Pop Culture Pregnancies, Teen Edition
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Teens getting pregnant: bad. Teens having babies: good. If this makes no sense to you, wake up and smell the Enfamil. It's 2008! The hot movie is Juno, a funnyquirkybittersweet indie about a pregnant high school hipster who gives her baby up for adoption. The hot celebrity is Jamie Lynn Spears, 16-year-old sister of Britney and star of Nickelodeon's Zoey 101, who's pregnant and having the baby because she wants to "do what's right." The teen birthrate, after falling for fourteen years, is up 3 percent, a phenomenon perhaps not unrelated to the fact that abstinence-only sex ed, although demonstrably ineffective at preventing sexual activity and linked to higher rates of unprotected sex, is the only sex ed taught in 35 percent of our schools. (Although maybe teens are having babies for the same reasons grown women are -- the birthrate for adults is up, too.)
Written by a woman, Diablo Cody, Juno has been called the woman's answer to Knocked Up, Judd Apatow's hugely successful tribute to accidental fatherhood. Apatow's men are sweet, wisecracking slackers, boys who just want to have fun -- porn, pot, fantasy baseball; the women are tightly wound taskmistresses, life's wet blankets. (I thought this dynamic was pretty obvious, but when Knocked Up star Katherine Heigl observed in Vanity Fair that the movie was "a little sexist," all hell broke loose. How ungrateful! Didn't she know actresses are supposed to be seen and not heard?) In Juno, the pregnant girl is the central figure, a witty oddball who drives all the action, beginning with the sex; neither the boy nor her father and stepmother, a well-meaning but rather oblivious pair, much affect her decisions. Thus, Juno goes for an abortion alone, without even telling her parents she's pregnant. In real life, this would most likely have been impossible, because nearly all states in the Midwest (where the movie is set) have parental notification or consent laws. But it's a big advance in realism over Knocked Up or Waitress, last year's other celebration of unplanned pregnancy as the key to getting your life together, neither of which so much as mentioned the A-word. Juno flees the clinic waiting room, grossed out by a punk receptionist who offers her some boysenberry-flavored condoms ("they make [my boyfriend's] junk smell like pie") and given pause by a pro-life protester classmate who tells her her fetus already has fingernails. She decides to give the baby to a deserving couple, and remarkably her parents go along with this.
Juno is a witty, moving but not sentimental film that made both women I saw it with cry. Juno herself is a prickly, winsome, complex and original person: she wears work shirts, plays the guitar and has a luminous intelligence and a pixielike nonsexy beauty, and that is a way young girls are almost never portrayed in films. Still, and maybe this is why I remained dry-eyed, I couldn't get over my sense that, hard as the movie worked to be a story about particular individuals, not a sermon, it was basically saying that for a high school junior to go through pregnancy and childbirth to give a baby to an infertile couple is both noble and cool, of a piece with loving indie rock and scorning cheerleaders; it's fetal fingernails versus boysenberry condoms. To its credit, the film doesn't demonize teen sex; still, a teen who saw this movie would definitely feel like a moral failure for choosing abortion. Do we really want young girls to feel like they have to play babysanta? The mother in me winced at Juno, that wisp of a child-woman, going through the ordeal of pregnancy and childbirth.
Juno is sensible enough to realize she's just a kid and makes the choice that not long ago was forced on middle-class white girls. These days, 29 percent of pregnant teens have abortions; 14 percent miscarry; of the 57 percent who carry to term, less than 1 percent give up the baby. Paradoxically, the women's movement destigmatized single motherhood and thus helped make a world in which some of the old justifications for abortion no longer seem so forceful. Now it's abortion that is a badge of shame and "irresponsibility."
But feminists aren't the only ones over a barrel here. It has been amusing watching the anti-choicers squirm as they laud Jamie Lynn Spears's "life-affirming decision" to add a new member to pop culture's most notoriously dysfunctional family. Even Mike Huckabee -- the candidate who protested that he was too busy to keep up with the NIE report on Iran's nuclear program -- called it a "tragedy" before adding, "Apparently, she's going to have the child, and I think that is the right decision, a good decision, and I respect that and appreciate it." Off the campaign trail, Jamie Lynn has been getting a royal slut-shaming: a football player could probably have killed someone and gotten less criticism -- as long as he didn't kill a baby, that is. Especially a really cute one. Or a dog. Even the New York Times ran a front-page story about how "disappointed" are the parents of the young girls who adore Zoey 101. As if it's unusual for 16-year-olds to have sex. Maybe if so many parents didn't have the idiotic idea that "perfect" girls like Zoey actually exist, they would talk to their daughters about birth control instead of assuming, as Jamie Lynn's mother did, that Jamie was "conscientious" because she always met her curfew. Mama Spears's parenting book has been put on hold, reportedly replaced by a million-dollar baby-photo deal made by Jamie Lynn.
Just to bring the whole reproductive carnival full circle, Florida's "Choose Life" license plates, of which more than 40,000 have been sold, have raised more than $4 million for low-income single moms. But there's a catch: only women who choose adoption qualify. A woman who wants to keep her baby can just go starve in hell. Since only a handful of women want to give away their babies -- even among pregnant women who plan on adoption, 35 percent change their mind once the baby is born -- the money is just sitting there. Maybe someone, someday will make a movie about that.
Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation.