As the back of the DVD box accurately states, teenager Juno McGuff “takes a nine-month detour into adulthood” when she accidentally becomes pregnant. This detour forms an important, unusual part of her dialectical maturation through Erik Erikson’s adolescent stage. The crisis at this point in Erikson’s (1994) schema is the identity crisis, in which the individual is divided between the impulses of identity formation and role confusion. The notion of Juno’s pregnancy as a “detour” helps to understand how this episode initially disrupts the closure of her sense of self, the self that emerges out of the industry versus inferiority stage, but in a way that ultimately contributes to a new, more complex, more resilient, and more adult self.
Juno begins the film as a “normal” adolescent, though the course of the story’s development shows that there is no such thing as a normal adolescent—indeed, no norm against which persons of any age can be measured except the success with which they meet the formative crisis of their stage in life.
Juno shares many behaviors with her peers that identify her as normal, although probably the more important context for this attribution is the viewer’s notion of what constitutes female adolescence. Signifying adolescent normalcy, however, corresponds to the very difficulty of find the traces of Erikson’s stages since, as he writes, his theory deals with “the difficulty of establishing the nature and the position of something that is psycho and social” (Erikson, 1970, p. 731). For example, when Juno confirms her pregnancy and wants to share with someone she first calls her friend Leah, thus performing an identifiable ritual of the American teenager.
Even Juno’s supposedly quirky humburger phone functions to signify her imbrication in the discursive matrix of American adolescence, as it displays her need to assert her individuality through kitschy consumer goods that are rightly considered cheesy by the dominant culture. As Erikson (1970) writes, “Psychosocial identity, then, also has a psychohistorical side, and life histories are inextricably interwoven with history” (p. 732). Juno’s attempts to label herself as a deviant teenager conform to the techniques of a whole class of such rebels because they exist within a shared psychoshistorical range of action. All of Juno’s (and Juno’s) cutesy attempts to entrance the viewer with facile adolescent jive contribute to the mood of normal adolescence, a discursive insecurity that gestures toward sincerity and confidence but always recoils into shallow ironism. In this it represents Juno at the threshold of the adolescent crisis, and as such she is normal for a teenager. She has something of an identity, or a calm prevision of identity before the storm of crisis, in that this state is shared by all the students around her.
Once she becomes pregnant, however, Juno must confront the full brunt of the adolescent identity crisis. Just as uncommitted ironism is characteristic of the adolescent avoiding crisis, Juno’s pregnancy is highly personal and has real effects she cannot turn away from, like the individual identity crisis that every adolescent goes through. Research confirms that teenage mothers must go through an intensely personal crisis, emblematic or hyperbolic of the identity crisis, because many cultural forces have aligned themselves to police the body of the pregnant teen, offer competing advice, or merely pass judgments (Burdell, 1996). This transformation requires that she confront an experience outside of her comfort level, outside of what she has already mastered as a person. As she puts it at one point, she is “dealing with things way beyond [her] maturity level.” For example, Juno has to get an ultrasound and begin a vitamin regimen designed for pregnant mothers; both of these are experiences or changes in habit that are not typical for teenagers, but both also offer opportunities for Juno to solidify her sense of self in the face of these competing definitions of her body.
Research shows that teenage females with jobs can show an increase in depressed affect when they have to take on “responsibility for things outside one’s control” (Shanahan, 1991, p. 299). While any analogy between a job and pregnancy should be circumscribed and parsimonious, there does seem to be a similarity between responsibilities for things outside one’s control and Juno’s pregnancy. We might argue that one is always responsible for the act of conception, but this would largely miss the point of the film that pregnancy happens often by accident to even the best intentioned among us, and how we deal with this new responsibility is more important—especially in Erikson’s model—than trying to blame one or more parties for the pregnancy itself. Strikingly, however, pregnancy and responsibility do not seem to contribute much in terms of negative affect; Juno remains fairly upbeat throughout the film and, after her minor in-school spat with Bleeker, quickly apologizes and the two confess their mutual love. Juno becomes upset at points but the inevitable setbacks requisite for a narrative but does not enter into what could be called “depressed” affect by any means. Her ability to avoid falling into depression speaks to her success in navigating the identity crisis; serious prolonged mental illness would probably be interpreted by Erikson as it was by his fellow psychoanalysts as a sign of a failure to resolve a psychic conflict, or of a conflict that the person (patient) was unable to even confront. Juno, on the other hand, confronts her problems quite directly and successfully, turning a potential tragedy into a comedy: all of the characters get what they want out of a situation that no one originally wanted.
