What Don Jon Teaches Us About Love, Sex & Selfishness
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
As promised, here’s the follow-up to my post on why Christians should consider watching Don Jon. Here I’ll discuss the film's significant scenes and themes.
Like I said last time, Joseph Gordon-Levitt describes Don Jon as being about “a boyfriend and a girlfriend; he watches too much pornography, and she watches too many romantic Hollywood movies.” With this film, Gordon-Levitt wanted to explore the way media affects our expectations of real life. (NPR) In doing so, the film examines broader issues of sexuality in general.
A synopsis before we get started:
Jon describes his ordinary world this way: “There's only a few things I really care about in life. My body. My pad. My ride. My family. My church. My boys. My girls. My porn.” He and his friends often pick up girls at the club, but when he sees Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson) in a red dress at the bar, he finds she’s hard to get. Eventually, she agrees to date him. Things go well for a while – until she catches him watching porn and dumps him. After that, he begins a relationship with Esther (played by Julianne Moore), an older woman he met in his night class. He tells her what happened with Barbara and she points out he might have an addiction to porn. Eventually, she helps him realize his self-centered perspective on sex. Jon meets up with Barbara to apologize, but realizes during the conversation that she was also selfish. In the end, it is through his relationship with Esther that he starts to understand that sex has always been about loving another individual, rather than finding personal pleasure.
Porn is part of a self-centered sex life.
First of all, I'd like to point out that while Jon is undoubtedly addicted, pornography is not the only contributor to his broken views on sexuality. His root issue - just like all of us - is that he is self-centered, and not surprisingly, that attitude bleeds into his sexuality. That’s why I say porn is partof a self-centered sex life.
The movie shows other aspects of Jon’s attitude by how he and his friends pick up girls for one-night stands, and how they rate women’s attractiveness based on a one to ten scale. Even his conversations with his father about Barbara prove that his whole paradigm about the opposite sex is hanging on physical appearance, rather than on a woman’s worth as a person.
A particularly sober scene is at the dinner table with his family. Jon and his father are absorbed in the TV behind them, which is playing a highly-sexualized advertisement. Meanwhile, the camera pans past the mother and sister who are both attractive, normal-looking women. The question this scene asks is: how are the women in our life supposed to compete with the gorgeous models the media has taught us to expect?
Later in the film, we start to see some examples of how pornography in particular has affected Jon’s perspective on sex. In one scene, Jon admits to Esther that he actually enjoys porn more than sex. She responds with a question:
ESTHER Well what is it? What do you get from porn that you don’t get with sex with an actual person? JON I lose myself.
A few scenes later, Esther confronts Jon with the truth. What he was missing in real sex was what he was searching for in porn: the experience of losing himself.
ESTHER Honey, I’m gonna be honest with you, cause that seems like what you want. Look, the way you have sex is totally one-sided. It’s like I’m not even there... You said you want to lose yourself in sex. If you want to lose yourself, you have to lose yourself in another person, and she has to lose herself in you. It’s a two-way thing.
Porn is selfish because it’s one-sided. It takes out the relational aspect of the physical act, removing the other person from the equation in favor of yourself. But in order to truly enjoy sex, Jon finally realizes, the focus has to be on someone else.
It's selfish to demand a Hollywood boyfriend.
Jon isn't the only one who is self-centered, though. Barbara has developed unrealistic expectations for the men she dates, partly due to the influence of the Hollywood romances she loves so much. On their first date, they go watch "Someone Special," which is obviously a spoof on the typical chick flick.
In the voiceover, Jon narrates the cliché plot we've all seen a million times:
JON (VO) The pretty woman. The pretty man. Love at first sight. The first kiss. The break up. The make up. The expensive wedding. Then they drive off into the sunset. Everyone knows it’s fake but they watch it like its real f***ing life.
Afterwards, Barbara gushes over the film:
BARBARA She was the most important thing to him. He gave up everything for her. It was meant to be. I love movies like that, you know. He’s such a real man.
In Barbara's eyes, a "real" man is modeled after the Hollywood boyfriend, who gives up everything for the woman he loves. But the problem with her perspective is that it's one-sided: she expects the men she's dating to give up everything, while she gives up nothing.
