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Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Porn Addiction Flick "Don Jon" Challenges Gender Roles

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in his directorial debut, Don Jon, which centers on the life of a "porn addict" Jersey boy named Jon Martello. Though plenty of people will likely flock to a film that centers on two sexy stars and a porn addiction, Don Jon attempts to deconstruct the ways in which rigid notions of masculinity and femininity are damaging.

In the film, Jon Martello has his routine down pat: GTL (Gym, Tan, Laundry), going to the club with his boys to pick up ladies, then heading to church with his family every Sunday morning to atone for his sins. Despite getting laid constantly, Jon's unsatisfied. His not-so-secret satisfaction? Porn. For Jon, porn is better than sex—he watches clips upon clips of naked bodies writhing around multiple times a day, even after having sex with the many of women he picks up.

Jon's routine faces upheaval when Barbara—a hilarious Scarlett Johansson who Jon's buddies rate a '10'—walks into the club and steals Jon's heart. In the course of their relationship, and Jon's new friendship with free-spirited community college classmate Esther (the always terrific Julianne Moore), the tanned protagonist starts to challenge his strictly gendered worldview. 

Jon's father, Jon Sr. (Tony Danza), portrays an example of ideal masculinity: a gold-chain strewn, veiny necked, misogynistic nightmare. But there's a disconnect between the father and son; Jon isn't completely buying his father's ideas despite the fact that the pair wear identical uniforms of white tank tops and gold chains. While Jon's masculinity isn't necessarily more nuanced or progressive than his father's, he has some traits that both his father and new girlfriend deem too girly. Barbara gets pissed over Jon's plans to buy some Swiffer products. In a bizarre scene, she says it's embarrassing for her man to be buying cleaning supplies because he should have someone doing that for him.

Gordon-Levitt uses Don Jon to explore objectification in all forms: how societal expectations for our gendered behavior can leave us unable to connect to others on an individual level. He has been very open about the theme of objectification in the film, responding recently on Twitter—to the obnoxious Esquire editor who said that women are "there to be beautiful objects"—that this is what Don Jon is all about.  In the post-film Q&A at SXSW, co-star Brie Larson mentioned how our society deems beautiful women as public property for anyone to comment upon. 

In Don Jon, this objectification impacts our personal sexualities in very negative ways. For Jon, it's his inability to be able to connect on an emotional or even sexual level with another person beyond his connection with porn. And for Barbara, it's about intricately tying her sexuality to what she sees in romantic comedies that are as unrealistic as Jon's porn.  The film places importance on true, emotional human connections linked to sexuality.

While that's a good message to leave on and I applaud Gordon-Levitt's feminist calling-out of objectification and limiting gender roles, especially in his directorial debut, I ultimately found the film to have a limited view of sexuality. It suggests that the best sex happens when the two people are emotionally connected, which may be true in some cases but not in all.  It also establishes itself as pretty anti-porn but doesn't widen the porn discussion to anything that isn't seen as mainstream porn. Don Jon keeps itself very much rooted in the types of clips (and they show a lot of clips) that could be used as examples in a "pornification of American culture" think piece. But there's no discussion of porn that exists outside of that, like feminist, woman-made, sex-positive porn. Jon's classmate, Esther, catches Jon watching porn on his phone in class and gives him a seventies-era Danish erotic film—but it strangely disappears from the film, never mentioned again. The film ends leaving the audience with the assumption that there isn't necessarily room for porn within a healthy sexuality.

Despite a rather limiting viewpoint on porn and what constitutes healthy sexuality, Don Jon is an enjoyable and very funny deconstruction of the ways in which we objectify each other and ourselves. By bringing up issues of sexuality, porn, gender roles and objectification in his directorial debut, Gordon-Levitt will certainly open up discussion to a broader audience. And in case you were wondering, during the post-film Q&A, when asked if he was a feminist, Gordon-Levitt responded to a delighted crowd with a resounding, "Absolutely." 


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Comments

20 comments have been made. Post a comment.

"feminist, woman-made, sex-positive porn"

"feminist, woman-made, sex-positive porn"

While there might be an intent there - it is is still, intersectionaly, prima facie:

1) Exploitative

2) A representation of desire presented as actual desire in ways that are unrealistic - its point is not the enjoyment of the involved, but money made of the private, non-consented desire of others

But this movie flattening of the landscape of porn only serves to make this point more poignant - and thus it is not a limit, but precisely the point.

Porn, even "feminist, woman-made, sex-positive porn" is alienating oneself from human contact in shaping one's sexuality. It is the ultimate commodification of sexuality - regardless of intent - even more alienated than prostitution itself (Which, at the very least, requires human contact).

Its the fair-trade coffee of porn: you are still exploiting third world farmers, even if indeed less so.

