Don Jon (2013)

by W.H. Lee on October 30, 2013 · 5 comments

in Movies, Reviews

Jon and the Repackaged Whore

Jon and the Repackaged Whore

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s much anticipated writing and directorial debut, Don Jon, is a romantic comedy about the shared struggle for intimacy between two shallow New Jerseyites, one with a propensity for porn and the other for Hollywood fairytales. Unfortunately, the film’s “satire” is so uncritical it mirrors the very problems it claims to critique. For starters, the filmmakers intended Don Jon  to be a critique of negative media portrayals of women, yet the film itself fails to pass the Bechdel test.

Gordon-Levitt’s character, nicknamed for the legendary, womanizing libertine, occupies himself by rating women’s attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10. He makes a rather sick game of seducing “10”s—or “dimes,” as he and his douchey friends refer to them—despite not actually enjoying the ensuing sex. In fact, after bland fucking with equally bland “dimes,” he scrambles from post-coital cuddling to his computer where he loses himself in the fantasy world of mainstream pornography. He prefers pornography, as the annoying voice-over informs us, because “real pussy can kill you.” Of course, this doesn’t make much sense considering he’s presumably face-to-face with “real pussy” every time he takes home a “dime,” but whatever… In any case, his love interest, Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson, is meant to parallel the protagonists’ shallowness through her adoration of Hollywood chick flicks. Cause, like, dudes like emotionless fucking and chicks like romance, duh.

We see Jon and Barbara’s relationship evolve in ways that, at times, draw from played-out gender stereotypes—Barbara withholds sex from Jon in order to manipulate him, at one point dry humping his crotch until he agrees to take a night class. At other times, their green relationship feels realistically naïve and uncomfortable. When Jon’s caricature of a father (Tony Danza), for instance, tricks Barbara into kissing him, she sheepishly laughs it off in order to remain held in high regard by Jon’s mother (Glenne Headly), a clichéd maternal character.  Barbara’s vulnerability in this scene is attractive and humanizing and seems in stark contrast to the cartoonishly bad behavior around her. At this point in the film, I started to have hope—I hoped Gordon-Levitt would explore gender and sexuality in profoundly nuanced ways; perhaps paint a portrait of Barbara as a complicated woman navigating the bumpy terrain of systemic female objectification while trying to maintain integrity and bodily agency. But, alas, after several scenes of gratuitous and rape-y objectifications, Barbara and Jon break up. We revisit Barbara only once more, and only as proof of Jon’s growth and her stagnation. We assume she’s destined to carry on as the manipulative harlot Jon perceives her as. It’s almost as if the film’s cultural critique is not of objectification, but of being the object of objectification. Eerily, it feels a whole lot like anti-sex work rhetoric.

What sets this film apart from other dull portrayals of falling in love as a white, middle class, able-bodied heterosexual is the protagonist’s use of pornography. As a sex worker, I am always excited to see the ways my experiences are portrayed in mainstream filmography. And I’m also always disappointed. From happy hookers to pretty women who fall in love with millionaires, I never leave the theater thinking, “Yeah! They totally nailed the super complicated aspects of sex work, the cultural and social reasons for the existence of this work, and the distinct and subjective feelings workers have about their labor!” I left Don Jon, as I’ve left other films that don’t quite get it, feeling like I needed a shower.

Jon and the Repackaged Virgin

Jon and the Repackaged Virgin

Ultimately, Don Jon portrays viewing pornography as shameful, which is, of course, deeply problematic. The internet is peppered with delightfully rebellious and progressive pornography and the film’s choice to focus almost exclusively on money shot shit is stylistic and purposeful. The one-dimensionality of the film—the cartoonish characters, the overly simplistic human interactions, the played out tropes—simply wouldn’t work if pornography were shown, in contrast, as multi-dimensional. That’s one of the main reasons this film and almost all others like it don’t work: they’re premised on the notion that sex work is one-dimensional. Can you imagine any other addiction (Jon refers to his porn viewing as such) being portrayed so heartlessly?

There are moments of brilliance in Don Jon. Gordon-Levitt juxtaposes his character’s porn addiction with his perfunctory enjoyment of other “things:” his body, his pad, his ride, his church, his family,  his buddies, and his sex partners. This is an exquisite example of white male privilege—the belief in the ownership of “things,” whether said things are people or cars. I can get on board with this critique of objectification. What I can’t get on board with is the presupposition that women are somehow equally responsible for their own objectification or, worse, that we’re irredeemable when we charge for it. Point in case, Barbara uses her sex to get what she wants and Jon uses her for her sex. Yet, while Jon’s character has the capacity for enlightenment and growth, the film concludes with Barbara as the villain, who, as Jon’s sister points out, “has her own agenda.” How dare that whore have her own ideas! Her own hopes! Her own expectations!

Moreover, Julianne Moore’s character, Esther, develops in opposition to the materialism of Barbara. It’s a cowardly repackaging of The Virgin and The Whore—whereas Barbara owns her sexuality and, fortunately or unfortunately, commodifies it, Esther is the altruistic heroine whose sex is neither commodified nor bound by so-called ulterior motives. Whereas Barbara takes advantage of Jon’s objectification of her, Esther simply wants to teach him how to “make love.” Her sex is free and altruistic; Barbara’s, alternatively, is conditional and subsequently portrayed as manipulative. I find it disturbing that a film critical of mainstream pornography still ends up emphasizing male sexual pleasure and traditional gender roles.

