Juno (2007) in Retrospective
Put on your Neutral Milk Hotel record, poser, and let us journey together to the near past, where the word “lumbersexual” was somehow in popular language.
Recently, at a show that reunited a couple of Atlanta bands who had last performed together circa 2008, I had an epiphany that Juno, Diablo Cody’s hyper-quirky, sardonic teen-pregnancy flick which debuted in December of 2007, is now over ten years old. As far as I’m concerned, this realization marked Juno old enough for nostalgia, firmly solidified into a bygone time, a simpler time. Juno is one of the most vernacular films of the “indie” and DIY-crazed late 2000s, epitomizing an era when the obscure became more accessible through Pitchfork and iTunes, when personal identity became defined by one’s carefully curated selection of interesting things, when the hyper-produced faux-luxury mainstream pop of the post-9/11 early 2000s was largely shunned.
Juno and the related products of DIY aestheticism very quickly lend themselves to nostalgia, for they are inherently born into nostalgia, referencing the fashion and analog technologies of the 70s and 80s. For a pretty penny, stores like Urban Outfitters sold lomography film cameras, record players, snarky raglan t-shirts, fake mustache kitsch, and keffiyehs. As the smartphone rose in power, the hipster turned to more tangible technologies, which were vulnerable to flaws and therefore uniqueness, as a way of asserting control over uniformity. The capitalized vintage mimicry of Urban Outfitters was a counterpart to the rise of thrifting and curated vintage garments available on eBay. Radicalism (or rather, pseudo-solidarity) and counter-cultural appearance could be bought for $39.99. As the joke goes, the rejection of the mainstream became mainstream, and the idealistic individualism of early adopters of punk-inspired counter-culture became a monolith of the pejorative hipster embodied by symbols such as PBR, the bicycle, and flannel.
Re-watching Juno a decade on is a jarring trip down memory lane, illuminated by the conventions of today. I was struck by how, in spite of the crush on Ellen Page I shared with so many girls coming into their sexuality, I was oblivious to her dykish cues, so obvious from her walk alone. A great many references were lost on my thoroughly uncool fourteen-year-old self: I had no idea who Iggy Pop or The Stooges were, let alone my girl Patti Smith. The sinister washed up yuppie/potential adoptive father of Juno McGuff’s baby was so into the Melvins, which I found to be a great way to solidify his overall douchebag creep vibe. Now that I am aware of the scandal surrounding Woody Allen and the Farrow kids, a exclamation by Juno’s Lolita-esque best friend to her much older teacher that she loves Woody Allen took on new dark humor. Where I once found Juno’s precocious and in-the-know quips to be witty and emulatable, to my current ears they read as obnoxious and try-hard, a cool-headed mask for buried emotion. Also striking to my current eyes is the near total lack of any people of color, with the exception of Vijay, one of Bleecker’s track teammates, and Su-Chin, a girl protesting outside an abortion clinic. Combined, these two characters contribute about five lines of dialogue in the script.
Perhaps the element I was most oblivious to as a teen was the class dynamics as they relate to the cultural capital of taste. In my 2008 viewing of the film, Mark and Vanessa’s yuppie Pottery Barn home read as bland and void of personality, the exact opposite of the McGuff’s stuffy, kitschy home. The phrases “working class” and “petit bourgeois” were not in my vocabulary at the time. One scene in particular, Juno and her HVAC repairman dad’s introduction to Mark and Vanessa’s pristine mode of life, sticks out as a jarring intermingling of working class people who just don’t belong among beige and J. Crew. Vanessa explains to Juno and dad that she feels she is meant to be a mother, to which Juno’s dad replies that he is meant to do HVAC. Vanessa and Mark embody a world of distance, estranged from each other emotionally, seemingly by the void of upper middle class luxuries (aside from, ya know, Mark being absolute manchild trash). Conversely, the McGuffs are extraordinarily supportive of Juno, tight-knit in solidarity: Bren, Juno’s stepmother, jumps to her defense when an ultrasound technician implies that Juno would make an incapable mother on account of age and class.
