Vanessa Loring: Pathetic or Plausible? A Matter of Perception

Juno meets Vanessa and Mark Loring
This guest post by Talia Liben Yarmush previously appeared at The Accidental Typist and is cross-posted with permission. It appears as part of our theme week on Infertility, Miscarriage, and Infant Loss

The first few times that I saw Juno, I was unaware of any of my fertility problems. It wasn’t until April 2010, in between IVF cycles and laparoscopies, that I re-watched the film with some friends, and I viewed it through a new lens. It is a strange phenomenon how a changed circumstance in life can create an entirely different vision of the world. Or, more simply, of a film. The obvious themes of teen pregnancy – the ease and cavalier nature of it, so unplanned, so unexpected, so unwanted – resonated with me again while re-watching Juno. But I felt oddly that the characters were treated with respect. It was acknowledged that however intelligent a typical teenaged girl thinks she is; however witty and wise; however smart-assed and independent; she is never quite as smart as she thinks she is. There is still a big world, and she’s just one small person. And in this movie, at least the title character is wise enough to know that while she may not be ready to be a mother, there are those out there who would suffer unimaginable things to trade positions with her. 

What really hit me was Jennifer Garner’s character, Vanessa. In past viewings of the movie, the hopeful adoptive mother seemed somewhat desperate. Her overly enthusiastic smile. The fact that Juno’s snarky remarks would fly past her with barely any recognition. Her obsessive questioning and controlling perfectionism. When saying goodbye after meeting for the first time, Vanessa asks Juno how likely she is to go through with the adoption, and Juno says, nonchalantly, that she is going to do it. “How sure would you say you are? Like, would you say you’re 80% sure, or 90% sure?” Vanessa pushes. She was more than desperate, really. She was pathetic. She seemed to be written for the purpose of added comic relief. But as my friends laughed at her on screen, I felt sad, and angry. Maybe she is desperate, but anyone who has even considered adoption knows that it goes wrong far more often than it goes right. That Vanessa’s pushing wasn’t pathetic, but rather telling the story of a woman who had already been hurt so much. And wouldn’t you be desperate if you dreamed of being a mother your whole life, and then after trying for years to conceive were finally told that it was an impossibility? If you came so close to adopting a child, only for the birth mother to change her mind? 
Vanessa touches Juno’s stomach
Earlier in the same scene, when Juno first meets Vanessa, Juno expresses that she’s concerned about when she will have to add elastics to her pants. Vanessa says, “I think pregnancy is beautiful.” And Juno responds, “You’re lucky it’s not you.” And I twinged right along with Vanessa. I knew exactly how she felt – we would take elastic pants for the rest of our lives in exchange for that pregnancy. I knew completely this character and suddenly wondered if she was written to be laughed at, or if the writer too had a deep understanding of the heartbreak of infertility. This character was written beautifully – because she was real. Perhaps she was written so the audience would have these two vastly different interpretations. One for those who don’t understand, and one for those who do. 
Well, that last time around, I felt her heartbreak. I knew what it was like to alter my personality in an attempt to deal with my new reality. To dream and have those dreams crushed. But to keep on dreaming anyway. I understood. I only wish my pre-infertile self – the naïve and happy, baby-dreaming me – would also have known Vanessa for who she was, and not have seen her as a pathetic and comical character.
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Talia Liben Yarmush is a freelance writer and editor. She is also an infertile mother who writes her own blog, The Accidental Typist.

9 Comments

  • Posted April 24, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    I can totally relate! My perception of her completely changed from caricature to spot on portrayal.

  • Posted April 25, 2013 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    I’ve always thought Vanessa was portrayed as desperate and a source of cheap comic relief, although I don’t recall whether I thought of her as pathetic – I certainly don’t now anyway. Her sweetness and over-enthusiasm at the thought of being a mother contrasts so sharply with Juno’s witty carefree attitude and I interpreted this as a way of making Juno appear that much ‘cooler’ than the ‘average’ woman.

