The past two weeks have seen two different contests with little, and much, in common: The 80th Academy Awards and the not-so-super Tuesday primaries in Vermont, Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas. Both were sold with a fair degree of hype, both had surprises and both had definitive winners. Juno won Best Original Screenplay honors for Diablo Cody; Hillary Clinton 'took' Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island. But as the proverb reminds us, the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong; winning doesn't mean you should have won. Juno MacGuff and Hillary Clinton don't have much in common, but they've both provoked powerful antagonistic reactions from many observers in their respective spheres. This has led the divergent supporters of both these recent victors to suggest that there's a backlash against them. But I would suggest that the phrase 'backlash' carries certain connotations, and implies the victim is suffering the brunt of an irrational hatred that goes counter to earlier approval; an irrational hatred that may, in fact, be all the more bitter when that earlier approval curdled in the heat of public enthusiasm. ("Yeah, I liked Feist's The Reminder, but when they started using "1234" in the iPod ad, I stopped liking her. ...")
I would suggest that in both these cases, 'backlash' does not, in fact, describe what many people are feeling. Many people are not bearing a hypocritical grudge against Juno and/or Hillary as part of an irrational hatred; many people have a highly legitimate, well thought-out, principled, rational dislike of Juno and/or Hillary. But those concerns and criticisms are grouped together under the category of backlash, and thus rejected, rebuked, denied and dismissed. But many of the concerns and criticisms people have for both are not, in fact, backlash; they are frontlash, and they are worth examining.
When I finally saw Juno -- after its rapturous reception at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals -- I felt a little of what I call Peggy Lee effect: Is that all there is? Juno seemed like a nice little movie, and I choose both those adjectives quite specifically. Much like Garden State or Napoleon Dynamite, Juno was hailed as a terrific independent film by people who don't normally see independent films. And putting aside the legitimate question of just how 'independent' Fox Searchlight is, I will note that while at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, I saw a platoon of young people dressed in the track uniform of Juno's school, a funny breezy bit of visual marketing -- which, of course, was not grassroots pluck but rather Astroturf P.R. bought-and-paid-for from the Murdoch empire's coffers.
And these things have nothing to do with the merits, or lack thereof, of the film itself, but looking at those, what is Juno in fact being praised for? For quick, quotable dialogue that's going to age about as well as a Belgian waffle, like "Honest to blog," "This is one doodle that can't be undid" and "For shizz, I am up the spout?" For presenting us with a young woman, smart, clever and quick and centered, who is not smart, clever, quick and centered enough to arrange some -- or any -- kind of contraception before a premeditated sexual act? (And I know -- pills fail, condoms break, nothing's infallible -- but the fact Juno's script never mentions the title character's contraceptive responsibilities or choices in relation to sex is a cop-out. Or, put another way, when Knocked Up is more sincere about sexual responsibility than your plucky little celebration of quirk, you're in trouble.) For reminding us that here in America, things tend to turn out okay if you're White and well-off? For the amazing story of Ms. Cody herself? (Saying that the press wouldn't be going quite so mad for Ms. Cody if she weren't a striking young lady with a compelling back story isn't sexist; it's confirming the unconscious sexism of most mainstream press covering entertainment.) For Juno's fantasy of friction-free-feminism -- Hey, ladies, everything works out okay just super, because you're awesome! -- which looks like the wish-fulfillment dreams of a privileged child compared to the adult realism of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or Persepolis? (Recent ads for Persepolis have used a pull quote comparing the film to Juno; this is like seeing an ad suggesting that you may like filet mignon, as it contains beef, just like a Big Mac.)
As for the frontlash toward Hillary Clinton, it is entirely possible that her chances are enhanced and assisted by the history-making potential precedent that, if elected, she would be the first woman president. But voting for Hillary Clinton solely out of the hope she'll be our first woman president is as intrinsically wrong as voting against solely out of the fear she'll be our first woman president. And contrasting the fuzzy hopes about Mrs. Clinton as president against her prior votes and record evokes the classic feminist slogan about Margaret Thatcher: "She may be a woman, but she ain't no sister." Much of Clinton's campaign is built around her hope of passing universal health care; much of her recent rhetoric has revolved around reforming the North American Free Trade Agreement. Should it not be noted that Clinton already tried and already failed to create universal health care? Should it not be noted that NAFTA -- a gift to corporations and stockholders who profit from lower wages and safety standards in Mexico, a curse to Canadian and American workers who have seen wages drop and jobs disappear -- was passed during her husband's administration? At what point does the desire to extend a second chance shift into the possibility of getting fooled again? Clinton speaks of 'experience,' but what in recent American history -- in economic policy, in foreign affairs, in domestic politics -- would suggest that having had 'experience' in defining those things is something to be rewarded?
Of course, the stakes in the two divergent contests are different; Cody's win may mean she'll get further work (and that we'll be cursed with at least four Juno-like movies in theaters within the next year), but it does not mean that Ms. Cody will have to take any unexpected 3:00 a.m. calls about political crises. (Also, Ms. Cody's win did not involve her or Fox Searchlight suggesting that an Oscar victory for Tony Gilroy's screenplay for Michael Clayton over her work would endanger your children's lives.) But if you are one of the many who are not excited about Juno or Hillary, the next time someone asks how you could possibly be against those two plucky can-do underdog stories and alleges you're just recently become part of the backlash, look them in the eye, explain how you've been part of the frontlash for a while, and then tell them why. Juno may now be enshrined in Hollywood history, but the election's a long way off, a lot more than a gold statue's on the line, and a little well thought-out, principled, rational dislike might still have an effect.