But it is a cute lie to tell oneself because one needs to feel not guilty about drinking coffee.

Maybe someday it will be possible to have a "feminist, woman-made, sex-positive porn". But not now, under conditions of capitalism, commodification and patriarchy, all it does is fulfill a market niche, when the problem is precisely the existence of a market for desire. And how this market shapes our demands in unrealistic and ultimately unhappy ways.

Hear hear

Hear hear

Dworkin? Is that you?

Dworkin? Is that you?

Exactly.

Exactly.

Perfect!

Perfect!

Editing

Hi!
Just one editing tip:
"he has some traits that both is father and new girlfriend deem too girly..."
should read "that both his* father..."
Otherwise, good piece, can't wait to see the film.
Cheers!

Porn needs to go

"...there isn't necessarily room for porn within a healthy sexuality." Exactly, there isn´t.
"Feminist, woman-made, sex-positive porn" is just make-believe bullshit to dupe the gullible.
Wake up before it´s to late!

*too late Sorry for the typo.

*too late
Sorry for the typo.

and the anti-porn people come out swinging!

Porn is not a monolith, and painting it as such is not only disrespectful, it's reductive. There is plenty of room to criticize mainstream porn values, as well as a culture that encourages women to be/be seen as objects. There is plenty of room for discussions about taste, and it's fine if not everybody like porn. Jumping from critiques to some sort of "ALL PORN IS BAD" moral judgement sounds like bullshit desire policing to me.

Not all sexual pleasure requires human interaction

I totally agree, and would like to add that sexual pleasure does not require human interaction. Masturbation is a legitimate form of sexual expression and should not be denigrated as less than "real" sex. It is a form of learning, self-soothing, pleasure, relaxation, and any number of other things that do not require delineation or explanation. It is no one else's business to decide how I should find release on my own.

Is visual pornography the only type that is exploitative? What about the written word? What's it to you if erotic stories turn me on?

Underlying the argument that ALL porn is exploitative is the belief that 1) there is something wrong or bad with sex, and 2) it should be kept secret and never be shared with others (except a unitary partner, preferably in the dark). It is prudish and controlling. It also denies what is clearly evident about the vast diversity of sexual identities and orientations.

Sex negativity is exactly what is allowing the rape culture to persist: let's keep sex dark and secret and shameful. Why are you so insistent on maintaining that women not be allowed to OWN, express, participate in, and enjoy their sexuality?

Get over your fears and judgment and lets start talking about how we can get involved in, enjoy, and portray non-exploitative and consensual sexual activity. Only then will we begin to get others to understand what coercive sex looks like.

It's about time we learned how and when to say "Yes, please!" so we can clearly distinguish between desired interaction and those that are unwanted, and so that women stop believing they have to be "bad" to get what they want.

THAT IS feminist porn.

Sex Negativity Perpetuates Rape Culture; Good Sex Must be Shown

I totally agree, and would like to add that sexual pleasure does not require human interaction. Masturbation is a legitimate form of sexual expression and should not be denigrated as less than "real" sex. It is a form of learning, self-soothing, pleasure, relaxation, and any number of other things that do not require delineation or explanation. It is no one else's business to decide how I should find release on my own.

Is visual pornography the only type that is exploitative? What about the written word? What's it to you if erotic stories turn me on?

Underlying the argument that ALL porn is exploitative is the belief that 1) there is something wrong or bad with sex, and 2) it should be kept secret and never be shared with others (except a unitary partner, preferably with the lights out). It is prudish and controlling, and just as harmful as any other exploitation that deprives us of our own decision making. It also denies what is clearly evident about the vast diversity of sexual identities and orientations.

Sex negativity is exactly what is allowing the rape culture to persist: let's keep sex dark and secret and shameful. Why are you so insistent on maintaining that women not be allowed to OWN, express, participate in, and enjoy their sexuality?

Get over your fears and judgment and lets start talking about how we can get involved in, enjoy, and portray non-exploitative and consensual sexual activity. Only then will we begin to get others to understand what coercive sex looks like.

When we learn how and when (and are allowed) to say "Yes, please!", we can clearly distinguish between desired interactions and those that are unwanted. It also lets women stop believing they have to be "bad" to get what they want.

Choice: THAT IS feminist porn.

All porn *is* bad. When we

All porn *is* bad. When we get to a point where sexually explicit material is not exploitative and sexist, we won't be calling it porn anymore. ;)

I think there's a lot to be

I think there's a lot to be said to how JGL presented his character's OCD/addiction and coming to terms/recognizing some unhealthy obsessive behaviour. I think that 'Swiffer' scene was as much about gender roles as it was about his requirement to keep order (can be a symptom of many disorders, including OCD) and how little his girlfriend empathized with that. I don't want to blur the lines between addiction and OCD, but I think this film was as much about coming to recognize that there was a mental health issue playing itself out as it was about challenging gender roles.

