Don Jon: A perverted examination of gender roles

Don JonSex sells…or so advertising companies would have us believe. Don Jon sets out with what seem to be grand initial ideas of exploring the relationships between male and female ideals on sexual identity. The bigger questions of gender differences and how gender ideals correlate with opinions on standards for sexual behaviour and fantasies are also touched upon. Unfortunately, a lack of justification for characters’ opinions, or emphasis on explaining why they think and act in the ways that they do, leaves the narrative riddled with a sense of fraudulent realism.

The central characters are initially presented to us via montage style clips and a narration by the male protagonist, Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), in which he introduces himself and his lifestyle. Jon is a porn addict who cannot intimately connect with women and Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) is a blonde bombshell with a desire to live in a rom-com where she’s treated like a princess by a man she can control. Gordon-Levitt and Johansson give fantastic performances and really launch themselves into the good-on-paper style selfish characters. The classical opera Don Juan is the inspiration for the leading male character, and the film follows that traditional path of having the protagonist punished for his sins. But unlike Don Juan, Don Jon forgoes the opera’s bleakness, which contributes to the overall mainstream sensibility of the narrative.

Unfortunately, Don Jon’s characters are two dimensional stereotypes that don’t even go as far as struggling to come to terms with their twisted personal ideologies. However,  the true problem with the film is a confused narrative focus. You’re left unsure if you’re meant to takes sides with the lead male, sympathise with the females he takes home, or if you’re meant to completely remove yourself from the any notion of realism in understanding the characters.  The core problem with the latter is that in doing so, you leave the characters in the realm of existing for purely comical purposes, but paradoxically, to follow the film through to the end, you’re encouraged to form some sort of attachment to them.  Obsessive and portrayed as extreme and ridiculous, it’s very hard to see how audiences will come to form an empathy with characters so far from societal norms in their ideals.

Don JonJoseph Gordon-Levitt stars in, wrote and directed the film, which he openly describes as a comedy with stereotypical characters taken to extremes.  When working on 50/50 with Seth Rogen he had the initial idea for Don Jon and was looking for a way to tell a story.  Character based humour rather than gags was the intention, but this approach, as Gordon-Levitt acknowledges, is based on the premise that you’re laughing at the characters because you’re relating to their actions.  I didn’t find it funny, mainly because this simply didn’t happen. I saw them for the stereotypes they are rather than actual personalities that could correlate with any sort of real relationships I have, and I find it hard to believe that audiences will react any differently.  Instead, the characters’ lack of ability to genuinely connect with each other shows up their lack of depth.

A lot of sharp montage editing utilising porn imagery and footage allows for many opportunities where style can be used to excuse the graphic material that is being depicted. Used comically, these montages fulfil the purpose of visualising Jon’s addiction and with this disguise have made it into the multiplexes without a second thought. The idea that pornography can be smuggled into the film with the excuse of it being used for comedic effect is an act of psychological manipulation that I can’t get past.  Instead of making his addiction seedy and dark like most of the media prefers to depict, it’s excusable because his attitudes are funny?  Perhaps it’s meant to be funny because we are supposed to relate to him as a character, which as a woman, I can’t. Mainly because my views on women’s rights don’t include viewing bodily obsession as positive, but also because I see current media portrayals of the female body image as detrimental to society’s views on women’s rights. The vicious cycle of attitudes here is unfortunately backed up by how Barbara uses her looks to get what she wants. Fitting her image to media ideals is key to Barbara’s understanding of how she maintains her lifestyle. Her abusive opinions on relationship balance are just as unhealthy as Jon’s submitting to her will because she looks good on his arm. I couldn’t bring myself to invest in either lead character and subsequently had no interest in seeing what happened to them.

Don JonHollywood’s conception of sexism and what audiences tend to find relatable continues to surprise me.  Of course, sex on screen is not a taboo subject and we no longer live by the moral codes of the 1930s. I’m not having a dig at the representation of addiction to sex or porn on the big screen, as films like Shame deal with the subject matter wonderfully and provide a real opportunity for discussion. Unfortunately there really isn’t any thought provoking material in Don Jon.  The only recent example in the media I can liken this to this film is the reality TV show Jersey Shore.  If you get those characters you’ll easily relate to Don Jon. Personally,  I’m not sold.




I am a film article and review writer based in Belfast with a BA and MA in film studies. I love Asian cinema and documentary film. I’m fascinated by cinematography and adore animation. I’m opinionated and passionate, and just like any good cinephile would declare my investment in film knows no bounds. There’s nothing I won’t watch and very little I won’t have something to say about.

4 thoughts on “Don Jon: A perverted examination of gender roles

  1. Hello, Laura!

    I am going to agree with what has already been said by bkap below, but will add that I was surprised you didn’t comment in your review on the presence of the earthier character of Edith, played by Julianne Moore. Though I also found Don Jon flawed, and though I have a very strong aversion to anything depicting women in a stereotypical or sexualised way when there is no call for it, I found Don Jon had sound reason for its representation of women because the truth is that women like Johansson’s Barbara exist. She is not an example of all women, she is an example of women who, generally, has no respect for the men they’re dating and who use them and manipulate them, fairly easily, with the promise of the man getting into their pants. In no way is this depicted in the film like the basis for a healthy relationship. In contrast to the sleek Barbara there is the middle-aged Edith, who is a mess, but selfless, open, honest, straightforward, offering a completely different female example, not to mention her being a woman who is in every respect the opposite of what Jon believes he wants – having been brainwashed by the superficial perfection of his porn stars – but who, ultimately, proves his deliverance.

    Again, I am not saying this film was not flawed, but I felt it approached its subject matter with a tongue-in-cheek attitude and I quite enjoyed the watch. Agree with you, however, in that I found all the pornographic visuals a bit overbearing at times.

    All my best!

  2. The movie closely examines the way in which media influences sexual/relationship psychology of individuals. While Don Jon watches porn – an overblown simulation of sex, Johansson watches movies – an overblown simulation of life. However, the movie’s scope extends to all elements of life where we find ourselves using an unreality to make ourselves feel better – such as when Levitt’s character questions the priest in confession. While the characters seem shallow, it is done so intentionally. It forces all the guys who watch porn and all the girls that watch movies as escape that they are the other sides of the same coin. One is socially unacceptable, one is socially acceptable – and by arguing their similarity, Levitt forces the audience to question their own viewing of the movie. Why exactly did you choose to watch it?

  3. First efforts by actors who want to be directors are often a disappointment, I feel. I might have given Joseph Gordon-Levitt the benefit of the doubt, though, but now I won’t be!

  4. Thanks for a very good review, confirming exactly what I expected to hear. I will add this to the list of films that life is too short to bother to watch.
    Regards from England, Pete.

Leave a Reply