Maybe you wouldn’t think of a movie like this as feminist. Up until the day we saw it, my roommate was affectionately calling it Jersey Boy. From the trailer, it looks like the film is primarily about a dudebro who gets his GTL on every day (Gym, Tan, Laundry), and objectifies women. And yeah, it totally is. In the film, Jon insists there are only a few things in the world he truly cares about: his “body,” his “pad,” his “ride,” his “family,” his “church,” his “boys,” his “girls,” and, of course, his “porn.” In the opening of the film, he repeats these things like a mantra: Body, pad, ride, family, church, boys, girls, porn.
Note: Spoilers abound.
Is this what’s happening? Kids of baby boomers pick up where their parents left off, and create critical mainstream media?
Don Jon has been churning out a number of pleasantly surprised viewers, and some have even debated whether it may be a feminist film in disguise. It helps that Joseph Gordon-Levitt, writer, director, and lead actor in Don Jon, is acutely aware of the sexual objectification of women, especially in media, and even self-identifies as a feminist. And with feminists being some of the world’s most hated political activists these days, it’s a miracle that JGL was able to break through the wall and make a movie like this, much less pull an Ari and post a bunch of feminist essays on his Facebook.
“I think whether it’s rated X or approved for general viewing audiences, the message is the same: you’re taking a person—in our culture it’s usually a woman—and reducing her to a thing, to an object for your consumption. I think plenty of mainstream media is equally guilty of that as pornography.”
He also talks about his upbringing being a greater influence on the way he sees women, which is also an anomaly, since he’s been a heartthrob for young girls since he was maybe 15?
“I think it’s important to think about gender roles for women and for men. It’s irrefutable that over the course of history, women have gotten the short end of the stick. No doubt. They’ve been oppressed and have suffered a lot. My mom and my dad were very active in all sorts of movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and feminism was definitely front and center. Whenever we watch the Lakers as a family, every time, to this day, the Laker girls will come on, and my mom will sigh. ‘So that’s what women can do, huh?’ She said it when I was 6; she said it last week. And she’s right!”
Don Jon isn’t a movie the movie you think it is, which is already refreshing. It’s about a guy who objectifies everything in his life. The female objectification is from an exaggerated view, but it’s still relatable and funny (the comedy writing and directing in this movie is superb). We know it’s wrong from this overblown caricature of a man. But the movie really hammers in why it’s messed up.
It shows the dangers of what it is not to be critical, and how our relationships with other humans suffer because of it. Don Jon also challenges the concept of hypermasculinity. We see a man who prioritizes pornography over sex because he doesn’t understand that sex is a two-way street. We see a woman, Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), trying to turn Jon into her dream man, just like she watches in the movies, and getting turned off at the thought of him cleaning his apartment (ahem, I mean “pad”). When we buy into media portrayals on the basis of gender, even a little bit, it has the potential to create misunderstanding between people. We see each other as one-dimensional. And in fact, Jon is a pretty one-dimensional character for most of the movie. It’s not until we see him accept a complicated but healthy relationship into his life that he becomes complex. Compared to the beginning, the end feels like a totally different movie. There’s a great shift in terms of dialogue, narration, acting, and direction.
The film also makes a concerted effort to not say “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” It does not necessarily pit Jon vs. Barbara. Barbara is not representative of all women. Barbara is one woman. Esther (Julianne Moore) is another very different woman. And we get interesting portraits of both. And speaking of Esther, I appreciated that Don Jon acknowledged sexual desire in women older than, like, 40. This is something you don’t see very often outside of Lifetime movies, which already show us love and sex like weird soap operas. Normally Julianne Moore would be paired with somebody like Richard Gere. Normally, Jon’s character would only pay attention to someone like Esther through MILF or Cougar porn. Instead, she’s an older woman in a fulfilling relationship with a younger man, and it’s not portrayed in a way where their age difference is the source of some eroticism or taboo.
Romantic comedy is a genre that has a lot of potential, but has long been neglected because it’s seen as “just a girl genre.” That said, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to really be enamored with taking movies in “girl genres,” and turning them into personal growth stories about men, which is something I’m hugely ambivalent about, especially for what some people might consider a feminist movie. In the end, Don Jon is from a guy’s perspective, and it’s about his life, and personal growth. This only adds to the longstanding trend of movies being about men, where women are supporting characters. Another thing the film buys into (still) is the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (which has been discussed ad nauseum by this point, so if you want more info, do your own Googling), whereby a woman is the vehicle through which personal growth is achieved. Esther may be a fully realized character with her own desires, demons, and motivations, but in the end she still exists to “fix” him, and this is not okay.
Don Jon also portrays objectification through gender as having equally bad outcomes for everyone, when in fact, that’s not the case at all. You’ve got Jon and his porn, and you watch his relationships suffer, and you’ve got Barbara and her romance movies, and you watch her relationships suffer. This equality is illusory. In fact, men and women suffer unequally, which is something JGL acknowledges in his quote above, but which the movie doesn’t address, because of its tight focus on a male character. This was a problem I had with films like Crash, which focus on the individual and say “both men and women have to be responsible,” or “everyone’s a little bit racist.” These movies don’t act on bigotry as ingrained and institutional. It seems like a small thing, but it’s actually a dangerous and simplistic view that has the potential to shift accountability away from the people who directly benefit from institutionalized sexism.
So, is Don Jon a feminist film?
I know that’s the gist of this post. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a self-identified feminist who attempted to make a feminist movie. Did he succeed?
I readily admit that I, too, get lost in JGL’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean I can let him off that easy. Like most films that take on political commentary, there’s some stuff Don Jon gets right and some stuff it gets wrong. On the whole, I think Joseph Gordon-Levitt would be glad that I didn’t compromise. I’d like to think it anyway. I’d like to think that he’d be proud of me for only mentioning his dreamy eyes once (okay, twice) because I was making an effort not to objectify him too much.