‘Don Jon’: Porn, Romance Two Sides of the Same Coin?

RomanceWhen “Don Jon” was released at Sundance, it aired as “Don Jon’s Addiction,” so it’s perhaps unsurprising that its main character has a few fixations, namely around sex. It isn’t surprising that the protagonist isn’t initially interested in authentic, intimate relationships with the women he interacts with. In fact, as soon as sex is finished and a woman has drifted off, Jon escapes to his living room to the bliss of his primary addiction: pornography.

In the trailer for actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s writer/directorial debut, “Don Jon,” you learn right away that his character, Jon Martello, a skirt-chasing bartender from New Jersey, has a handful of passions: “My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.” Dubbed “Don Jon” by his friends, a play on Don Juan, Jon is something of a pick-up expert, bringing home some of the “hottest girls” in the club.

This isn’t a problem for him until he meets his perfect 10, Barbara Sugarman, played by actress Scarlett Johansson, who happily committed to Gordon-Levitt’s project before it was even funded. Barbara is the epitome of a Jersey girl, with loud, gum-smacking no-nonsense yet that special underpinning of warmth behind the fierceness. She’s also a “class act,” refusing to have sex with Jon until she gets to know him better and until he improves himself a bit. But “Don Jon” is far from a Jersey Shore parody, and it isn’t a treatise on the harm of porn addiction; it’s actually a humorous but intelligent look at the way media alters so many of our expectations.

Jon’s expectations are framed and limited by the hyper-sexualized, two-dimensional world of porn, but Barbara’s world is filtered through an obsession with Hollywood romances. She’s uncertain why she doesn’t yet have a life like the women in her favorite movies, perfect and happy, and both she and Jon fail to understand that in the real world, there’s simply no such thing as perfection. Relationships are multifaceted, and more work, than either Jon or Barbara realizes, and the tension comes to a head when she catches him watching porn; she’s horrified.

The story takes an arc when Jon meets Esther in night school (where he’s improving himself, for Barbara), played by Julianne Moore. Moore brings a cutting authenticity into Jon’s world he’s unaccustomed to and yet the two form a special bond.

Gordon-Levitt’s Thoughts on Media and Addiction

The actor turned writer/director says he was raised by parents who taught him to question dominant cultural gender roles. And because he’s been acting since he was 6, he’s paid close attention to the way the media informs and shapes our views of the world, particularly our understanding of relationships, romance and sex. This project was his attempt to explore both of those subjects. Gordon-Levitt believes his character Barbara’s fixation on Hollywood romances is perhaps just as distorting as Jon’s obsession with pornography. While the media sells the idea of the perfect romance as a good thing, it often villainizes porn use, even while porn remains so easy to access in a culture flooded with sexual images of “the ideal.” This double standard is interesting. Could it be that they’re simply two sides of the same coin?

Sex addicts have a difficult time making themselves truly vulnerable to another person, something that’s required in order to connect intimately. They escape their fear of vulnerability by escaping into the intensity of sexual experiences. For anyone attached to the ideal of the Hollywood romance, intimacy is imagined as perfect—always companionable, exciting and feel-good. But true intimacy between real people is sometimes hard. It requires sacrifice.

The “Big Picture”

Sometimes we love movies because we can identify with the characters -- they reveal to us a little bit about who we are and why we do the things we do. But the caricatures in “Don Jon” aren’t so much meant to be relatable; it’s the bigger picture they reveal that we find ourselves looking into. It begs some questions: How is the media shaping our behavior and attitudes about love and relationships? How is Hollywood and Internet entertainment informing our expectations and desires? And in what ways are these manufactured expectations affecting our tendency toward addiction? The most important question of all, perhaps, is how we can keep clear eyes when we’re so inundated with two-dimensional, airbrushed images of sex and love?

As Gordon-Levitt might say, it’s a good idea to keep questioning what we’re consuming, and to consider how it affects who we become.

Posted on October 14th, 2013
Posted in Sex Addiction

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