In the end, I have the intense desire to slow-clap my praise of yet another boring story of a young, white, privileged man who overcomes the vicious clutch of witchy temptresses with the help of other whore-hating women. This film is not only an exercise in whore-shaming, it’s a clear example of what happens when someone with privilege attempts to speak for those without.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheldon November 1, 2013 at 11:20 pm

We did not see the same film.

Barbara does not have her “own” agenda. She is a materialistic princess who is appalled that working class Don Jon buys Swiffer mops because he likes doing his own housework. She engages in class-baiting throughout the movie, and she tries to manipulate him so that he can become Harry to her Leona Helmsley.

The Julianne Moore character likes porn! And she recommends that he watch a porn film made by a Danish woman. And by the end of the film, the two porn consumers end up in each other’s arms. And that, in a quiet way, is Hollywood making history.


jenny heineman November 3, 2013 at 1:07 am

Barbara’s “class-baiting” and insensitivity towards Jon’s housework brings up interesting points–first, the scene you’re speaking of feels misplaced, almost as if Gordon-Levitt was scrambling to articulate the depths of Barbara’s villainousness. Second, and more importantly, Jon’s apartment grooming is initially built up as one piece of his encompassing materialism, yet in this “class-baiting” scene, we’re supposed to root for him and his grooming habits! It’s as if Jon’s materialism suddenly become palatable when compared to Barbara’s girly cattiness. Boys rule and girls drool. And, for the record, my statement about Barbara’s so-called agenda comes directly from the film. Indeed, the only words Jon’s sister mutters are, “Barbara has her own agenda.”

To your other point, Esther briefly chastises Jon’s taste in porn and suggests alternatives, yes, but in the end, Jon’s heroism is linked to the eradication of materialism in his life, porn included (although I imagine he still polishes his apartment like a string of pearls). Had the film ended with Jon and Esther nestled on a couch watching great porn together, I’d feel differently. But it doesn’t. It ends with the glorification of a white, heteronormative relationship between a privileged man and an altruistic woman.


Sheldon November 4, 2013 at 10:12 pm

Sorry, when I referred to Barbara’s agenda, I meant that I didn’t see that her agenda as what you thought it was.

I do my own housework – so am I a materialist? Jon has hobbies but he doesn’t seem hung up on the acquisition of things. If anything, he’s all about maintaining order in the various facets of his life

I didn’t see the film as needing to end with them watching porn together. They have just discovered each other, and when two folks who are attracted each other also like porn, that’s a very intense, deep connection (the way Jon and Esther stared at each other at the end, I really could identify with that). So it makes sense that they’re going to have lots of sex before doing anything else.


Ginger November 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Personally, I didn’t see the film’s priority as an exploration of the sex trade so much as an exploration of consumer culture in the context of a young Jersey man’s life. Gordon-Levitt’s attack was primarily on the Catholic Church, traditional marriage, and the capitalist obsession with looks over substance. Barbara’s character wanted to consume Jon, investing time in manipulating him into quitting his porn hobby and taking night school to change him to fulfill an image, and he in turn wished to consume her, as she fit his trope of all a woman could possibly be (“she’s the most beautiful thing I ever seen” indicates she’s only something to look at. Their personalities are irrelevant in this relationship). In contrast, Jon’s relationship with Esther is communicative, honest and seems to be emotionally satisfying. It’s apparent that both are damaged and the film hardly takes money or work as its subject matter. Sex is only viewed as a representation of the possible relationship and power balance between a man and woman, and the film encourages reciprocity and discussion of needs in a mutually satisfying romantic relationship. It does not address sex work. Jon does not even enter a strip club or buy a girl a drink in the course of the movie. If Barbara is to be viewed as someone a sex worker is to be empathetic towards, well Jesus Mary was her price ever steep– she demanded Jon’s complete sexual attention, control over his time and habits, and eventually his legal and teleological commitment in marriage. I would never demand such a thing of my customers.

The story was told from a male perspective because it was a message to young men. It is far time we had more movies about the commodification of sex and of the female body as told from a female perspective, but this was not a film about women. This was a film about one dude getting over his simple consumerist take on sex, relationships, and life. If it was longer, more detailed, and more feminist, it would have lost its core audience.


jenny heineman November 8, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Thank you both for your intriguing responses. I disagree, however, that the film “does not address sex work” or that Jon’s materialism is more about maintaing order than anything else. In fact, in an interview with Gordon Levitt on the film’s Tumblr, he criticizes Jon’s character for his objectification of everything from cars to women. The maintenance of his apartment and porn viewing habits are part and partial of said objectification. That’s all good and fine, but then Barbara–the objectifIED–is subsequently painted as the villain. I’m certainly not trying to argue that she was a sex worker herself. My argument is that her character is the proverbial whore, used only as juxtaposition for Esther’s altruism, which is deeply problematic considering superficial roles like these seem to be the only two roles for women in Hollywood films.

To address another point– yes, perhaps the film is supposed to be for young men, as you point out Ginger. But shouldn’t films for young men–particularly films that are critical of gender relations and culture–at the very least pass the Bechdel test? Maybe Esther and Barbara could’ve watched good porn together! And then the film could’ve ended in a threesome! Now that would have been much more interesting…


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