    What always struck me about Vanessa was her line during the first meeting; she says something like ‘have you ever felt like you were just born to do something? I was born to be a mother.’ I’ve always felt this way and although I don’t plan on having kids for a looong time yet, I can’t wait! One of my biggest fears is that I’ll find out I’m infertile. My heart goes out to any one who wants to have children, but can’t.

  • Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Wow, great take on that character! Definitely new-found respect for Jennifer Garner. You did a masterful job using your experience to shed light on the depth of the character without simply projecting your own feelings onto a layer that my not actually be there.

  • Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you about Vanessa- you sense her underlying pain underneath the almost pathetic neediness. I think she’s a sympathetic character.

  • Posted April 26, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I watched Juno when it came out, and without having any personal experience with infertility or child loss, I thought Vanessa struck a really nice comic balance between absolutely relatable and heartwrenching and comically over the top. It made sense to me as a viewer that our ability to connect with Vanessa follows Juno’s ability to connect with her. Juno is so in her own head (as most teenagers are), that she only sees Vanessa as a caricature, and as she matures, so does the audience experience of Vanessa. There were several scenes, even that twinge in Juno’s comment early on about how she’s “luck” it’s not her, that made me tear up. I think I actually cried a bit when she touched Juno’s stomach in the mall whereas none of Juno’s angst ever brought me close to tears. I think even when she was over the top, I felt like I was laughing at a familiar, type A personality, not at the fact that she was applying those Type A characteristics to her quest to have a baby.

  • Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I liked the Vanessa character as it was brought to life so beautifully by Jennifer Garner. Great film. Diablo Cody Rocks.

  • Posted June 15, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    I always thought Vanessa was super strong and beautifully written. The tragic parts about her, like the fact that her husband wasn’t committed to the marriage or having a child, I think made her strength even more evident. Unfortunately, I think some audience members do read her unchanging desire to have a child, despite those circumstances, as desperate. The icing for me was the ending when we see her completely willing to raise the child on her own.

  • Posted July 3, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I just came across this and I am a birthmother…..and I cringed right along with Vanessa whenever Juno would open her mouth. She’s smarter than the average teen, but not that smart. I saw the hurt right away the very first time I watched it. Even though I am watching it from a birthmother’s perspective. Vanessa’s actions, emotions, etc. were subtle. But i caught the sadness. So glad you saw it too. And I am so glad I found my own Vanessa (and thankfully in my case the husband was fully on board!) for the child i placed.

  • Skywalker
    Posted February 17, 2017 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    This is really such a good interpretation, seeing the movie through this lens. I think in the movie Juno, the writers intended for us to view Vanessa first as an uptight perfectionist and Mark as Cool Guy, and subtly changed roles by the end of the movie to where Vanessa was the more likeable one. If there’s one thing to be said about Juno’s character, it’s that she really rises to the challenge at the end of the movie by realizing that even as a single parent Vanessa’s going to do right by that child. This is reflected when she leaves her the note (“If you’re still in, I’m still in”) and what she said in the hospital (“I didn’t want to see the baby…he didn’t feel like ours. I think he was always hers/Vanessa’s”)

    I’m not totally disadvantaged, but approaching my 40’s I know a little more about fertility than I’d like to. I’ve learned that having sex, even timed and without birth control, will not always result in a pregnancy as easily as we’d like it to. I’ve also learned that when it comes right down to it, we might have to make the decision to go without that child for the rest of our life, or take a huge emotional/financial gamble with routes like IVF, that aren’t even assured to work.

    Seeing movies like Juno do help me view it through this lens, like you. And in that vein, here’s some of the other movies I’ve started to look at differently:

    Bridget Jones Baby (hey, even 43 year olds can accidentally sometimes conceive)
    American Horror Story: Season 1 (same with above, 43 year old pregnancy)
    The Girl on the Train (no matter what you do, you can sometimes end up childless and alone and life can get really, really shitty)
    Breaking Bad (Skylar has second baby at 40, 16 years after first one)

    Just some thoughts. Thanks for your insightful article!