I would be remiss to consider Juno and its associated culture of nostalgia, DIY, and obscure coolness without considering the time that preceded it. The early 2000s saw a reintroduction of Republicans to the White House, followed by 9/11 and the “war on terror”, accompanied by an uprising of tacky McMansions and blingy fashion. Pop culture nihilistically relished in pseudo-luxury, embraced its rhinestone-studded apathy to its own imperialism. Only briefly before Juno’s release in 2007 came the housing crisis, followed by the 2008 financial crisis, The Great Recession, and the election of Barack Obama. Accompanied by a rise in accessible technology that favored individual curation of taste and exchange of handmade goods, a shift in cultural power occurred. Juno declared to a family-friendly suburban audience the absolute uncoolness of upper-middle-class wealth and taste: the new purveyors of taste are the weird girls and they strum their quirks to the tune of their ukuleles.
In looking into Juno and the culture on the cusp of Obama’s election, I came across this brilliant 2010 New York Times article by Mark Greif, author of The Age of the Crisis of Man, titled “The Hipster in the Mirror”, which considered the hipster phenomenon in context of the social theory contained in Pierre Bourdieu’s 1978 text Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Based on Bourdieu’s discovery that “the things you prefer... correspond tightly to defining measures of social class” and “taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition”, Greif draws conclusions about the leveraging of taste and the controversial word “hipster” that occurred in the late 2000s. In the article, Greif writes that more affluent camps of hipsters “look down on the couch-surfing, old-clothes-wearing hipsters who seem most authentic but are also often the most socially precarious — the lower-middle-class young, moving up through style, but with no backstop of parental culture or family capital… Only on the basis of their cool clothes can they be “superior”: hipster knowledge compensates for economic immobility.” Here Juno sits on a thrown out living room set, holding a pipe, brazen in her individualism and disrupting a cultural taste for luxury.
The individualism that constitutes the basis for the cultural trends in hipsterdom inevitably undid itself, for to be looped in with a collective identity was to be deprived of individual identity. The authenticity-centric mode of thinking which characterized that time was largely a reclamation of cultural power from the possessors of capital and pop trends, yet in hindsight, it seems also a last ditch effort at retaining notions of individuality before identity blurred into the giant phone book and political control seemed to be manipulated in an algorithm. By the time the word “hipster” came into popular coinage, it had already gained connotations of hivemind. To be a hipster was to be a cliché, to be oblivious to one’s own wealth, to be found out--the word played at your fundamental insecurities that you were not authentic, deprived you of your precious autonomy. If you think the controversy around the term “hipster” is not still ongoing, consider that any mention of the word “hipster” nowadays immediately indicates that the person who used it is thoroughly suburban and behind the times and is probably also your aunt.
It is precisely because I have lived through the age of the hipster, that my immediate reaction to many of Diablo Cody’s wordplay and kitsch is a knowing cringe. I look back at my own coming-of-age story, in which I embraced quirkiness like it was the only character trait I had (was it?) In many ways, rewatching Juno, I still envy her for the coolness that evaded me--she, so effortless, having experiences so foreign to me at fifteen. I, so studied, borrowing individualism from any source external to me (mostly NYLON magazine, which was way cooler in 2008 tbh). Juno had this carefree cool that allowed her to navigate various spheres as if she owned them, or were always outside of them. On the high school stage, quirkiness was a way for the individual to become exempted from popularity structure, in a way.
On the political stage, however, liberal individualism began to isolate itself from its own mass, undermining what collective power was necessary for political control. It was a time of poster-sized HOPE where it seemed possible to change the political scheme using the existing voting structure: that perhaps, in seizing the cultural capital of “cool”, the financial capital and politics would follow. Yet, a decade on, the result is that cultural capital is held almost entirely by the people who lack the ability of the right to effectively organize and the financial capital and political power to influence the imbalance of control. Unfortunately, aesthetics can’t alter the class structure alone.