Juno, a spec script by a then-relatively unknown writer Diablo Cody, quickly became a 2007 breakout hit, winning the Academy Award, BAFTA and Writers Guild of America Awards for best original screenplay, along with Oscar nominations for the film and a then 20-year -old Elliot Page, who played the titular character.
It’s been 15 years since the film was first released, but it remains a part of the zeitgeist, straddling a now-particularly poignant cross-section of culture and politics as conversations swirl around the ethics of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which for 49 years ensured a birthing person’s right to choose to keep a pregnancy, or terminate one via abortion.
In the Juno, the teen protagonist navigates an unplanned pregnancy and considers the option of abortion, but ultimately decides to carry full-term and put her baby up for adoption. Over the years, the film has had vocal supporters and detractors who view the movie differently based on its treatment of reproductive justice themes. In light of this, Cody spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about what her intentions were when writing the film more than 15 years ago, and reflects on how it stands up in today’s high-stakes cultural context.
When you were writing the script for Juno, do you recall how people were talking about abortion and abortion rights?
I wrote the movie in 2005, which is 17 years ago. The film is officially older than the protagonist, which is crazy to contemplate. When I look back on that time of writing the script, I feel wistful, because at the time it never occurred to me that my reproductive rights could be in danger. If somebody had said to me at the time – as a carefree, younger, third-wave feminist – that in 2022, Roe v. Wade would be overturned, I would have been horrified and I would have assumed we were hurtling toward some kind of inconceivable dystopia, and maybe I would have been right. But at the time, it just seemed impossible. I took Roe for granted, and many of us did. I was just creating; I never intended the movie as any kind of political statement at all. I can’t imagine being that innocent again.
What inspired you to tell the story of Juno, a coming-of-age story where the protagonist’s growth is charted through the decision to almost terminate an unplanned pregnancy, but then choosing to carry it out full term? Had you seen this done before, or did it feel like you were adding something new to the landscape film at the time?
I think the primary relationship that I was interested in exploring in the movie was the relationship between Juno [played by Elliot Page] and both adoptive parents, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman’s characters. I thought that seemed like a fascinating dynamic that I hadn’t seen represented on screen before. In terms of the pregnancy itself kind of driving the plot, I remember [director] Jason Reitman described the pregnancy as a “location” and I thought that was interesting. It was more of a setting.
The whole choice aspect of it, as crazy as it sounds now, was not something that weighed heavily on me. I just thought: How do I get this character into a living room with this couple who wants to adopt her baby? Because I wanted to write that scene. And so everything that I did leading up to that point was in the service of that story. I wasn’t really thinking about anything else. And to be honest, I thought I was writing a sample; I was trying to get my foot in the door in Hollywood. It didn’t occur to me that the script was going to be produced; I wrote most of it while I was temping in Eden Prairie, Minnesota during my lunch hour. So I certainly wasn’t thinking about it as this impactful opus that I’d be discussing 17 years later, that’s for sure.
What was your experience like working to get this movie produced? Did you have any pushback in Hollywood, particularly given the theme? Did anyone read it as potentially too polarizing, or political?
Not at all, because it was a very low risk movie. There was not a lot of money at stake. And at the time, there was a real appetite in the script marketplace for these quirky, indie movies. It was the era of Little Miss Sunshine and Napoleon Dynamite. I don’t think a movie like Juno would get a theatrical release today. But at the time, people were still taking chances on stories like that. I don’t remember anybody worrying that it was provocative or anything like that.
Juno was a critical and commercial success at the box office, and it sparked debate: Some praised it as a feminist film, and others criticized it as anti-choice. Were you aware of the public dialogue around the film in 2007? And in the years since, have you been involved in the discourse surrounding its treatment of abortion?
I didn’t have a lot of clarity at the time because I had been thrust into this surreal reality of being a public figure overnight, which was not something that I had anticipated happening. It was honestly traumatic – and my head was so far up my own ass – that I wasn’t super cognizant of any of the cultural dialogue surrounding the movie. It’s very strange to just be a writer and assume you’re going to have that anonymity forever, and then they’re making fun of you on Saturday Night Live.
I’ve stayed out of the discourse. That whole experience, which is ancient history now, made me very protective of myself. I’ve really been underground for a while – I don’t comment on my own movies very often – but I am emphatically pro-choice and have been my entire life. And it is important for me to make that clear. But, you know, I can understand why people would misunderstand the movie. Looking back at it, I can see how it could be perceived as anti-choice. And that horrifies me.
Back in 2008, I got a letter from some administrator at my Catholic high school thanking me for writing a movie that was in line with the school’s values. And I was like: What have I done? My objective as an artist is to be a traitor to that culture, not to uplift it.
What were some challenges you encountered when writing about unplanned pregnancy and adoption? Did you have to do some reporting to figure out how to make the story authentic?
I was fully writing from my gut at that time, which may be regrettable. Now I have children, and I’ve been through some of those experiences, so I think I could probably bring a lot more to a story like that. But I did talk to some people.
Interestingly, the strongest criticism that I’ve seen of the film from Gen Z on social media has nothing to do with the abortion storyline, it’s actually a pretty lively debate around the ethics of private adoption. Most teenage birthing people don’t have a story like Juno where they have tons of family support and, you know, Allison Janney [Juno’s stepmother in the film] has their back. They don’t have the option of parenting their baby even if they want to, so a lot of them feel coerced. That’s a debate that I’ve seen on TikTok, and I think it’s a very worthy conversation to have.
Sometimes people cite the scene of Juno going to the clinic and there being an anti-abortion sign out front as anti-choice because that’s what helps shift her decision to continue the pregnancy and agree to a closed adoption. But on the other hand, maybe that can be read as realistic. Are there any parts of the film you’d redo or rethink 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 when you consider the fact that I had been bombarded with gory, misleading anti-abortion propaganda at school. And I think that’s reflected in the movie: She goes to the abortion clinic, she kind of chickens out (which is something that I would have realistically done at that age, especially given all the religious trauma I was processing at the time). I’m not scared of abortion anymore; I’ve had one now. And it was a hell of a lot less scarier than giving birth. But the movie is a reflection of how I felt as a young woman.
I think maybe why I felt inspired to use the pregnancy as a location, so to speak, is because it is just this metamorphosis. It felt like an appropriate metaphor for coming of age, so I have no regrets about writing the movie. I do think it’s important that I continue to clarify my feelings about it because the last thing I would ever want is for someone to interpret the movie as anti-choice. That is a huge paranoia of mine.
I’ve never really thought about revisiting the film – it kind of feels like something that should stay preserved in amber. But I would rather have this account be out there than [my] silence being misinterpreted.
Gender inclusive language has recently come up as a debate in the abortion rights conversation, and it struck me how profound it is that Elliot Page played the pregnant protagonist in Juno. I think that is actually a really powerful connection to today’s discussions surrounding queer visibility in the reproductive justice movement.
I’m absolutely in favor of inclusive language. And I think it’s cool to reconsider Juno through a queer lens, knowing now that the lead actor is a trans man. Obviously, at the time, I didn’t know that. So I can’t take any credit for a radical reimagining of teen pregnancy. But I do think it’s a cool conversation. And I’m happy for us to have that representation, even retroactively.