When I was 12 years old, my mother decided that I should watch Juno, the 2007 Oscar-nominated film about a suburban high schooler who accidentally gets pregnant after having sex with her best friend. This screening was, I presume, my mother’s idea of having the sex talk. And it was a terrible idea; the “talk” part of “sex talk” fell out of the question about 45 seconds after putting the disc into the DVD player, when my mother discovered that the pregnancy-inducing sex in question takes place in the very first scene of the movie. At which point my mother excused herself to prepare dinner.
So Juno, while a great movie, served as a shoddy excuse for sex education. Here are the things the film might teach a 12-year-old about sex: One, penis-in-vagina intercourse can lead to pregnancy. (This I already knew). Two, there is a market for boysenberry-flavored condoms.
But more importantly for the development of a 12-year-old already neurotic about all the havoc puberty was about to wreak on her body, Juno’s pregnancy is kind of terrifying. If this was my mother’s weird way of scaring me out of teenage pregnancy, she certainly succeeded in deterring me from ever wanting to be pregnant under any circumstances—a scheme so amazingly Japanese and so amazingly my mother that I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it.
When Juno goes to the abortion clinic, her classmate Su-Chin stops her in the parking lot to tell her that the embryo inside her has fingernails. A little bit later, Juno speculates to her baby’s adoptive parents that said embryo probably looks like a “sea monkey.” I watched Juno’s belly grow huger and huger as if someone was inflating a balloon in her stomach, creating an unspeakable and simultaneously unignorable protrusion under her striped T-shirt. Twelve-year-old me began to imagine Juno as a Gothic horror, some mutant scaly beast with huge claws ripping itself out of Juno’s torso.
This was, I think, influenced by my earlier viewing of the 1979 film Alien.
This is to say that sex is always a little bit horrific (and conversely, horror is always a little bit sexy—just look at Dracula, the mysterious count who sucks on the necks of virginal women). Sex makes appealing all these strange phenomena that would, in most other situations, feel disgusting—bodily fluids, weird noises, uncontrollable physical functions. So naturally, sex is a topic of discussion we tend to corale out of the quiet, more decent domain of civil discourse.
When I was a kid, my mother and I used to go to Japan every summer to see relatives. Sometimes on the train we’d sit across from men who were reading hentai manga (as one does). But what I found most odd wasn’t necessarily what these men were reading, but rather how aggressively my mother would avoid discussing what we could both plainly see. Which, retroactively, made the books weirder.
By a similar logic, my mother preferred to have me watch Juno by myself to equip me with material to navigate the tumultuous world of teenage sexuality. At the time, I thought that maybe this was her way of navigating that tricky first-generation terrain between Japanese and American, that watching an American film about American teenagers would be more productive. And to be fair, my decidedly American father didn’t feel any particular need to have this conversation with me, either.
I didn’t get pregnant, so I can’t say my mother failed entirely. In fact, in a lot of other ways, she introduced a really productive exercise.
Juno itself treats sexuality as an important and necessary, if uncomfortable, topic of conversation. Throughout the movie, Juno’s imminent baby forces her to discuss the topic of sex with her best friend/father of the child, her classmates, health-care workers, and her parents (who I suppose served as a proxy for my mother and me). In a sense, my mother and I had the sex talk without ever really having the sex talk, which frankly I’m OK with.
Watching Juno was also probably one of the most formative experiences in my journey to studying Gothic literature here at Columbia. While yes, 12-year-old me found Juno’s baby horrifying, 12-year-old me was also already a massive consumer of horror comics and movies. My mother, who I should mention works in a library, might have planned this. Juno helped me realize that what we find horrifying and difficult to look at is also what’s most important for us to discuss and confront. Narratives introduce us as readers or viewers to all kinds of ideologies and ways of living, and sexuality is inexorably a part of that project.
Of course, more than anything, I realized that you can get away with talking about sex as much as you want, as long as you have some kind of academic argument to make about a particular aspect or manifestation of it. Which, in my teenage mind hell-bent on arbitrary rebellions, was the coolest part.
When I went home for Christmas this year, my mother asked me about the classes I had taken the previous semester. I told her about the various Russian and Victorian English books I had read and explained how several of these novels attach artifacts of “the Orient” to associate certain characters with sexual deviancy. To which she nodded and replied, “I didn’t understand a word of what you just said.”