Throughout their relationship, we see how many demands Barbara makes. In one scene, she uses the promise of sex to manipulate Jon into taking a night class. In another scene, she prevents Jon from buying cleaning supplies because the thought of him cleaning his apartment isn't "sexy." After the breakup, Jon's sister points out the flaw in their relationship:
MONICA That girl, she has her own agenda. She doesn’t care about Jonny, she doesn’t know the first thing about him. She just wants a guy who’s gonna do whatever she tells him to. (To Jon) It is a good thing that she broke up with you.
While Jon's porn addiction instigated the breakup, Barbara's selfishness was also causing the relationship to crumble. Later, when Jon meets up with her to apologize, the following conversation conducts a perfect post-mortem of their relationship.
JON You asked for a lot, a lot of different things. And then, I couldn’t do it all for you. BARBARA Well, when a real man loves a woman, he doesn’t mind doing things for her. Alright? He’ll do anything for her. JON Yeah, but don’t you think that sounds a little bit one-sided? BARBARA No, I don’t. But that’s why you like to watch those whores in those videos, cause you don’t gotta do anything for them, right? JON Yeah, that’s one-sided also. Definitely.
In the end, Jon and Barbara both contributed to the dysfunction of the relationship. Relationships simply can't function if both people are selfish.
The best sex is selfless.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film is a sex scene near the end of the film. It takes place after Jon and Esther have had another difficult, but honest, conversation. Esther has also finally revealed the pain she's been hiding: 14 months ago, she lost her husband and son in a tragic car accident. Because it takes place in the context of emotional vulnerability, the sex in this scene is markedly different from the sex in any of the previous scenes. The act comes from a completely different source: pure love rather than self-centeredness and gentleness rather than personal satisfaction. You can also see on Jon's face that he is experiencing a pleasure that surpasses any of his previous sexual encounters: the pleasure of losing himself in another person.
The film ends with Jon's reaction to this revelatory experience:
JON (VO) While we’re doin’ it, all the bullshit does fade away. It’s just me and her, right there. And yeah, I do lose myself in her. And I can tell she’s losing herself in me. And we’re just f***ing... lost together.
Religion in Don Jon
There's one last scene I'd like to pull from the film, and it's one that is especially important for Christians to hear. Like I mentioned before, church is on Jon's list of things he cares about. Every week, we see him attending mass with his family and entering the confession booth. In this sacred space, we get to see Jon's initial complacency, quickly followed by shame, a desire to do what's right, and eventually excitement as he triumphs over pornography on his journey to freedom. Unfortunately, however, the church seems out of touch with his internal transformation. Take a look at his visit to the confessional booth following his breakthrough with Esther:
JON I told the father a while back that I stopped watching pornography, but that was a lie. I didn’t stop at all. Thing is, this week, I actually did stop. Totally. Just not doing it anymore. So. He pauses, waiting for the priest's response. He is greeted with silence. PRIEST Yes? JON Yeah! So that’s like zero for the week. He pauses again, still expecting a positive reaction. Receiving none, he continues. Other than that, I did have sex out of wedlock one time, but it was different. It wasn’t just sex, it was like... I don’t know, it’s hard to explain, but...yeah, that’s it, so. For these and all the sins in my life, I am sorry. PRIEST Ten Lord’s Prayers and ten Hail Mary’s– JON What, really? Same thing, no difference? PRIEST To the ministry of the church, may God give you– JON Wait, Father, I’m really sorry, but could you just tell me how you got to those numbers, please, cause I really thought there was gonna be a difference this week. PRIEST Have faith, my son.
This scene struck me because sometimes the church becomes so concerned with do's and don'ts that it forgets true transformation happens in the heart. Yes, Jon was still having sex out of wedlock, but he was finally grasping the concept of sacrificial love that is so central the Gospel. But the church couldn't look past the surface details to see that he was finding healing. The challenge to us is this: will we withhold our judgment and choose to look at the heart instead, like God does?
I think that's why I wrote that last article defending Don Jon. Based on content alone, I probably should have condemned the film. But instead, I took the risk of watching it. In the end, I was surprised to discover that its heart was pure, or at least in the process of healing - just like Jon.