Knocked Up, Juno, and the Costs of Conformity

At the end of Meghan O’Rourke’s essay on Knocked Up, she casts Juno in a favorable light.

The best moments in Knocked Up are those that suggest the world doesn’t have to be this way—that of course women can possess playful inner lives too. There aren’t quite enough of them. You leave feeling that what poor Debbie—and Alison—really wants is not a husband who knows to bring home pink cupcakes for a birthday party, but a culture that grants them the same indulgent latitude their partners get: the luxury of not having to be relentlessly responsible. Slacker, starring a woman. Barring that, of course, there’s Juno, the story of a knocked-up girl from her own irreverent perspective—written, as it happens, by a female scriptwriter—now playing in a theater near you.

The truth is, I suspect, simpler than that. Juno, an excellent movie, is about a non-conformist. Debbie and Alison, the principal female characters in Knocked Up, are conformists. I should stress that there is nothing wrong with conformism. Non-conformists are, of course, a source of creativity and excitement. But flourishing civilizations exist because most of us follow a broad set of social rules most of the time. The demands of child-rearing cut sharply against the footloose, fancy-free existence of the non-conformist. Of course there are small minorities who unschool their children, and who live off the grid. Others selectively embrace those parts of the bohemian ethos that are most compatible with bourgeois success, and they tend to present themselves as non-conformists, though of course they tend to be exactly the opposite.

As for Juno MacGuff’s winning non-conformist, note that tt is relatively easy to be a non-conformist at age 16, particularly when you are, like Juno, well-loved by parents and friends. To be sure, becoming pregnant introduced all kinds of complications. But because Juno was committed to having her child and giving the child up for adoption, there was no pressure to conform for the sake of creating some kind of stable family life. But what if she were 26? Granted, she could at that age spurn Paulie Bleeker and head to the wilds of Alaska where she’d survive in an abandoned VW bus. Or, less dramatically, she could try to make her own non-conformist way in the world, with a baby at her hip as she played hacky sack and smoked the doob with her cronies. That would be wry and amusing and creative and playful. But one suspects that the imperatives of caring for a small child would induce Juno and Paulie alike into some kind of conformity, which is to say into some kind of tragic and difficult choices.

It is true that one can lead a creative and playful life while also raising a brood of small children, but this requires a lot of sacrifices or a lot of outsourcing of household production. That is, creativity and playfulness is a kind of luxury, which is one of the many sad things about our incomplete transition to an economics of abundance. That’s why I’m so obsessed with the future and with the idea of democratizing play and creativity. I think of it as moving from a joyless to a joyful economy, to put it as cheesily as possible. But we haven’t reached that point, and having children continues to represent an important and valuable sacrifice.

By that I mean, flatly, that my mother would have led a far more interesting life had my sisters and I never been born: for one thing, she would have pursued the education she deserved. The same goes for my father, to a lesser extent. Moreover, I don’t doubt that my father and possibly one of my sisters would have died had it not been for the extraordinary, perhaps unreasonable sacrifices my mother made on their behalf. And rest assured that she is not a conformist by nature. Maybe she ought to have slacked off and let us fend for ourselves. I frankly think she never should’ve gotten married, certainly not at 21. Obviously this is hard to say: I’m glad I’m alive, and my mother is, as cloying and teeth-gnashing as this likely sounds, the person I respect and admire and crave the approval of most. This, incidentally, is the biographical reason I believe we ought to have some kind of G.I. Bill for primary caregivers, and it’s why I am in deep sympathy with certain strains of feminism.

But the fact remains that these are the real and wrenching choices a lot of women, particularly working-class and immigrant women, face. More affluent women face them to a lesser extent. Pretending otherwise is to propagandize for procreation! I for one am not in the pocket of the Maclaren empire. Keep in mind that I’m saying this as someone who sympathizes with pro-natalism: even I won’t tell women and men that they can still be beatnik hepcats while raising children. The grups who attempt to do so, again, are insulated by a layer of money and family support that few people can reasonably expect.

So of course people like me who expect to lead creative and playful lives react against the notion that having children will make us defensive, anxiety-ridden, and perhaps even humorless at times. But chances are we will.

My own solution, if it ever comes to that, will involve unschooling and getting as far away from the achievementocracy as possible. The solution to any false choice is to pick up stakes. But this means resigning yourself to the knowledge that children can’t be happy and built for professional success at the same time.

I’d like to add that Olivia Thirlby will soon become one of the most celebrated actors in America.