In the era before MTV's "Teen Mom" franchise, there were few if any humanizing portraits of pregnant teens on screen. Ten years after its release, "Juno" is still one of the most important movies about teen pregnancy.
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight
December 5, 2007, was the day Juno was officially released in American and Canadian cinemas. It could have also been the day I became a teen mother, had I not miscarried soon after I got pregnant.
When I was 12 years old, I was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance and became pregnant. While I’ve spoken publicly about my experience with rape and have become involved in activism, I’ve been less forthcoming about my miscarriage—an event that impacted and shaped me in a different way than the sexual trauma.
My entire pregnancy was different from Juno’s. Juno was discriminated against for being a visibly pregnant teen, while I miscarried at nine weeks and never told anyone about my pregnancy. Juno chose to put the baby up for adoption, while I strongly doubt I would have made that decision. Juno’s pregnancy was a result of sex with her best friend, while mine was a result of a sexual assault.
But our stories had something in common: neither was a typical cautionary tale about teen pregnancy. Juno was the first and only depiction of teen pregnancy that I could relate to, partly because Juno herself was such a relatable and unique character.
While some critics viewed Juno as having an anti-abortion message, I didn’t view it that way. Abortion stories are important and simply not told as often as they should be, but when Juno decided against having an abortion, it became possible to explore the discrimination faced by pregnant teens.
When Juno’s ultrasound technician made a snide remark about her pregnancy, I was reminded of my local clinic nurses when I tried to find healthcare. When Juno’s peers parted like the sea for her in the school corridor, I was reminded of how terrified and isolated I felt. And when Juno’s pro-life classmate protested outside the abortion clinic, I was reminded of the fact that my pregnancy was political, even if I didn’t want it to be.
I grew up in South Africa in the early 2000s, when HIV/AIDS education was at its peak. At school, we had a class called "Life Orientation," which essentially functioned as sex ed. Our textbooks were filled with "case studies" of children our age going through all the issues we’d learn about. We were assessed on our ability to advise these hypothetical children, which mostly meant stating that they should abstain from sex, stay away from drugs, and, when all else fails, consult a trusted adult.
Many case studies were about girls who got pregnant. The reasons they became pregnant were always given (like feeling pressured by their friends or boyfriends) since it was important that we students lecture them on how they shouldn’t have gotten pregnant before actually giving them advice on how to proceed. No other details about these girls are considered; we don’t learn their hobbies, interests, or future goals.
We were taught to see these pregnant teens as case studies—not humans.
During and after my pregnancy, these case studies haunted me. My Life Orientation textbook became unreadable—all I could focus on was the names of these girls, and I’d imagining my name there instead. My cheeks flushed because I felt sure that my peers—whose compassion for pregnant teens had already been repressed through teachings—would notice that I was acting strangely, a tell-tale sign that I was in the same shameful, avoidable situation as the girls in the books.
If there were a case study about me, what would it say? "Sian found out she was pregnant after she was raped at her friend’s house. What should she do?" There would be no mention that I was an A-student who loved Meg Cabot and crafting. My pregnancy reduced me to a problem that needed to be solved.
I imagined what advice my peers would give me: She shouldn’t have been at her friend’s house without an adult in the first place. She should tell her parents or a teacher. She should consider putting her baby up for adoption. I knew these platitudes by heart. I wished my situation was as inconsequential as an exam question, and I wished I learnt to problem-solve instead of parrot-read.
But most of all, I wished I wasn’t alone. Until I watched Juno, I thought I was.
The filmmakers care for Juno too much to dehumanize her and turn her into a trope. We’re never allowed to forget that she’s a full person with a larger-than-life personality: she’s likable, smart, tries to make mature and considerate decisions, and has an odd sense of humor. Forget pregnant teens—Juno defies stereotypes of teenagers, period. Juno is never reduced to her pregnancy, and the movie isn’t centered around her decision to have sex. Unlike cheerleader Quinn Fabray in Glee, Juno isn’t presented as someone who nearly ruined her near-perfect life by becoming pregnant. Juno has troubles, but doesn’t fall into the tropes of one-dimensional "troubled teen" characters.
Quirky and relatable, Juno’s uniqueness is a persistent reminder that pregnant teens are humans first. In Juno, I saw an annoyingly precocious teen like myself, using phrases like "shockingly cavalier" when "relaxed" would do just fine. My peers and the rest of the world celebrated Juno’s weirdness, referencing her hamburger phones or quips like "peeing like Seabiscuit." When Juno was loved and cherished during and after her pregnancy, it made me feel like I deserved to be liked and seen as a full human being, even though I was once a pregnant teen.
Since Trump’s election, there’s been a persistent attack on access to reproductive healthcare, which greatly impacts teenagers seeking contraception and abortion. In a country where sexual education is far from comprehensive, young people are not only left without accessible reproductive health services and resources but also further stigmatized by a system that doesn’t prioritize their sexual health.
At least part of the reason it seems easy to dehumanize pregnant teenagers is because we’ve only seen shallow media representations of them. We’re surrounded by dehumanizing stereotypes like that of the "irresponsible party girl," which make it easier to support ideas that might harm them. In an era before MTV’s Teen Mom franchise, there were few if any humanizing portraits of pregnant teens on screen, and some, like Precious or Maria Full of Grace, were criticized for perpetuating stereotypes about poor, young, unmarried moms." Indeed, much of the criticism around Juno is that for a movie on teen pregnancy—which affects poor communities and teens of color the most—it only shows a sunny outcome for a white, straight, middle-class pregnant teen.
No single story could represent the experience of every pregnant teenager, but Juno could and should serve as a stepping stone to explore more of these stories as they relate to class, race, gender, and sexual identity. In an ideal world, the faceless girls in my Life Orientation case studies would come to life in stories written as tenderly as Juno’s.
Until then, Juno will remain one of the most relevant and important movies on teen pregnancy.