Dr. NerdLove lays out four relationship lessons you can learn from the Joseph Gordon-Levitt film Don Jon.
Normally I prefer not to do “Learn From This” articles on movies that are currently in the theater. To start with, it’s a lot harder for me to take notes (or make trenchant commentary) without annoying the piss out of everyone around me.
For another… frankly, throwing up the odd Amazon affiliate link for the blu-rays help pay for keeping the site up and running.
But occasionally, one will leap out at me and insist that I need to strike while the iron is hot.
Don Jon is one of those.
Now to be fair: it’s a movie that wears its message on its sleeve – rather like 500 Days of Summer, another Joseph Gordon-Levitt joint; the message about Jon, porn and relationships isn’t subtext, it’s pretty much straight-up text. But I still think that there’s a lot to examine about Jon, his addiction to porn and his relationship – not just with women, but with himself.
So let’s dive right in, shall we?
Porn Makes You A Lousy Lover
Let’s start with the obvious: porn makes you lousy in bed.
This isn’t because of diminished arousal capabilities or poor endorphin reuptake because you’ve overstimulated your brain, mind you. It’s because porn sex bears about as much resemblance to actual sex as the car chase scene in the Matrix Reloaded resembles my morning commute.
It’s a topic I’ve touched on before, but it bears repeating: porn sex is kabuki sex. It’s a performance for an audience in order to arouse. Nobody fucks like that in real life unless a) they’re being paid to do so or b) they’ve made the mistake of thinking that the sex you see in porno is how sex is supposed to be in real life… and this is the trap that Jon Martello has fallen into. He’s constantly comparing the copious amounts of real sex he’s having to watching Sunny Lane getting railed, and he finds his sex life wanting. The blowjobs should be longer (without the need for a good reciprocal muff-dive), he longs for positions outside of missionary and dear GOD does he crave the money shot. Maybe not on the face, but at least on her tits, right? Right? C’mon, let a guy have a moment…
Of course, presumably, he’s not wishing for the incredibly awkward, spine-twisting, muscle-cramp-inducing positions or the blazing hot lights. Similarly, I rather doubt that he’s hoping for the constant start-stop pace of porn fucking, the need to stay hard for hours even when you’re well past the point of going numb, or the guy jamming a camera lens up his taint to catch the meat-covered industrial film shot. He wants the fantasy of porn, where everything is perfect and effortless and unspoken.
Now considering how into him his various conquests tend to be, one would think he could, y’know, ask them about varying things up a little. He could say “hey, can we try something a little different?” or “you know what would really turn me on? I’d love to fuck your tits” or “let’s try a different position”. Now, in fairness, when you’re pulling a rando1 home for a same-night lay, it can feel a little awkward to interrupt the moment and ask if she’ be into flipping over or doing a reverse cowgirl. But then, he spends a good 2/3rds of the movie in a committed relationship with a woman whom he presumably loves and who loves him. One would think that he would feel comfortable enough to open up a little and tell her just what it is he needs from her, sexually.
But he doesn’t. He wants it to just happen, the way it does in porn sex.
The way it doesn’t in real life.
(Side note: There actually is a demand out there for less performance-oriented porn; even the so-called “amateur” porn tends to translate as “standard porn with shittier lighting.” Lots of people actually would like to see sex the way real people have it. Hell, Cindy Gallop’s started to fill that niche herself with MakeLoveNotPorn. Check it out if that’s your thing.)
Porn Isn’t The Problem
A lot is made about Jon’s porn addiction. It’s treated as the cause of his relationship woes, when in reality it’s a symptom. Porn in and of itself is inherently neutral2
No, the problem is that Jon is incapable of forming real emotional attachments to people.
He’s the not center of his own universe so much as the singularity that everything’s being pulled into, a mass of self-absorption so dense that nothing seems to be able to escape it. And this is never more evident than in his relationship with Barbara Sugarman.
