What "Juno" Says About Teen Pregnancy, Abortion, and Choice

Ellen Page at public function
Scott Olson / Getty Images

Should we be worried about Juno? The sharp-witted comedy starring Ellen Page as a pregnant teen who decides to give her baby up for adoption won writer Diablo Cody an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, Juno is regarded as a critical and commercial success.

But for one woman who long ago found herself in the same situation as Juno, and has since become a leading advocate of choice for women and girls, the film has very real flaws. Primary among them is the fact that Juno fails to portray the issues surrounding teen pregnancy in an authentic and responsible manner.

Gloria Feldt is an author, activist, and the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She's written extensively on abortion, choice, and reproductive rights, and knows first-hand what it's like to be in Juno's shoes—she was once a teenage mother herself.

Feldt spoke to me about why Juno has her concerned and the ways in which it reflects the nation's conflicted attitudes toward teenage sexuality.

Q: Juno seems like a sweet little movie, but you've observed that it's an anti-choice film.

Gloria Feldt: The dialogue is adorable—snappy, smart, funny, captivating—and who wouldn't enjoy that? But I was Juno once—that sixteen-year-old pregnant girl, and life isn't like that at all. It delivers messages to young women that aren't realistic. Juno is an adorable fantasy—I think that when you're 16 years old you don't understand that, but when you're 50 years old you do.

Q: There's very little angst that Juno experiences over carrying the baby and giving it up—the character is almost disconnected from the many deep-seated emotions that pregnant teens feel. Is that deliberate, or naive?

Gloria Feldt: The narrative implies that carrying a pregnancy to term and relinquishing the baby—giving it up for adoption—is nothing. But we know that it isn't so for a pregnant woman. That's totally unrealistic.

Gloria Feldt: An adolescent girl doesn't have a lot of power, but one of the ways that she can demonstrate her power is through her sexuality. The power of her sexuality is one of the few things she holds over the adults in her life. Whatever her needs are, the use of sexuality and becoming pregnant is still the—it hasn't changed since the 50s.

Gloria Feldt: I've been astonished how many older teens and women in their twenties thought the film was wonderful. Some of the messages that are so negative went right over their heads. They grow up today in a different context. They've never lived in a country without choice. They don't know that before abortion was legalized, unintended pregnancy was essentially the end of your life as you have known it, regardless of the option you choose.

Gloria Feldt: They're also very judgmental of their friends who become pregnant. Many see Juno as heroic for carrying out her pregnancy. The real issues surrounding pregnancy isn't discussed in the film Knocked Up either. In Hollywood it's verboten.

Q: In the film, Juno initially plans to have an abortion. But she changes her mind, partly because she has an unpleasant experience at a women's health clinic. The heavily pierced receptionist is barely older than Juno; she's unprofessional, bored and unfeeling. The depiction of the women's clinic is supposed to be comic. But as the former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, are you bothered by it?

Gloria Feldt: The clinic in Juno is terrible. It's a terribly untrue stereotype. My experience is that the people who work in women's health facilities where abortions are performed are so compassionate. Think about what it takes to work there daily. They have to walk through protesters and picket lines; they have to be committed to what they do. They are passionate in their convictions.

Gloria Feldt: I worked for 22 years for Planned Parenthood affiliates and have seen how people are dedicated to making women feel comfortable.

Gloria Feldt: One man who ran the surgery program (which included abortion and vasectomy) researched what colors were most soothing to women in distress. He found out it was "Pepto Bismol" pink and had the walls painted that color.

Gloria Feldt: Patients who come in are in a difficult situation and we try to make it as welcoming to them as possible.

Gloria Feldt: For Juno to deliver that stereotype to audiences shows you one example of how the anti-choice point of view has begun to influence even Hollywood, which everyone regards as left wing. They've gotten their point of view into the intellectual ether of our county.

Q: The movie's screenwriter, Diablo Cody, once worked as a stripper and writes a blog called Pussy Ranch. One might expect her to have a liberal attitude but in many ways the views are conservative. Do you have thoughts on this?

Gloria Feldt: It would be amusing if it weren't so distressing that a woman whose profession has been in the sex trade would express this in her writing. I have two thoughts about this. The first is "Good for her that she has the talent to write a commercially successful film." The second is that we all have social responsibility for what we communicate through our words. And as a former stripper, of all people she should understand our society's retrograde attitudes toward women and sex. I'd like to to talk to her about it. She may have been edited and her screenplay changed, but her own words indicate she hadn't necessarily thought through what the impact of her words would be.

Gloria Feldt: In this film, the storyline had to be that Juno had sex once and that it wasn't an ongoing relationship. The problem is that this isn't a common situation. Though this does happen, in truth most young people ease into sexual relationships over time and it puts them at risk of pregnancy.

Gloria Feldt: The film also shows a disassociation of the person from the sexual behavior. The characters are detached from what happened. My guess is that it has more to do with our culture's inability to deal with sexuality. They couldn't have told the story if it had been a more complex situation. Similarly, the parents were also detached from the situation and their comments about Juno's pregnancy were disengaged from reality. They never talked about their daughter having sex.

Gloria Feldt: There's a friend of mine, Carol Cassell, who's a leading sex education expert. She wrote a book called Swept Away and its premise is that you can justify your behavior if you were "swept away," but you can't justify planning to have sex. We are uncomfortable with sexuality and that's why unplanned pregnancies occur. Other countries have much lower rates of teen pregnancy and abortion even though they have as much sex as we do. We need to examine our attitudes toward sex and address them.

Q: Can you recommend any teen movies that you feel authentically depict the experience of teen pregnancy and choice?

Gloria Feldt: I have tried and tried, but I can't. I even emailed my friend Nancy Gruver, publisher of New Moon, the magazine for teen girls, and we couldn't come up with any. The fact that we couldn't name one single film that accurately depicts teen pregnancy tells us that America has a difficult relationship with sex.

UPDATE: Kimberly Amadeo, About.com Guide to US Economy, recommends a film that accurately portrays teenage pregnancy. It's Mama Africa, produced by Queen Latifah.