity." Maybe Juno will help Hollywood start to grow up.