Don Jon and Depictions of Gender in Mass Media

[Originally written for a Media Critique class in October 2013].

Don Jon is an interesting movie in that it exhibits a male perspective so rarely seen in films. Joseph Gordon Levitt as the film’s writer, director, and star clearly wants to make a statement about his view of modern masculinity, going so far as to take on the larger-than-life persona of the ultra-masculine, Italian American title character Jon. The audience is told right up front that Jon cares about only a few things in life: his body, his car, his pad, his church, his family, his guys, his girls, and his porn. In fact, the audience is reinforced in this idea because we see Jon doing nothing else.

His day to day consists of working out, living materialistically, and vehemently pursuing women, whether real or virtual. The heart of this story therefore comes from Jon’s transformation into a man who can view women as equals, as opposed to sexual objects to conquer. While I believe this view has been expressed in other media, I found Don Jon to be unique in that Levitt’s honest male-perspective tackles our most modern depictions of gender.

Jon spends the bulk of this movie convincing himself that he is normal, that he is just your average guy. His addiction to porn comes from his misconception that all men watch porn and his mass consumption of it is therefore justified. The audience understands how this is reinforced when his friend later asks him why he broke up with his girlfriend Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson. When Jon explains that she caught him watching porn, his friend replies, “That’s it?” This communicates to Jon that his amount of porn consumption is normal and that men in relationships should feel comfortable viewing porn. Furthermore, the audience is given the impression that Jon’s understanding of women and relationships come from both porn and media depictions.

For example, the scene at the dinner table where Tony Danza’s character Jon, Sr. and Jon watch the Carl’s Jr. ad shows the two of them completely ignoring how blatant their ogling is, while his mother and sister merely roll their eyes. The women have learned to accept this portrayal and the men are held captive by its depiction.

Jon’s connection to his father is also reinforced by their identical name and mirroring of their “wife-beater” wardrobes, insinuating this ogling is indicative of all men. Likewise, there are scenes where Jon compares having sex with a real woman to watching porn. The women in porn will do stuff that no woman in real life would do and viewing it requires no effort on the part of the man. It is a completely selfish act that allows Jon to “lose himself,” within the false reality of the porn.

The character of Barbara, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is clearly dealing with her own understanding of reality through media depictions, specifically romance movies. Barbara expects Jon to express his love in the over-the-top gestures seen in movies like Say Anything, where a man’s love means selflessly giving everything and expecting nothing in return. I would argue this is the same kind of selfishness Jon learns from watching porn, where the relationships are entirely one-sided. Barbara expects Jon to wait on her hand and knee, even going so far as to not let him clean his own house because, in her eyes, a man cleaning is “not sexy.”

When Jon and Barbara later meet, Barbara explains that she asked Jon to do “one thing” for her by not watching porn. She can’t bring herself to admit, as Jon points out, that it was a lot of things. Their relationship was completely dysfunctional because it was rooted in illusions they had both picked up from media depictions. When they didn’t feel fulfilled in their relationship, they turned to their virtual partners who expected nothing from them.

Jon’s relationship with Barbara was entirely based on her “dime” status, or the thought that she was “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” Barbara is a conquest, not an equal. She is a sexual object, not a woman. It is through Esther’s character, played by Julianne Moore that Jon finds what it means to “lose yourself” in another person and appreciate what that brings to sex. I believe that Moore was made to look older and more plain than how audiences normally see here. The fact that Jon ends up falling for her as a person, as opposed to her looks, shows how far he has come in rejecting his previously held, media-based understanding of women.

Linda Holtzman cites a 1986 study which, “determined that children who watch television had more stereotyped views of the sexes than children who did not” (76). I strongly believe that Levitt wanted to tackle media-based gender stereotypes with this film, concluding that media influences have the ability to negatively shape one’s perception of both gender and relationships. The characters of Jon, Jon, Sr., and Barbara, all typify this idea. Although these characters seem to be larger-than-life, I believe Levitt would argue that these views are increasingly seen as normal in our society, where honest communication in relationships break down and extrapolations from the media take their place.

Works Cited

Holtzman, L. (2000). Gender: In pink and blue and vivid color. In Media messages: What film television, and popular music teach us about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation (pp. 51-97). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.


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