If you took every cliché about Jersey Shore’s gaudy youthful narcissism, and dressed it to the nines with a robotic chewtoy version of some Brooklyn-Italian accent, then painted it up with a few seemingly profound strokes of feminist social commentary, and crammed the whole pretty mess into characters so flat, you can iron your shirt on them: you get “Don Jon.”
(Oh, by the way: SPOILER ALERT!)
Screenwriter and lead actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, says his mom is a feminist, so he wrote a romantic comedy in which the protagonist falls in love with Esther, a character who could probably be his mom. Played by actress Julianne Moore, Esther’s brief cougar sex scene with Jon, which begins and ends in a venerable muumuu, is by far, the most revolutionary part of this movie. Their solemn grapple is soaked in pity by Esther’s revelation of tragic loss - her husband and son have recently died in a car accident. Upon hearing her confession, Jon’s macho heart is struck; and the quiet, mournful moments that follow are portrayed as “real sex,” in stark contrast to the “fake sex” of porn stars. With great spurts of sympathy, these concise moments constitute the climax of the story: a self-proclaimed porn addict enlightened by a magical mentor who, weepingly, teaches him what real sex (and real love) should be.
Short and sweet. It takes a dead family. Like all good chick flicks, the deep commentary in the movie could be earnestly summarized in a few pithy lines.
The feminist message is not new: women’s bodies are commoditized in commercials, and scored on a scale of one to “dime” by an unconvincing bro-mance between loserish guys. And of course, the porn is to blame – though porn stars seem to be the only characters in the whole movie who are actively employed. Nobody else seems to ever go to work. However, as "Don Jon" goes on to show, another sexual economy exists outside of porn. Jon’s girlfriend, Barbara Sugarman, played by Scarlett Johansson, uses her sexuality to control and win favors from him, seducing him to take night classes in order to make him into a worthier husband. She and the other club-girls evaluate guys based on their jobs and incomes, and when one of her girlfriends gets into conflict with the guy she’s dating, Barbie comments:
“What a shame! She put four years into that guy. She’s gonna be 28.”
For Barbara, dating and romance is a woman’s strategic game, the goal of which is to win the perfect husband before turning 30. Sex is the main currency, and the weapon of choice in the warfare between the genders. Anyone who interferes with the potency of that weapon (i.e. a porn star) is undermining Barbara’s power, and she must have all competition banned. As Don Jon’s uber-stereotypical Italian father tells him, “She’s the kind of girl that makes a boy into a man.”
A man – that’s the object created by a girl who puts years of love into him. A man is a thing that brings money home, and holds babies at arms’ length, and never ever Swiffers the floors. A girl will not have her man compete with her in the chores that are rightfully her own (or reserved for her housekeeper) because that would render the man less dependent on her "feminine skills." Barbara, with her addiction to Hollywood romantic movies, and her old-fashioned gender roles, is just as anti-feminist as Jon is. The movie suggests that it takes a better woman, with a pot-smoking hippie spirit, to show Jon real feminist love -- an older woman who no longer gives a damn about marriage, who can give out Danish porn recommendations like Netflix Gone Wild, and who can accept Jon for exactly who he is: a simple American boy who finds only enough space in his brawny heart to care about a total of eight things, no more, no less.
With porn out of the way, space gets freed up for another thing. “The prettiest thing he’s ever seen,” is just another thing. It’s only through porn that Don Jon finds his escape, his moment of peace. But as the widow Esther proselytizes, the problem with porn is that it’s so one-sided. Esther explains that porn teaches people to have sex in a selfish way, to focus on their own orgasms rather than the pleasure of their partners. She blames porn for Jon’s lack of sensitivity and reciprocity during sex, and recommends some old school porn from the 1970s, which is “nothing like the modern stuff.” Clearly, she and Jon are unaware of alternative porn made by modern women, some of which would serve as good teaching material for people to become better, more sensitive lovers (including porn star Nina Hartley's instructional videos).
If this movie were to be truly revolutionary, the secret that Esther would have revealed to Jon would be that she used to be a Danish porn star. I was really hoping to discover that the porno that Esther gave Jon was actually one made by a badass ‘70s incarnation of herself. Then, maybe, she would be able to talk to Jon about how sexuality is, indeed, overtly commoditized in society, from marriage to sexual commerce, but how porn stars are real people, with real desires and histories, who perform a very temporary role in this market of evolving sexual fashions. Even though sexuality is commoditized, porn stars are not reducible to their performed sexualities, nor are they "selling themselves." Porn actors, both female and male, do a job which may have little to do with their real sexual desires, but they also enjoy real, authentic pleasure outside of porn performances, and in ways that are not easily stereotyped. It would have been interesting if the movie took a turn towards exploring the real sexual desires of sex workers.
Instead, Esther’s monumental confession is that her family died in a car accident only six months ago. That’s very sad. It’s sad that it takes this grand gesture, equivalent to a theatrical anvil dropping on Jon’s head, for him to make “sensitive love” to her, in what is essentially a pity-fuck. If this is what “real sex” looks like, I am sad that the viewer is left unassured as to whether or not one can expect “real sex” from a man without the necessary prerequisite of tragedy to shake up his paternalistic pity into some semblance of love. Like Ophelia or Juliet, the classic female beauty begs tragic redemption as all feminine beauty conscious of itself results in punishment unless a male Savior intervenes.