What, exactly, does Jon love about her? Well, she’s hotter than a thousand burning suns.
Ok, and? Go ahead. I’ll wait while you work this one out.
Alright, it was a trick question. That is literally it. Whenever Jon brags about her, it’s about how hot she is. When he tells his friends he’s not picking up randos at the club any more, it’s not because Barbara makes him happier than anyone he’s ever known. It’s not because she’s supporting his dreams. It’s not because she makes him laugh or feel good about himself or believe that he could accomplish anything that he set his mind to.
It’s because “there isn’t anyone hotter than her in the club.”
He’s with her because she’s got an amazing face, tits like PHWOAR and an ass to make Ghandi cry. And even then he’s still not satisfied. He’s with the hottest woman that he’s ever known, a woman who can dry hump him into making him cum in his pants and he still gets up to rub one out after he’s finally gotten to sleep with her.
Now to be fair: this isn’t entirely Jon’s fault. He comes from a culture that’s especially steeped in machismo and hypermasculinity, where he’s encouraged to be detached from his emotions and communication is something you do only if you have to. Moreover, his home-life is a textbook example of an inability to connect. The Sunday dinners around the table consist entirely of everybody talking at one another instead of to each other (when they’re talking at all…). His mother only wants to know when he’s going to find a girl, his dad only really gives a shit about football and God alone knows what’s going through his sister’s head.
Small wonder then, that he can’t really bond with somebody. His tendency towards self-absorbtion and being a selfish lover is the direct result of the fact that he’s been taught that this is just how men are.
You Want Someone Who Gets You.
Having beaten up on Jon and his obsession with the fantasy of porn sex, Let’s take a moment to talk about Barbara Sugarman.
She is, quite frankly, a manipulative bitch. She’s equally as self-centered as Jon is, except that she sees her selfishness as a virtue. Her only concern is finding someone she can mold into her “ideal”… and she’s not above using coercion or even straight-up emotional blackmail to get what she wants. She uses the former to manipulate him into an exclusive and serious relationship long before he’s ready by arousing him to the point of actual pain and vaguely promising release if he’ll just do these little, teeny things for her. She uses the latter as a way of controlling him for the sin of jerking off. She shames him and berates him for looking at porn, insisting that only freaks and perverts do that and is continually willing to dump him – someone she purportedly loves – at the drop of a hat.
(For reference: a proposed study on the effects of pornography on men had to be cancelled because the researchers couldn’t find any who didn’t watch porn for a control group…)
As Jon’s sister points out, Barbara doesn’t want Jon specifically; she wants somebody - anybody - who is going to fit into the hole labeled “Boyfriend” and can eventually be wedged into the one marked “Husband”… and she’s not terribly particular about who it is. The longer they’re together, the more we see that not only is Barbara not terribly interested in Jon for himself but she just doesn’t get him… and she doesn’t care to make the attempt.
Interestingly, it’s the little things that give this away. Manipulating Jon into taking some night classes could be forgiven – one could argue (correctly) that Jon’s lack of ambition is holding him back from his true potential – but it’s her sheer abject horror at the idea that a grown-ass man might actually like cleaning his place. It’s a matter of pride for him as well as a meditative ritual… something that’s clearly important to his life. To her, however, it’s a sign of emasculation and a lack of class; she wants to live in a world where people wait on her hand and foot. Similarly, she makes fun of Jon for saying his Our Fathers and Hail Marys at the gym. To Jon, it’s part of his way of concentrating and maintaining his form. To Barbara, it’s another embarassing habit that she hopes to break him of as soon as possible.
It’s telling that his relationship with Esther (Julianne Moore) is the one that ultimately brings him satisfaction. Esther goes out of her way to try to understand him. Where Barbara dictates terms, Esther talks to Jon. She reaches out and tries to meet him halfway, such as by trying to give him a better class of erotica than what he’s been watching. Barbara, on the other hand, freaks out and holds their relationship hostage.
