Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes on a rather large issue in his new film, Don Jon , which he wrote, directed, and stars in. His character, Jon (as you've probably learned from the ubiquitous TV spots by now) is hopelessly addicted to pornography, which is a problem because his perfect woman, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) considers that kind of thing to be a deal breaker. The trailers parade this spat as the main premise of the film, staging a battle of the sexes in a world where inventive sex and pornography is for those from Mars, while those hailing from Venus prefer sugary Rom-coms and cuddling. This is not the full reality of Don Jon.
In the first seconds of the film, as the pre-roll of credits flashes before our eyes, names are interlaced with commonplace media images like a buxom blonde model in a skin-tight and low-cut dress on Conan and parades of actresses strutting around in similarly skimpy clothing. Before we even touch on Jon's porn problem, we're confronted with its probable cause: media's blatant sexualization and objectification of women.
This is not a new realization. Media — which includes television, movies, blogs, magazines, newspapers, books, and just about any place from which you'd gather information — is run mostly by white men. (If you need proof, just look at this cover of Port Magazine from July. Or the fact that not a single major TV network is run by someone other than a white male.) Is it any wonder that women are constantly treated as sexual objects in film, television, and advertising? True, not all men are, by default, aiming to objectify women, but without female voices in those high level conversations, isn't it possible that the sex-drenched media cycle simply continues to feed off of itself?
That sex-drenched media cycle is what colors Jon's struggle with pornography, as well as his perception of women as sex machines. He goes to the club every night, looking for a woman who can act as the recipient of that evening's obligatory sex act. Then he meets Barbara, who changes everything... sort of. As Jon makes his way through his journey to put down the porn, he's taunted by sex objects in the form of a Carl's Jr. commercial in which a topless model eats a burger and Cosmopolitan covers featuring Barbie-like images of starlets like Demi Lovato.
Jon later witnesses his own father's ingrained notions that women are belongings and not partners. It's clear: generational ideas and media have perpetuated a detachment between actual relationships and sex (hence the whole "porn is better than actual sex" issue from which Jon suffers). And Jon's journey, which I won't spoil for you, further demonstrates this by putting him through the monster of a ringer our objectifying culture has created.
But it's not just Jon. Where the film really succeeds in its ability to dissect media brainwashing from all sides. Most obvious (again, thanks to the TV spots and trailers) is Barbara's obsession with romantic movies, which have driven her to expect unrealistic levels of one-sided sacrifice from her suitors. She goes a step further in the film, using sex and anticipation of sex as a means of manipulating Jon into getting a better job and grooming himself into the man she knows from movies and television. And very quickly, Don Jon establishes an integral point: media isn't just giving men wildly unrealistic expectations of the female form and women's behavior. Media is screwing the whole lot of us up. The disconnect isn't just a male problem, it's a problem for all media consumers.
By striking a balance between the sexes and connecting the issue to a singular character with deep-rooted issues, like Jon, the message comes across more honestly and organically. Unlike an informative film like Miss Representation — which is a detailed and effective documentary about the representation of women in media chock full of statistics, facts, and expert testimonies — Don Jon makes a similar point, and sticks the landing because it applies the problems introduced in studies and documentaries to robust characters and the illusion of real people's lives.
In a way, Don Jon is the perfect accompaniment for the more analytic assessments of media and the way it affects our perceptions of women and relationships. It gives the issues a face and a name — and (vague spoiler alert) one potential solution to the problem.