Juno, a special screenplay by then-relatively unknown author Diablo Cody, quickly became a hit in 2007, winning the Oscar, BAFTA and Writers Guild of America Awards for Best Original Screenplay, as well as Oscar nominations for the film and a then 20-year-old film – old Elliot Page, who played the title character.
It’s been 15 years since the film’s initial release, but it remains part of the zeitgeist, spanning a cross section of culture and politics that is particularly poignant today, as talks center around the ethics of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn the film Roe v. Calf, which guaranteed for 49 years the right of a woman giving birth to have a pregnancy or to terminate it by abortion.
in the Juno, The teenage protagonist navigates an unplanned pregnancy and considers the option of an abortion, but ultimately decides to go full-time and put her baby up for adoption. Over the years, the film has had vocal supporters and critics who view the film differently due to its treatment of reproductive justice issues. With that in mind, Cody spoke up The Hollywood Reporter about what her intentions were when she wrote the film more than 15 years ago and reflects on how it holds up in today’s high-level cultural context.
When you wrote the screenplay for Juno, Remember how people talked about abortion and abortion rights?
I wrote the film in 2005, so 17 years ago. The movie officially predates the protagonist, which is crazy to think about. When I look back at the time I was writing the screenplay, I feel nostalgia because at the time it never occurred to me that my reproductive rights might be in jeopardy. If someone had told me then – as a carefree, younger, third-wave feminist – that in 2022, Roe v. calf I would have fainted, I would have been horrified and assumed we were headed for some unimaginable dystopia, and maybe I would have been right. But at the time it just seemed impossible. I took roe of course, and many of us did. I just created something; I never intended the film to be a political statement. I can’t imagine being that innocent again.
What inspired you to tell the story of? Juno, a coming-of-age tale in which the protagonist’s growth is marked by the decision to almost terminate an unplanned pregnancy, but then chooses to carry it to term? Had you seen this before, or did you feel you were adding something new to the film landscape at the time?
I think the primary relationship I wanted to explore in the film was Juno’s relationship [played by Elliot Page] and the two adoptive parents, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman’s characters. I thought that seemed like an intriguing dynamic that I had never seen on screen before. In terms of the pregnancy itself driving the plot, I remember [director] Jason Reitman described the pregnancy as a “place,” and I found that interesting. It was more of an attitude.
The whole aspect of selection, as crazy as it may sound now, wasn’t something that weighed heavily on me. I just thought: How do I get this character in a living room with this couple who want to adopt their baby? Because I wanted to write that scene. And everything I’ve done up to this point has served that story. I didn’t really think of anything else. And to be honest, I thought I’d write a rehearsal; I was trying to get my foot in the door in Hollywood. It didn’t occur to me that the script would be produced; I wrote most of this during my lunch break in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. So I certainly didn’t consider it this impressive work that I would be talking about 17 years later, that’s for sure.
How was your experience working on the production of this film? Have you had any setbacks in Hollywood, especially given the subject matter? Has anyone read it as possibly being too polarizing or political?
Not at all, because it was a very low-risk film. There wasn’t much money at stake. And at that time there was a real appetite in the script market for these quirky indie films. It was the era of Little Miss Sunshine and Napoleon dynamite. I don’t think a movie like that Juno would get a theatrical release today. But back then, people still took risks with stories like that. I can’t remember anyone worrying that it was provocative or anything.
Juno was a critical and commercial success at the box office, sparking debate: some praised it as a feminist film, others criticized it it as an anti-choice. Were you aware of the public dialogue surrounding the film in 2007? And in the years since, have you engaged in the discourse on the treatment of abortion?
I didn’t have much clarity at the time because overnight I had been thrust into this surreal reality of being a public figure, which wasn’t something I anticipated. It was honestly traumatic – and my head was so far up my own ass – that I wasn’t particularly aware of the cultural dialogue surrounding the film. It’s very weird just being a writer and assuming you’re going to have that anonymity forever and then they make fun of you Saturday night live.
I stayed out of the discourse. This whole experience, which is now ancient history, made me very protective. I’ve really been underground for a while – I don’t comment on my own films very often – but I’m staunchly pro-choice and have been all my life. And it’s important to me to make that clear. But you know, I can understand why people would misunderstand the film. Looking back at it, I can see how it might be perceived as anti-choice. And that appalls me.
In 2008, I received a letter from an administrator at my Catholic high school thanking me for writing a film that reflected the school’s values. And then I like this: What have I done? My goal as an artist is to be a traitor to this culture, not uplift it.
What challenges have you encountered while writing about unplanned pregnancy and adoption? Did you have to do some reports to figure out how to make the story authentic?
At that time I wrote completely from the gut, which may be unfortunate. Now I have kids, and I’ve had some of those experiences, so I think I could probably bring a lot more to a story like this. But I’ve talked to a few people.
Interestingly, the strongest criticism I’ve seen of the Gen Z film on social media has nothing to do with the abortion story, it’s actually a pretty lively debate on the ethics of private adoption. Most teenage midwives don’t have a history like Juno, where they have loads of family support and, you know, Allison Janney [Juno’s stepmother in the film] has her back. They don’t have the opportunity to raise their baby even if they want to, so many of them feel compelled. This is a debate I’ve seen on TikTok and I think it’s a very valuable conversation.
Sometimes people cite the scene where Juno walks into the clinic with an anti-abortion sign out front as anti-choice because it helps delay her decision to continue with the pregnancy and agree to a closed adoption. But on the other hand, you can perhaps read that as realistic. Are there parts of the film that you would repeat or reconsider in hindsight?
Well, that’s the thing, when I was a teenager I was squeamish about the physical reality of the abortion procedure. I thought it sounded scary, which is not surprising considering I was bombarded with bloody, misleading, anti-abortion propaganda at school. And I think that reflects in the film: she goes to the abortion clinic, she kind of freaks out (which I realistically would have done at that age, especially given all the religious trauma I was processing at the time). I’m no longer afraid of abortion; I have one now. And it was a hell of a lot less scary than childbirth. But the film reflects how I felt as a young woman.
I think maybe I felt inspired to use pregnancy as a place, so to speak, because it’s that metamorphosis. It felt like an appropriate coming-of-age metaphor, so I don’t regret writing the film. I think it’s important that I continue to get my feelings straight about this because the last thing I would ever want is for anyone to interpret the film as anti-choice. That’s huge paranoia on my part.
I’ve never really thought about seeing the film again – it kind of feels like something that should be kept in amber. But I’d rather have that account out there than [my] Silence is misinterpreted.
Gender language has recently become a debate in abortion rights discussions, and it struck me how deeply Elliot Page plays the pregnant protagonist Juno. I think that’s actually a really strong connection to today’s discussions about the visibility of queer in the reproductive justice movement.
I’m all for an inclusive language. And I think it’s cool to reconsider Juno through a queer lens, knowing that the main character is a trans man. Of course I didn’t know that at the time. So I can’t give credit for a radical reinterpretation of teenage pregnancy. But I think it’s a cool conversation. And I am pleased that we have this representation, even retrospectively.