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Diablo Cody: Progressive Screenwriting in Hollywood

By Sarah Druhan

Photo: Vogue – Source

Diablo Cody burst onto the world film-stage in 2007 with her script for Juno, a movie responsible for four nominations at the 80th Academy Awards. Cody herself accepted one of these awards—the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay — memorably opening her speech with a bewildered “What is happening?” and encouraging chuckles in the audience. While there is no doubt that Juno deserved the win, this sentiment felt real. How exactly had this scrappy and slightly controversial indie been able to take home the ultimate trophy, and how exactly had Cody gone from no screenwriting experience to standing on the stage of the Academy Awards in just two years?

In the wake of poor reception to her next film, Jennifer’s Body, Cody’s industry presence faded somewhat; nowadays, her name is pretty much always associated with Juno. However, considering the recent rediscovery of Jennifer’s Body as a feminist cult classic, it’s hard not to wonder why Cody’s first two films were received so differently, and possibly if it could be due to similar reasons.

The Oscar-winning screenwriter changed her name from Brooke Busey to Diablo Cody in her early twenties. It’s clear to see how this easy willingness to stand out manifested itself not only in her writing, but in many parts of her personal life — much of the reason Cody had changed her name was because she didn’t want her parents to find her stripping-focused blog. Cody had left her comfortable job at an ad agency to become a stripper, citing a need to do something more unexpected with her life and finding that she enjoyed the practice.

Her 2006 memoir Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper not only demonstrated her punchy abilities with dialogue (“How could any virgin worth her vinyl resist?” she wryly quips after detailing how her current husband had wooed her with a Beach Boys bootleg), but also discussed stripping in a genuine way that never demeaned its participants. Shortly after the book’s publication, Cody was contacted by producer Mason Novick, who had noted her sharp prose and wondered if she had considered screenwriting. Within a few months of this call, Cody had banged out her very first screenplay, Juno, in the Starbucks of a suburban Target, hoping to use this first attempt as a way to get other jobs in the industry. She had no idea this script would be a future Oscar winner.

It’s an extremely rare story, especially considering that the original script was not really altered in its journey from Starbucks to the silver screen. Juno director Jason Reitman said that the studio had chosen to take a chance on Cody’s uniquely brazen voice instead of trying to make substantial edits. It was this chance that elevated Juno to unexpected heights and won it the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Juno was a razor-sharp script with no other comparisons in Hollywood.

Its protagonist was an accidentally pregnant teen girl who, instead of feeling ashamed, takes the whole affair in confident stride. Her love interest was not the star football player but instead the ever awkward Michael Cera. In addition, the wittiest lines in the film come from its female characters. Juno is a touching and deeply effective story, but it’s also deeply refreshing to watch a teen female protagonist be unapologetically defiant, crass, and so herself: everything that teen female protagonists in Hollywood typically are not.

After the subsequent lack of success for her sophomore project, Jennifer’s Body, one would think that Cody might have strayed from the elements that made Juno so popular. But, even though Jennifer’s Body involved decidedly more demons than Juno, it too is a black comedy characterized by uniquely snappy Cody-isms. Additionally, upon further study, the films almost act as two sides of the same coin. Like Juno, Megan Fox’s Jennifer Check spends the film attempting to reclaim her unexpectedly transformed body. But, while Juno’s confidence promotes themes of destigmatizing and empowering the female body, Jennifer looks for validation through male ideals of the female body and is drained of her livelihood as a result. There’s a reason Cody’s first script was titled Juno and the second one wasn’t called Jennifer. Juno defies society in knowing that she is more than just her pregnancy, but Jennifer allows patriarchal ideals to reduce her to just her body.

Through their differences, Cody’s two scripts actually engendered very similar themes, and it’s fascinating how each individually speaks to what Cody has publicly shared about her time as a stripper. But, while people celebrated the lighter tone of Juno, 2009 audiences found Jennifer’s Body’s bold and explicitly feminist themes to be much less palatable. It didn’t help that the film was heavily marketed toward teen boys, emphasizing Megan Fox’s body and sex appeal in a way that Cody’s script was deliberately trying to protest against. This all isn’t to say that Jennifer’s Body was a completely flawless film. It also certainly didn’t make Cody deserving of the “one-hit wonder” label that the public was all too eager to slap on her. The film was groundbreaking and tragically real in a way that, seven years before the rise of the #MeToo movement, the world just wasn’t ready for.

Diablo Cody has never again achieved the same level of visibility in the film industry that she did with Juno — the success of a first-try Oscar is pretty hard to replicate. But, it’s important to look at where her refreshingly distinct voice was celebrated, and where it garnered backlash. Artists like Cody are rarely rewarded for their ventures into heavier, more progressive territories—the film industry is fascinated with new points of view until they start to go against the typical Hollywood grain, at which point they are usually dismissed so the industry can return to business as usual. But, Cody’s work is proof of how powerful a perspective outside the usual Hollywood realm can still be. Hopefully, it’s also proof of how Hollywood cannot continue to disregard these perspectives for much longer.


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