Esther – older, less conventionally attractive, less vibrant – gets him… and actually makes him happy. Perfect Barbara doesn’t… and more importantly, doesn’t even try to.
Fantasy Is Poison To Relationships
While we’re talking about Barbara…
We’re shown early on that Barbara obsessed with romantic comedies. She has bought into the Hollywood ideal of romance, with all the bullshit messages that come with it; she wants nothing more than to be the heroine in a Nicholas Sparks movie, where an especially Charming Tater will sweep her off her feet and whisk her away to a happily ever after that the writers don’t ever have to handle because the credits are rolling and nobody wants to think about how much work it takes to maintain a relationship.
But she didn’t get this obsession after one too many viewings of Dirty Dancing (and radically missing the point of the movie); it’s been with her through her entire life.
Jon’s obsession with the fantasy of porn sex was really only enabled through the advent of high-speed Internet access and porn streaming sites with a liberal attitude towards copyright law. Barbara’s has been part of the cultural narrative for little girls for nearly a generation. She was first brought into the fantasy of Someday My Prince Will Come (as opposed to Someday My Princesses Will Cum) as a child; her old bedroom in her parents’ house is a shrine to a pre-teen girly girl who’s been taught to be in love with love… and the next generation is already being dipped head first into those murky waters with the princess party that Joe’s obliged to attend.
Just as Joe is caught up in the fantasy of Porn Sex, Barbara has been caught up in the fantasy of Perfect Love, where the conflicts are trivial and easily resolved – often with one party just admitting to being completely wrong and the other never having to actually acknowledge fault or their contribution to the problem. It’s a world where women are put up on a pedestal as princesses and goddesses for men to worship and everything just works because it’s in the script and the test audiences didn’t respond well when the spunky poor girl told the hunky rich boy of her dreams to go screw and went home with the nerd instead.
Her belief in the idea that life should follow rom-com logic is never more obvious than when she and Jon have their last confrontation. She arrives believing that after their dramatic break-up, the time has come for the equally dramatic reconciliation, leading to their happily ever after… only to be rocked back on her heels when Jon just wants to clear the air before going on his way. She gets so pissed off at his refusal to follow the script that she can’t even accept his apology. The only thing she can think to do is lash out at him and try to punish him one last time for not conforming to the Nora Ephron movie she was picturing in her head.
Of course, while it’s easy to claim that rom-coms are porn for women, it ignores the fact that men fall into this exact same trap all the goddamn time. Men buy into the cult of the Nice Guy, trying to back-door their way sex via platonic friendship because pop-culture keeps saying that if you just hang in there long enough, she’ll eventually realize that you’re the perfect man for her and fall into your arms. Of course, reality isn’t Can’t Hardly Wait or When Harry Met Sally and the women who find out that their supposed best friend had been harboring an agenda all this time are usually justifiably pissed off.
The problem isn’t the source of the fantasy, it’s the fantasy itself. The fantasy of the Perfect Relationship is just as toxic to real life relationships as the fantasy of Porn Sex… the only difference is that the Perfect Relationship Fantasy is more socially acceptable, because we still see sex for sex’s sake as something to be ashamed of while Love – with the capital L – is something precious and holy and should be pursued at all costs. The fantasy is appealing because it’s simple and effortless, and gives us exactly what we want.
But that never works in the real world. People are complicated, even contradictory creatures. Sex and love are messy, convoluted, bewildering, and frustrating, and wonderful in equal measure, and almost never go the way we expect or hope they will. And that’s what makes them amazing.
Fantasy is wonderful… as long as you can remember that it’s a fantasy. Trying to impose it on the real world is a recipe for heartbreak and pain. It’s only when we can accept the world for the way it is in all of its imperfect, maddening glory that we can find our real happy endings, whether it’s ever after or just for a little while.
Originally appeared at Paging Dr. NerdLove