'Don Jon' Reimagines Sex, But It's Still Sexist
Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's recently released comedy-drama, is a directorial debut for the 32-year-old actor, who also wrote and starred in the film. (You can find a PolicyMic review of the movie here.) The movie argues that hyper-masculinity need not be a way of life for men — that there's more to sex than objectifying and conquering women — and that women don't have to subscribe to the media's stereotypical "men sweep women off their feet" portrayal of romantic relationships.
In an interview with Wired, Gordon-Levitt, who also founded the online collaborative production company hitRECord, said one of his goals for the movie was to create open and honest conversations about sex: "I wanted a movie that would provoke those sorts of conversations. I hear people having conversations [around the film] about the way that our culture defines men and women and love and sex, and the way that the media contributes to that." Ultimately, Gordon-Levitt leaves us hanging. He fails to be as provocative as he intends to be, and relies on the same sexist stereotypes he criticizes to explore the ways in which media create expectations for relationships, and the role porn plays in perspectives on sex and intimacy.
Gordon-Levitt and team specifically advertised on the site Pornhub.com, used for porn clips in the movie, as well as on "'chick flick' stuff and on the NFL," because they wanted to reach the demographic they portray in the film: men like title character Jon Martello, who objectifies women and has an active sex life but prefers porn to sex (his interests are, "my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn"), and women like his girlfriend Barbara Sugarman, played by Scarlett Johansson, who obsess over romantic movies and the fantasy relationships they promote.
Source: Perez Hilton
The main problem with the discussion Don Jon opens about hyper-masculinity is that it falls back onto the tired idea that women are the vehicle through which men learn emotions. Jon only begins to discover there's more to his narrow view of women and sex through his classmate Esther, played by Julianne Moore. In some ways, Esther is a version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she's the only catalyst for Jon's transformation from unfeeling bro to a three-dimensional, sensitive male.
Though much more complex than a typical portrayal of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl — and arguably the most complex character in the film — Esther, who's dealing with the loss of her husband and son, shows a variety of emotions that slowly open Jon's eyes to the reality of what love and intimacy can mean. She gives him an erotic video she says is more realistic than what he watches, she challenges him to masturbate without using porn, and she teaches him the importance of a mutual sexual experience. Without Moore's character, there would be no driver of Jon's change in perspective; she is there to "fix" him. It seems far too simple a plot point and far too removed from reality that all it takes is a few interactions with Esther for Jon quit watching porn and to learn intimacy (and to act like a decent human).
While Jon begins to change and soften over the course of the film, Barbara remains one-dimensional. While the film is, after all, about its main character, it introduces a commentary on women's media-induced relationship expectations that it never fully fleshes out. Johansson's character does an apt job of portraying a stereotype — she's the kind of woman who wants a drawn-out courtship, who wants to be "romanced" by a manly man (who would never think of watching porn) — but unlike Jon, she doesn't go through any kind of transformation, nor does she show any sign of understanding why she desires such things.
In a scene where Jon and Barbara are shopping together, Jon tries to explain to her that he wants to buy cleaning supplies because he enjoys taking care of his place himself, but Barbara gets upset, telling him he shouldn't clean. It's a poignant moment that goes nowhere. We see her line of thinking — men don't clean because cleaning isn't manly, and housekeepers take care of such matters, because talking about cleaning isn't sexy — but it's one of the only insights we get into her psyche, and by the end of the film she remains as unenlightened as she begins.
Gordon-Levitt may well have reached the audience with whom he intended to create a dialogue, but not without relying on a few tired tropes and male-centric perspectives along the way. An interesting and thought-provoking look at a slice of culture not often tackled in films, Don Jon does provide an entry point for open and honest conversations — it just doesn't take us all the way there.