WEIRDLAND: "Juno" and the Female Memes

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Juno" and the Female Memes

"Listening to the non-stop one-liners and biting world-weary observations that come from the main character in Juno may have caused a crisis of coolness among some audience members. This 21st century antiheroine has given some people the disconcerting feeling of not "getting" her, accusing screenwriter Diablo Cody (the pen name of Brook Busey-Hunt) of having drawn Juno (played by the talented Ellen Page) as a goofy and uncontactable character.

This young woman —"avant-garde posturing mixed with a post-punk naïve spirit"— has certainly proven to grate on a lot of people's nerves, through her odd screen persona. For some cinephiles this is new proof of marketing-savvy mass entrancement, a deceitful "feel good" story that tricks us into believing in happiness ever after.

I think the film can alternatively be seen as the origin of a new female meme, a redefinition of "Peter Pan's Never Land" as "Eternal Pun and Negative Land". Ellen Page delivers another challenging performance after her previous turn as Hayley Stark in "Hard Candy" (2005), where she wore a red hooded sweatshirt —a reference to Little Red Riding Hood, one of the classic female memes.
Juno's voice introduces us to a world of teenage climes (and climaxes), unceremoniously shedding the typical image of the "klutzy" all-American doll, as Diablo Cody criticizes the Hollywood studios responsible for the sexist movie market who want to push this shallow feminine imagery on their audiences over and over. Obviously the treatment of Juno is never the usual sex symbol disguised in the prototypical girl next door cut-out who is invariably obsessed over a more important male lead character in the story. Instead, in Jason Reitman's film it's just the opposite — the central feminine character is a slacker type girl, who doesn't dress in sexy outfits or giggle in the classroom with the popular girls' clique. Juno often appears isolated, uncontrolled in her verbal puns, disheveled, and frequently pissed off, a postmodern "rebel without a cause" in grunge fashion.

Twisted and extreme slang has also become a point of displeasure for some movie-goers. I can't help but quote here what is perhaps the most polemical one: "honest to blog." As I am another scribe in the blogosphere, I think it's probably going to be the most used in our popular collective speech for a while. There are tons of more far-fetched expressions, but this one is noteworthy for being directly associated with the blogging/MySpace/Facebook generation.

Our conversations are full of clichés, of comprised, referential expressions that we pull out time and again without realising we've borrowed them from the TV and other sources of popular culture. Still, we cringe (or pretend to cringe) when we hear a big chunk of them come from the mouths of fictional characters; we feel mirrored in their banality and then these regurgitated catch phrases embarrass us. Or it's possible we get to fall in love with some of these characters only when we forget our/their limitations.

Professor Nicholas Emler is author of "The Costs and Causes of Low Self-worth", which quantifies the cost of low self-esteem:
"relatively low self-esteem is a risk factor for suicide, suicide attempts, depression, teenage pregnancy and victimisation by bullies." Emler also wrote "Adolescence and Delinquency: The Collective Management of Reputation" about psychology's reaction to deviance, attributing it to flaws or deficits in the individual's psychological make-up. "Cultural stereotypes, cinema and advertising all play their part in shaping our opinion on beauty. While in one group the majority can agree on what they find attractive, it's difficult to say why one person stands out" —Emler.And why does a girl like Juno stand out? Why would we consider her beautiful? Why would we fall in love with her? That will happen in the moment we translate the script to our own recondite fantasies. A script is always an experiment — in this case the gigantic success of Juno at the box office is a sign of a connection mainly with the U.S. public, perhaps due to their unconscious desire to resuscitate the old postcard of the American dream (although ironically the film was shot in Canada), the Capra-esque happy ending without retorting to a pinkified, Hollywoodized denouement. Jeff Tweedy (of the rock band Wilco) has said, "I think America has existed as a myth. As far as the real American dream, as far as whatever was supposed to be that real inspiration and drive behind the social experiment".