When Juno confesses her pregnancy to her father and step-mother, alternative routes to the adolescent identity crisis are obliquely posed. Juno comes to her parents in a penitent mood; they know something is wrong, that she has probably done something wrong. Though their hypotheses all miss the mark, they speak to the types of activities that can serve as catalysts for a person of Juno’s cultural background. Illegal activity (requiring lots of money and a lawyer, as her father puts it), experimentation with illegal drugs, drinking and driving, expulsion from school: all of these are already inscribed in the social fabric as tribulations for teenagers to struggle with and learn/earn an identity. The pre-existence of these ritual transgressions speaks to the expectation of some kind of transition in suburban American culture (and, generally, in American culture at large) to occur during the teenage years and for it to be occasioned by an event that is legible within the “adult” forms of discourse. Law, specifically, prepares a place for the adolescent to experience the price of transgression—stealing cars, stealing from cars, shoplifting, and of course use of illegal drugs—but, as long as the person is still younger than eighteen, they are within a penumbral legal state that grants them leniency. By suffering under the law, and suffering a lighter blow than if they were “really” adults, they learn the proper respect for the law requisite for an adult identity.
Juno, though, is in a situation for which the law has not entirely prepared a place. Or rather, there is a place in the law—she assures her stepmother that the family that will adopt her child has a good lawyer, and the myriad potential legal snags in adoption are never explored in the film—but the Eriksonian crisis here does not take place in the arena of law, as it does for criminal trespassers. Even after resolving the legal future of the fetus, Juno’s existential identity conflict remains largely untouched since she still must carry the baby to term, dealing with the hormonal and other bodily changes that are not typical of teenage girls. Her body is largely without law, at least as it is represented in the film, and so this example gives a better or more idealized version of the adolescent identity crisis in general than a more realistic (less stylized, less glib) rendition of the same story might. Juno’s adolescent transgression is less absorbed or contained by extant responses to teenage transgression and so more purely represents the identity conflict. For the criminal transgressor, there are already clearly defined roles available in a juridical narrative that is a commonplace in the American narrative imaginary.
Juno, on the other hand, experiences role confusion in itself because she does not have any clear sense of an alternative role with which she might masquerade. Her birth mother is abset from the film; her stepmother has been with her father ten years, most of Juno’s life, but probably also a short enough period that Juno has memories of life without her and knows that she isn’t her “real” mom. Juno says at one point that she is “not ready to be a mother.” The identity of the mother is not one with which she can see herself identifying, yet she carries with her all the time the mark that she is, in a biological sense, already a mother. Erikson’s point about identity crisis taking place at and across the dual planes of the psychosocial is well taken here: Subjectively and psychologically, Juno is not and does not want to be a mother; socially, she is somewhat ostracized for being a pregnant teen, but she is not a mother in the social sense of being the one who cares for the child (similar to the distinction that Vanessa makes about men becoming fathers when they see their child). On both of these planes of meaning, Juno rejects the identity of mother, but must continue under the duress of the biological and physical to find a balance between the senses in which she is and is not a mother.
Through the formative process of this crisis she comes to a resolution that is similar to Erikson’s hoped for human accomplishment of “mutuality.”
Erikson nonetheless holds out hope that through the insights of modern psychology the social ravages of individual identity formation may be checked. His remedy for pseudospeciation is at once personal and social and recurs throughout his writings under the term ‘mutuality.’… In every case, each party ‘activates’ the highest potentials in the other while drawing from the relationship an increased sense of stable selfhood. (Smith, 1976, p. 3)
Juno sees past the injuries she (and Bleeker) feel on severing their relationship to reconnect with him, just as she dissociates the advances of Mark (the potential adoptive father) from the genuine love that Vanessa feels toward Juno’s unborn child. The highest potentials of each of these characters is reached through Juno’s extension of mutuality and she reconciles the need to have a firm personal identity, that does not give in to the pressures of those around her, with the need for flexibility and imaginative adoption of the roles of others.
Erikson’s identity crisis stage, the adolescent stage, aptly describes the character conflict in the movie Juno. The title character must struggle between a rigid, brittle sense of identity and nebulous role confusion. She negotiates these poles to find the proper mix that allows her a new stage in the sense of self that improves her life and the lives of those around her.
Burdell, P. (1996). Teen mothers in high school: tracking their curriculum. Review of Research in Education, 21, 163-208.
Erikson, E. (1970). Autobiographic notes on the identity crisis.” Daedalus, 99, 730-759.
Erikson, E. (1994). Identity: youth and crisis. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Reitman, Jason. (Director). (2007). Juno (Motion picture). United States: Dancing Elk Productions.
Shanahan, M. J., Finch, M., Mortimer, J. T., Ryu, S. (1991). Adolescent work experience and depressive affect. Social Psychology Quarterly, 54, 299-317.
Smith, T. (1976). Social violence and conservative social psychology: the case of Erik Erikson. Journal of Peace Research, 13, 1-12.
Cite this Juno Film Review
Juno Film Review. (2016, Nov 06). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/juno-film-review/