Sex & the Teenage Girl
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead February 11, 2008 - 10:27am
There’s a classic story of teen pregnancy, told in books, movies, and teen magazines over the past century. It goes something like this: a young girl falls in love for the first time, and, under the spell of first love, she “goes all the way” in the back seat of a car. When she finds herself pregnant, she faces the terrifying ordeal of telling her sure-to-be-angry parents and her likely-to-be-panicked boyfriend.
According to this cautionary tale, teenage love is perilous because young teens are innocent of the power and potential of sex. A girl gets into trouble because she lacks the knowledge and skills to manage her sexuality and to avoid pregnancy. And she is innocent because parents, teachers, and religious leaders have kept her in the dark.
The classic story has done much to inspire a decades-long effort to teach young teens about sex, contraception, and pregnancy prevention. Despite irreconcilable differences in philosophy, abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education are both rooted in the sexual enlightenment model. Both assume that the problem of “babies having babies” has been driven by a lack of knowledge, skills, and frank talk about sex.
But what happens when a teenage girl comes of age in today’s more sexually enlightened age? What if the pregnant teen is schooled in the management of sex but innocent of the mysteries of love? This is the premise for this year’s captivating hit movie Juno.
The title character, sixteen-year-old Juno, is a tomboy who looks more like a twelve-year-old. She’s socially backward as well. She isn’t into girly stuff or boys. She’s never even been kissed. Her greatest passion is for music and hanging out with the guys in her band. So when she has sex for the first time, it isn’t because she is in love. It’s because she is bored. One summer afternoon, when there is nothing good on TV, she has buddy sex in a Barcalounger with Paulie Bleecker, her best guy friend. The encounter is friendly and tangy—Paulie is chewing orange Tic-Tacs—but it is not love.
Though innocent of love, Juno is hip to the lessons taught in sex education class. She knows how to put a condom on a banana. Likewise, she has mastered the ways that a girl goes about managing a “problem pregnancy.” She knows how to use a home pregnancy test kit; she knows where to shop for an abortion clinic; and, rejecting the abortion option, she knows where to find a “baby starved” yuppie couple to adopt her newborn.
Much of the originality and charm of the movie comes from its depiction of a new kind of pregnant teen. Juno isn’t the desperate and shamed teen in the classic story. She’s a girl geek with a baby bump. She treats her pregnancy as if it were an adolescent outbreak of acne: she is waiting for it to clear up and go away. As she tells her best friend, she wants “to have the thing, squeeze it out, and hand it over” to the adoptive couple.
But Juno’s flippant attitude toward her pregnancy masks her real struggle. She is looking for love. Juno is named after Zeus’s wife—the god, she jokes, who had tons of lays but only one wife. But her early experience of love has been disappointing. Her mother walked out on the family when Juno was a little kid. Her stepmother is hard to get along with. Her pregnancy cheats her of other kinds of love. She has little maternal feeling and, most heart-wrenching of all, she loses faith in the possibility of married love. Before her child is born, she learns that her baby’s future mother and father—the couple she has chosen as the perfect parents for her baby—are getting a divorce. Stunned, saddened, she asks her dad: “Can two people stay together for good? I need to know that it’s possible for two people to stay together and be happy.” “The best you can do,” her dad responds, “is to find a person who loves you for exactly who you are.”
Juno eventually finds love, but it has nothing to do with her precocious initiation into the experience of sex, pregnancy, and childbirth. She finds love in the traditional way of young teens. After she hears that Paulie is taking another girl to the prom, she has a twinge of jealousy. It’s a new feeling for her, but it makes her realize that she is in love with Paulie. When she tells him so, he shyly kisses her. Thus, the movie turns the classic pregnant-teen story on its head: Juno’s story begins with comradely sex and ends, like most romantic comedies, with a first kiss.
It is never a good idea to try to turn a movie script into a sociological treatise. But without straying too far beyond art and into science, I think it’s fair to say that Juno contains some deep insights into what has changed and what has remained the same in the story of teenage relationships. What has changed is teenagers’ earlier initiation into knowledge and experience of sex. What remains the same is the search for romantic love. With great humor and humanity, the film suggests that among all the things teens need in order to grow up the most important is the experience of tender first love.
Related: Rand Richards Cooper's review of Juno
About the Author
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture (Knopf), directs the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values.