But Tragedy is its own form of pornography, and tears are also a classic currency between woman and man. It turns out Esther is just another damsel in distress, searching for her Prince to rescue her. Sure, she’s an older damsel, and that’s awesome, but she doesn’t do anything really revolutionary. Like Barbara, and Jon's mother and sister, all the characters in this screenplay are just written too flatly.
That’s a missed opportunity for debuting director Joseph Gordon-Levitt. For a guy who seeks to earn a reputation as being sensitive to the intimate thoughts of women, Gordon-Levitt makes little attempt to actually understand modern women’s sexualities or our relationship to porn. The fastest growing percentage of porn viewers on the internet are women; we are becoming an increasingly important market for sexual entertainment. As porn diversifies to accommodate a growing range of tastes, companies that cater specifically to women, including escort agencies that increasingly employ male sex workers for female clients, now constitute the growing parts of the sex industry that may actually have a better understanding of female desire and evolving sexual power relations than other parts of society. This includes the already female-dominant sex toy market. With women’s increased economic equality and sexual liberation, the changing social contract of marriage and wage/Swiffer-labor mean different things to women in different parts of society, alongside women's changing sexual expectations of men.
What do women really want today, sexually? I find it hard to believe that what women really want, deeply and intimately, is mournful muumuu sex, all tragic and brief. Gordon-Levitt does not really explore the sexual fantasies of his female characters, and instead employs a few flat stereotypes of feminine victimhood under chauvinistic oppression. Instead of really giving voice to female sexuality, Gordon-Levitt’s movie actually perpetuates women’s sexual silence.
As a some-time porn actress and current dominatrix who sees both male and female clients, and couples, I am very comfortable with my own sexuality, and able to articulate my needs to my partner in a healthy, non-manipulative way. I am happy with my personal sex life. I am also happy with my porn. In fact, I choose my current partner in love and life, partially because he can satisfy my fantasies like they do in the pornos I enjoy. For me, good sex is a requirement in my relationships, and not substitutable by financial or reproductive remediation. The sex I want is not slow-motion muumuu sex, nor is it the performed exuberance of sex work. It’s enhanced by love, but not solely sentimental. It’s pleasurable, reciprocal, and sometimes simply physically enjoyable, while other times emotionally expressive; the two are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes my partner and I watch porn together, and we can get off on the good porn together, as well as make fun of the bad porn. The porn I watch does not define me, just as the porn I’ve acted in does not define me. My partner and I can both enjoy our sexualities, with neither guilt nor manipulative gendered bargaining. I think it’s partially because of my side job as a sex worker that I can clearly and comfortably articulate the difference between the social performance of my sexuality, and my strong and independent personal experience of sexual desire.
While I am also critical of the commoditization of women’s bodies for marketing purposes, from selling cars to selling hamburgers, I don’t blame porn for this phenomenon. I don’t blame men as a whole. And I don’t blame sex workers. We have Sigmund Freud and Edward Bernays to thank for the marketing of sexuality; and even more than those two, we have the Hail Mary's to thank – taboo generates demand, and the more society prohibits certain actions, the more the suppressed desire translates into subliminal demand; this demand is commoditized in the world of vice, and in sensationalized media as advertisement. Sex sells, precisely because it is sensational; it is sensational, precisely because desire is denaturalized and forbidden. Insisting that all sex must be sacred and beyond the reach of markets and labor relations, is actually enforcing a Barbara Sugarman cartel against the forces of the internet, which serves other purposes of enhancing women's domestic bargaining power (purposes that are neither revolutionary nor necessarily empowering for women).
Rather than going the route of the failed Temperance Movement, feminists can improve the quality of porn and fairness in the sex industry by encouraging female consumption of porn and sexual services. Rather than trying to ban porn, or insisting that all porn is inherently degrading to women, more women can continue creating and supporting alternative porn until it becomes mainstream, and expressing healthy sexual self-awareness with other women and with our partners.
And maybe, just maybe, if society showed a little more respect to porn actors and sex workers, it would be harder to reduce us to nothing more than “the tits, the ass, the blow job, and the sex.” If sex itself were not seen as a dirty, degrading thing, a thing that somehow inherently privileges men and victimizes women, then maybe porn would not be so degrading and unequal, and porn stars would not be regarded as degraded human beings. If the forces of Good were not so busy fighting sexuality in the name of all that is virtuous, then maybe they would not be creating a world in which so much sexual exchange exists only in vice.
That would certainly make the world a better place for people of all genders and sexualities. Word to the wise, Mr. Gordon-Levitt. You're welcome.
Courtesy of Slixa, Kate went on a date with her computer scientist boyfriend to watch Don Jon in theaters this week. Afterwards, the two sat in an Italian diner and discussed the movie. Questions about authenticity and sexual performance, the "Male Gaze" and feminist film theory, alienation of feeling via labor, social conditioning and subversive desire, and the economics of a faked orgasm: all these were questions raised in their conversation, which you can read about in Tits and Sass, the sex worker blog, for which Kate is the new Current Events editor. See Part II of Kate's review of Don Jon at TitsandSass.com.