Joseph Gordon-Levitt Takes On Objectification

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I know “Don Jon” came out in theaters a while ago and it’s been on Netflix for a bit so this is not 100% topical. But after I saw it, I thought to myself, “this a great film to do a post on.” Objectification is not a new concept for women and film, but it IS unusual to see a younger male take up the mantel and run with it.

Alrighty, let’s do a quick overview of plot! The film is centered around Jon (played by Gordon-Levitt), a Jersey man who can frequently be found picking up beautiful women in bars and seducing them. He cares about his family, his car, his home, and especially his porn. Let’s not beat around the bush (poor word choice?), he’s addicted to porn.

Then he meets one particularly beautiful girl named Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson) and he decides to try having a real relationship. At first you think, “oh cute, they’re getting to know each other and he’s trying to better himself.” After an abrupt ending to their fist introduction, they have a meet-cute kind of moment and you think, maybe she’ll be the one to change his wicked ways by giving him a bit of a hard time. But you quickly realize this relationship is DOOMED. When Barbara finds out that Jon watches porn, she flips out and makes him promise her that he won’t watch it. Ever. Again.

Like an idiot, he agrees…and then the lies and coercion begin.

Scarlett - Don Jon

Okay, basic plot established!

Yeah, Jon is a little rough around the edges, but he’s not a bad guy. He likes to have sex with a lot of different ladies sure, but he’s a good son and friend and when he actually starts dating one person, he gives it his best shot. He genuinely tries to make it a good relationship. The problem is that Barbara doesn’t want him for the man he is, she wants the idea of a “perfect man.” You know, the kind you see in romantic comedies who go to the ends of the earth to win over the woman they love.

Which is not very realistic.

So she asks him to do x and y and z, using the promise of sex as motivation.  He tries, but eventually he won’t be able to meet all her demands, some of which are not bad (i.e.: taking a night class), but some are just because she’s kind of a bitch (i.e.: don’t clean your own home because it’s not sexy). In the process of trying to please her, he’s not really behaving like himself anymore.

The audience sees several different influences at work throughout the course of the movie. There are 2 main sources of pressure on Jon telling him what it is to be a “Man” (his family and his friends) and 2 main sources telling him what it means to be a “good” boyfriend/lover (his girlfriend and his porn).

What it means to be a “real man”:

I love the scenes with him and his family. His dad accuses him of not being a man because he doesn’t want to watch football while they are all sitting around the dinner table. The monstrous TV is ALWAYS on and constantly playing football games or ads like the Carls Jr Katherine Webb commercial and his dad does nothing but stare at it. (The way he speaks about and acts toward Barbara when they meet is also quite oogly and inappropriate, too)

Meanwhile, his mother grills him on when he’s going to meet a nice girl, settle down and pop out some grandbabies.

His parents’ message on Manhood: Watch sports, stare at women, sire children. “Having a family is the greatest joy in a man’s life.”

When he’s with his friends, you see this profanity-laced scouting complete with arm-punching and “your mom” jokes as they attempt to locate the most beautiful girl in the club. It’s a LOT of machismo. They rank women’s looks on a number scale and tease the others if they go home with someone who ranks too low on a scale that boils women down to nothing but physical attributes. I don’t think any women they talk about are given a name, just a description of their clothing (i.e.: “sequins,” and this is lady that he has already slept with).

His friends’ message on Manhood: Chicks are only for banging. Must be hot. Personalities be damned.

What It Means To Be A Good Boyfriend/Lover:

Barbara just wants him to give and give and give. There should be no end to the amount he is willing to give! All the while, she does nothing nice for him. Actually, she really disrespects him and is only concerned with superficial crap. Then, she pounces on him when he can’t live up to every single promise and acts like she had only one small request.

Barbara’s message on relationships: “When a real man loves a women, he doesn’t mind doing things for her. He’ll do anything for her.” (notice the use of “real,” as if there’s such a thing as a man not being a real man. If a man is not fictional, then he is a real man.)

