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Don Jon: What do porn and rom-coms have in common?

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noun: the main means of mass communication (television, radio, and newspapers)* 

Poster Don Jon

Don Jon poster in France

I know very little about the world of porn, but even by the age of 17 I knew it played a big part in the sex lives of my male contemporaries. I remember a conversation in the school common room between some boys discussing a girl: “She was great, she must watch a lot of porn to know what to do!” It hit me then and scares me to this day: young boys learn ‘how to do sex’ through watching porn.

Male and female sexuality are polarized from such a young age. It is accepted and normalized for boys to masturbate (whilst at the same time still carrying a certain level of taboo and embarrassment), yet rarely mentioned or discussed regarding girls.  At a young age boys start consuming pornographic images and videos whilst girls read magazine articles about ‘pleasing your man’. With the availability of internet porn, it is no wonder that for some it becomes more than an occasional pleasure; it becomes an addiction.

This is the situation for Jon Martello, the main character in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon. Nicknamed ‘the don’ by his bros because he manages to pull a different woman every weekend (who must score at least an 8/10 on the ‘hotness’ scale), Jon, played by Gordon-Levitt, is a young man from Jersey whose priorities include his body, his pad, his family, his porn. He is forced to deal with his porn addiction when he starts dating the sexy, demanding Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) who considers porn as disgusting and unnecessary.

Porn and masturbation are difficult subjects to tackle without taking a moralising stance, and yet Gordon-Levitt succeeds in creating a funny, realistic and entertaining film about these issues whilst never explicitly criticising the main character’s porn addiction. The amount of porn in Don Jon could be off-putting, I was personally shocked by most of the clips that were shown, but I really don’t think the film could get the point across without it.

I did find it interesting how, at the start of the film, we are bombarded with clips of women in the media looking very sexualised and glamorous, making the point that it isn’t just Jon who objectifies and commodifies women, but society too. Is this contributing to a search for more and more hardcore porn, or is this pornification of media due to the ever increasing availability of porn?

Gordon-Levitt’s film also deals with an issue that I recently wrote about; the expectations both men and women have of possible partners and lovers. Jon prefers porn to real life because he has an unreal expectation of sex and how women should act in bed. He goes to clubs to pick up sexily dressed, slim, good looking women. He equates thinking Barbara is “the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen” with being in love with her.

Barbara too makes her own demands on Jon, manipulating and moulding him into the perfect man she feels entitled to. A man like the romantic leads in her favourite rom-com films, a man who will completely change and give up everything for love.  Both treat their relationship and each other like a commodity, it gives them status and worth. Don Jon as a whole criticises this one-sided, selfish view of love and sex.

“Don’t talk to me about vacuuming right now. It’s not sexy.” – Barbara Sugarman.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Johansson give great performances and the casting is perfect. Julianne Moore, as always, is marvelous, playing a wise, troubled, yet passionate woman and the inspiration for Jon’s personal development.  She shines in all her scenes and I found myself thinking that I could watch Moore all day long.

Julianne Moore and Gordon-Levitt Don Jon

Julianne Moore and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

I thoroughly enjoyed the film; its storyline, character development and style. Joseph Gordon-Levitt often uses fast cut sequences to reiterate Jon’s repeated behaviours. For example every time he watches porn we hear his computer start up, see the play button on the screen, witness a couple of seconds of porn, see the used tissue land in the bin, and see him finally return to his girl in bed. This repetition mirrors perfectly the repetition of addiction, and also brings to light the way in which we are all in some way trapped in long-ago learned behaviours, seldom stopping to question our values and actions.

Unfortunately we seem to have become desensitised to graphically sexualised images of women. Nearer the end of the film there is a touching and beautiful love-making scene, contrasting completely with the pornographic clips and Jon’s ‘going through the motions’ with his late-night lays. And it was during this scene that a fellow cinema-goer could be heard whispering to a friend “Ugh, this film’s disgusting.” I wonder how they could have missed the point so much.

*Enjoy the irony of this definition from an online dictionary.

P.S Right before publishing my review I found this NPR interview with JGL. “We have a tendancy in our culture to take people and treat them like things.” You might find it insightful!