I found the gender dynamics in Juno quite fascinating. Our apparently inadvertent heroine instigates a first sexual encounter with her shy boyfriend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, who played perfectly his awkward roles as Harold in the short film "Darling, Darling" and Evan in "Superbad"). She approaches Mark Loring (Jason Bateman, from Fox's "Arrested Development" sitcom) in a clumsy seductress way —Juno feels sexy in Mark's company— but the intimacy shared during their simulated prom dance is designed to leave the viewers uncomfortable, disoriented, and even feeling dirty. It's also the scene that turns the seduction game upside down and Mr. Loring suddenly becomes an entirely different man. Mark is transformed by Juno's temptation, and Mark becomes Juno's temptation. A minor third male character, a young school mate, the jock Steve Rendazo (Daniel Clark), bullies Juno although he secretly is infatuated with her.Mark represents a darker, threatening part of the male universe unknown to Juno; their aborted relationship becomes a testing of the most basic principles of her personality. Juno is confused, cries desperately inside her van, her sturdy façade collapses, her humour is gone after confrontating him. I think Juno recognizes in that moment Mark's self-alienation as her own. There is a peculiar discussions between Mark and Juno. Mark suggests the best year of rock and roll was 1993 but Juno says 1977. In the essay "Funky days are back again: Reading seventies nostalgia in the late nineties rock music" by David Sigler it's addressed too: "nostalgia for the Seventies in the late Nineties was especially the preoccupation of male artists.

[...] Janice Doane and Devon Hodges have argued that nostalgia is a predominantly male construct representing the pull of conservatism, an intrinsically "antifeminist impulse".

[...] Nineties nostalgia resists the logic of late capital and compensates for it: if 'American popular culture has become a common coin for the new globalization' then nostalgia counteracts this in that it 'demands a different currency'.

[...] Downie describes the Seventies as a golden age of innocence, discovery and naïvete that, although it has since crumbled, loosed and inmutable marriage and Henderson's 'timeless' goal upon the world".

Compare as both (Juno and Mark) speak similarly:

"So that’s cool with you, then?" (Juno asks Bleeker about her first idea of nipping the baby in the bud before it gets worse.)

"But I thought you’d be cool with this." (Mark tries to justify a separation from his wife Vanessa.)Juno's father, Mac MacGuff (J.K. Simmons) will philosophically rebuke Juno's attraction for Mark and she'll forget her idealization of him, since he isn't "the kind of person that's worth sticking with."

I didn't think of the story as intended to marginalize the male characters in any moment, despite the express devotion (and autobiographical hints: Diablo owns Juno's hamburger phone) of the script to Ellen Page's character; more the opposite, these are not unidimensional guys. Mr. MacGuff, Mark, and finally Bleeker empower and define the ultimate Juno: compassionate and funny, invincible and frail.

What I found really impressive in the film was observing the démariage of Juno's individuality from her instinctual responses during her pregnancy and the unapologetic way of refusing to articulate Juno's decision to give her baby to Vanessa Loring(Jennifer Garner, playing her best dramatic role so far). After struggling with her demons and choosing love above herself, Juno still must sacrifice her son to the replicant mom, the female who symbolizes the politically correct sweetness, the welfare state, the maternal normalization, the grand-scale morality, Vanessa. In a last defeatist gesture, Juno is also paradoxically this story's winner. The scenes at the hospital after she gives birth are especially symbolic, when Bleeker —who uses the same trashy hamburger phone— unexpectedly wins a track race but loses his son hours later. As he lies at Juno's side, the camera focuses on her striped tube socks and his muddy sportswear.
The depiction of Juno and Bleeker's love story strips away the illusion of moral conventions, ignoring the current trend of oversexed relationships, au courant overstylized romances or vulgar immersions in lusty tales. It seemed very clear that the kissing scene between Juno and Bleeker was not only affirming their love, it set them apart from the confinements of "reel": When Juno gives her best female friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) the finger, she is giving the finger to us all. Diablo Cody conveys her "Diwali" ending like a poetic arc where the deteriorated innocence of two high school outcasts is romanticized in a supreme trick.

Quoting poet Robert Graves: "Love is a universal migraine / A bright stain on the vision / Blotting out reason.”


countsheep said...

This review is awesome. I love it!

Kendra said...

Thank you very much, countsheep, and welcome to weirdland again!

Alexandria said...

I think you did a really good job on this review, it made me think of Mark a bit differently...

Because, personally, I think that Mark and Juno's 'prom' dance scene, was showing how unstable a girl's (and boy's) feelings can be shifted, and how youth is always a temptation, along with freedom.

Kendra said...

^^ very good points, welcome to Weirdland, Alexandria!