And then there’s the porn, which probably has the greatest effect on his day-to-day living. All the porn he watches leads him to view actual sex as quite boring. He’s steeped in porn, just stewing in it daily. The videos he seeks out are geared toward fulfilling male fantasies, its very voyeuristic. Which I get, he’s a man looking for something he likes. I understand that “special birthday sex” is more fun for you than standard missionary position. But sex that one party finds particularly pleasurable is often kinda boring or even dis-pleasurable for the other (he even admits this when the situation is not in his favor). Porn is not an accurate representation of women and real sexual dynamics. If his actual sex is not as interesting to him as porn, its because women generally don’t want to do all the stuff in porn that is meant for male pleasure. Women are not dying to perform fellatio morning, noon, and night. And again, I understand that not all sex is between two people who love it each. People have sex for many reasons and sometimes those reasons are “you’re cute and I’m horny,” which are perfectly valid between consenting adults. BUT when all sex is completely separate from an emotional connection, then you have a warped view of the situation.

His porn’s message on sex: Sex equals male pleasure.

It’s not very subtle but you see where he’s going with it. You have traditional definitions of what it means to be a man that your parents want (love football and have kids), you have the alpha males competing for status (banging hotties) and you have the media trying to sell you on what manliness means (taking down a messy-ass burger). When you have a lot of people telling you what to do and how to be, sometimes you need a total stranger to come in and hold a mirror up for you to realize some truths for yourself.

Enter Esther.

Esther (played by Julianne Moore, whom I love) and Jon meet at night school when she catches him watching porn in class and then blatantly asks him about it. He’s so flustered by their first meeting and her straightforward nature that he’s quite put-off by her. But (spoiler!) slowly they come together as friends and lovers and, in doing so, Jon manages to have truly honest conversations about love and sex.

Julianne and Joseph - Don Jon

The most revelatory part of the film is when she asks Jon, “Do you ever jerk off without porn?” and he immediately responds with “What do you mean?” Cut to Jon sitting in front of his laptop with a semi-stricken look on his face. The attachment of objectification to sexual desire is so engrained that it has never even DAWNED on him to have one without the other. And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is what brings us to the whole point of the film!!

We are engrained! Objectification, sexualization, and gender stereotypes are EVERYWHEEEERRRRREEEEEEE!!! It’s so pervasive that it “seeps into our brains” and changes they way we view and treat one another.

Hell yeah, JG-L! We don’t HAVE to fit into these rolls! What a self-loving idea! THAT is why I wanted to write about this movie. A man who is vain and shallow and has destructive views of women and sex is the vehicle with which we examine the influence of media and advertising. It is not what I expected when I walked into the theater that day. I figured sure, we’ll see a guy who grows to be a better man through your usual movie hijinx and what-not, but what I got was something very different and surprisingly deep given how obviously shallow the main character is. This is a movie directed at both men and women and the way we treat each other. Women do not escape this criticism! Sometimes our expectations are so totally off-base from reality that we end up destroying perfectly good, endearing, or innocuous features about people that we supposedly love. Both genders are equally messed up in this regard. Jon’s sister (played by Brie Larsen) calls it when she says “That girl has her own agenda. She just wants a guy who’s gonna do whatever she tells him to.” Women, men are not going to lasso the moon for you just because you want them to. It is not our perogative to “fix” characteristics that we deem “flaws” because we simply don’t like them. If you don’t like that your boyfriend is “just a bartender” then don’t date a bartender!! I’m not saying the people are beyond improving, but we need to want it for ourselves. Using sex to leverage such changes is not healthy, it’s coercive, which is what Barbara does (granted, it’s awkwardly hilarious at first). All those stupid little eccentricities and flaws are what makes us human. It separates individuals from the herd. All those deviations from the polished notion of perfection are what keeps us from being carbon copies with affected personalities.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not Oscar-worthy or anything, the film has it’s flaws, but I think it’s an important stepping stone on the road to better representation of women in film and television. So I applaud you Joseph Gordon-Levitt and everything this movie is meant to do. Well done and keep it coming!



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Categories: Entertainment, Lady Talk Forum, Relationships/Dating, Welcome!


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