There is room for porn

Mainstream porn is gross. But to say all porn is bad or that it has no room in a healthy relationship is short sighted. I enjoy watching amateur porn and I watch it to get off. I don't do it all the time nor does my long-term boyfriend care. We don't watch it together but we could.

I would ask, why can't a woman enjoy porn that has two people (or more) who are having sex and equaly enjoying themselves. Porn doesn't have to be negative. Just like sex doesn't have to be negative. http://www.blogher.com/when-porn-becomes-positive-and-empowering-rather-...

I loved this movie, for the

I loved this movie, for the reasons you outlined above. I love how sex-positive it ended up being. And its not anti-porn, either. It's anti-porn as a substitute for the real thing. And it does make the argument that too much of it can start to interfere with having a healthy sex life. I think porn is great, fantastic, and i enjoy it myself, as well as my husband, together and apart, but it's not consuming. And I love how Esther challenges him to lose himself in her and stop being selfish and one-sided when it comes to sex.

It was a little stereotypical, but I think there are some truths in the stereotypes. Jon is addicted to porn, hypermasculine, and Barbara is addicted to romantic movies that are impossible in real life, and hyperfeminine, a "perfect" woman (and damn does ScarJo look fan-fucking-tastic). Both have unrealistic ideas about sex and relationships. I did appreciate her wanting to take it slow and only have sex when it "means something" but she uses it to her advantage to manipulate him. And unfortunately for her, it never means something to him when they finally do it, because he is too selfish to give her what she wants. And she's too selfish to give him what he needs too. It was a good balance.

I loved it

I loved Don Jon - my boyfriend took me to see it last night. That scene where the Carl's Jr. ad is on while the family eats Sunday dinner? Incredible.

The critique that keeps popping up is that Don Jon is too limited in its idea of what constitutes "good sex." Why, exactly, is JGL/Don Jon required to show every facet of what makes "good sex"?

Jon - the subject of the film - had never connected with anyone during sex. I don't think Don Jon should be required to speak to a vast array of experiences! It's a bildungsroman about one man greatly affected by narrow strictures of masculinity is supposed to be. I love that Jon changes and grows thanks to two women - even ScarJo's character was good for him in some ways. He went back to school because of her, and learned about the kind of relationship he wants/needs to be in.

Last thing: is no one going to mention how awesome it is that he ends up in an amazing, mutual, relaxed relationship with a rockin' older woman?? Come on, y'all!

Agh, one more thing. The 70s porno is mentioned again - Esther compares that video to the crappy porn Jon is watching.

Great piece

Really enjoyed reading this article and I also enjoyed the film. Thought it was too short-- so I wish they could have lengthened the film and addressed the things you bring up in the article! JGL, love that he proudly calls himself a feminist. Love the mag and articles, keep it up! Honeybee, Pheasant

My one quip- the old porn

My one quip- the old porn that Esther gives him does come up again, albeit briefly, later on, and I definitely recall her making a comment to him that yes, "everybody" watches it, but the porn coming out nowadays (specifically the porn he is watching) is all directed, all acting and is in no way related to reality. I do wish the film had touched on this a little bit more, rather than having only one, somewhat peripheral character bring up this issue. Other than that, I agree with this review.

Close but not close enough

I really liked this movie in many ways; it was cinematically beautiful, it had great symbolism, and the writing was good to. What I did not like was how shallow the females were. They were cookie cutter. The sister is only given one line. The mom is nothing but a stereotype-- over emotional, loud. I like Barbra because she was Jon's mirror with her addiction, but we didn't really know her as a person. Esther was there to help him grow and we got one line from her to explain why she was emotionally hurt. As to the bechdel test, it did not pass. It was close though. Jon's mom invites Barbra into the kitchen to talk to her. That was the perfect opportunity to have them share some dialouge about themselves.

It had a lot of good things but failed short.

Told from the 1st person

The film doesn't pass the bechdel test because there are no scenes without Jon. This is intentional on the part of the director, as it is a personal narrative about Jon's journey. It would have been very out of place for Barbara and the sister to talk at that point in the movie, since that would have been practically the only time we left focus on Jon.

I certainly agree that there not enough movies that pass the bechdel test, because there aren't enough movies with a female perspective rather than a male one, or from mixed points of view. However, this film was told from a male perspective, indeed one man's perspective, and it was better for that. The other men in the film are cookie cutter as well.

The bechdel test is meant to point out that movies systematically bias toward male points of view, and they do. However that doesn't mean that movies told from a man's point of view can't be good, or even feminist. This one is both, in my view.