The world of cinema has evolved so much from being a marvel and luxury to making great first dates to having something to watch to comfort ourselves to also serve as background noise while we scroll through our phones now. Even as capitalism and mass production has sped up the process of producing films, I find that these days there are only a few movies that are unforgettable. I think what makes a good movie is how many productive conversations it opens up and how it impacts people and pushes us to consider a different perspective, and I think Don Jon is one of those.
Don Jon was directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and released in 2013. It mainly revolves around 3 people, Jon Martello (Levitt), Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) and Ester (Julianne Moore), and although Ester appears only in the second half of the movie, her presence is very significant. Jon is a bartender, which I did not realise until I had finished three quarters of the movie because we never see him actually working; and he shares that he only cares about a few things – his family, his home, church, his workout and porn. This is a story about Jon’s porn addiction and how he recovers from it. As we learn more about Jon, we see that he has never actually felt an emotionally intimate connection with a woman. He rates them with his friends, gets drunk at clubs, picks someone up, has sex with them and discards them. But for him, it’s still not enough because according to him, it’s not as good as porn. His first somewhat serious girlfriend is Barbara, who is unfortunately toxic and treats him like a project to be fixed. She wants him to be cut out of a man she has an image of in her head, fueled by all the movies she watches. She eventually finds out that Jon watches a lot of porn, screams obscenities at him and leaves.
This is when Jon develops a connection with Ester. Personally, I really like Ester. She’s a little nosy, but open-minded and honest. She engages with Jon and shows him that the reason he enjoys watching porn is likely because it is one-sided and that sex is different when you really connect with the partner, prioritising both persons’ desires and boundaries. She helps him realise his addiction all the while without judging him for it, when everyone else around him seems to.
This is what I love about this movie, that there is no judgement or accusations from Ester, while talking about Jon’s addiction. She created a safe space for him, which is what we need and at the same time, lack. I think the reason people watch porn because it’s free access to sex while remaining anonymous, an otherwise taboo topic in our society. If more people talked openly and honestly about sex, we may find ourselves with new resources to explore and learn about pleasure from. In its absence and pursuit, we develop addiction. An addiction is a condition where one feels the compulsive need to consume a substance (in this case pornography) continuously to satisfy themselves. Addictions interfere with the reward and motivation circuits of our brains. When we consume a substance (like drugs, alcohol, pornography) it produces a rush of dopamine in our reward circuits of our brains and so we want to consume more of it to feel the high. It exacerbates to a point where we cannot function without it and it hinders our relationships and our daily activities. Addictions often happen in a desperate pursuit of authentic connection, which can only be experienced in relationships with the living world, but is sought in substance or transactional activities.
This is shown well in the movie. Jon is addicted to porn, he shows all the signs of an addict. He spends hours browsing pornography websites, is unsatisfied with real life sex, cannot have stable relationships, mastrubates an unhealthy amount any time of the day and night (probably why I didn’t realise his job as a bartender for most of the movie), feels guilty about it because he confesses to the priest at church but continues doing it anyway. And when he stopped watching porn after his breakup with Barbara, he feels the withdrawal symptoms of anger, irritation, insomnia and more. I think that for Jon, pornography is a coping antidote to everything else in his life. He is exactly like his father, looks like him, talks like him, doesn’t like him so much. His father was very happy when Jon started dating Barbara because she was blonde and looked idealistically hot, just like Jon’s mother. Barbara probably looked like a real-life version of one the girls from a porn website.
Eventually, he forms a genuine connection with Ester which is another great thing about this movie. It shows that genuine love isn’t marriage and kids, but a genuine understanding of the other person, creating a safe space to share with that person without jumping to conclusions about their personality. It shows that men can be at the receiving end of a toxic relationship too, to a point where Jon was distanced from his friends and only focused on Barbara and what she wanted.
I remember this conversation I had with my friend Meghna a while back about how pornography perpetuates violence. They were talking about how even in newspapers and magazines, the media puts up explicit images of cases of sexual assault and rape and the question is why are there these explicit pictures that don’t belong to the perpetrator but the survivor when it is the perpetrator who should be getting the blame and the attention. There are people who derive voyeuristic pleasure from these pictures when it’s disrespectful to the victim. This is why we need more conversations about sex and violence, because sex is not just about which position is the best, it’s also about addressing consent, assault, addiction and more. This is why BDSM (which relies heavily on consent and communication) is misunderstood for violence and abuse *cough fiftyshades cough*. We need to make more safe spaces to openly discuss these issues in a healthy way, instead of judging them and shunning them, which this movie wonderfully presents.
It doesn’t come off as a surprise to me that during the pandemic, pornography viewership has increased, maybe it’s because of the boredom or that it’s a distraction and a coping mechanism else or maybe some of us are far away from our partners. But what I was surprised by, is that the virus itself was fetishised and turned into porn stories. Is it because the pandemic symbolises the end of the world as we know it and so it’s exciting and people want to have sex with it? I’m not sure. We need to find a more healthy way of channelling our emotions and processing it in the longer run.
While this movie has such good messages to give us, and even though it’s great that Ester was such an awesome person to help him overcome his addiction, it still puts a moral responsibility on women to “fix” men, to help them be better. As if without women, men are given to automatically be (and remain) horrible and wild people. Which is not okay at all, because it allows the notion of “boys will be boys” and “behind every great man is a woman” as if a woman is not a whole person in herself with her own identity and ambitions. While it’s great that we see that conversation between Ester and Jon about his addiction, I still wish he had actually gone to therapy or sought professional help instead of sleeping with Ester, which may be unhealthy since addiction cannot be addressed so easily. It might have been a more wholesome character arc if there had been a focus on him learning to be alright even without having sex and/or watching porn altogether.