The Pornopticon: ‘Don Jon’ and Sex in the Porn-on-Demand Age

The longest sexual relationship that you have in life is with yourself. That means you expend a lot of time and energy over the years learning how to romance yourself, homing in on preferences, refining the aesthetics of your desires. For those of us who grew up without unrestrained access to pornography only to be granted it later on, there’s no question that it’s much better to have more options. Sure, we had to get more creative with our source materials (thanks, various 1990s issues of men’s magazines!) and our younger compatriots will never understand the bleak thrill of scanning a scrambled cable channel like the Spice Networks in the hopes you might catch a glimpse of some naked adult humans. But analog fantasies aren’t actually superior to digital ones, they’re just different. You could argue that porn images reinforce impossible standards of beauty and sexuality, but you could also say the same about all the advertisements and idealized art that preceded it. Whether you’re working off a department store lingerie catalogue or a Digital Playground compilation, what you like to look at and imagine doing is still always wrapped up in broader cultural constructs, personal imprints, and onanistic shame.

The solitary experience of sexual fantasy feels particularly isolating when it’s just you and some flickering LCD display on a late-night laptop signed into “private browsing” mode, but that sensation of being completely alone is a mirage. Don Jon, the new movie from actor and first-time writer-director Joseph Gordon-Levitt, aims to drag some of these highly contemporary issues out into the light, putting them under a microscope and a black light. Gordon-Levitt plays a New Jersey porn-obsessed guido whose dedication to his own clandestine routine threatens to ruin his chances for connecting with any real-life women, leaving him physically spent but emotionally empty on a diet of one-night stands and self-administered hand jobs. Jon is a sensitive meathead, a greaser with a heart of gold, in the mold of Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero. He likes the simple pleasures of a GTL life, but also strives for something just beyond his grasp. He’s a bro, but he’s a sensitive bro. In Jon’s case, it’s harder to reach because one of his hands is chronically busy.

The secret rituals of net-user masturbation, as depicted in Don Jon’s outrageously funny opening sequence, are really quite widely shared. Nowadays no seemingly off-the-grid kink even falls that far off the grid, as towering view counts on popular outré videos attest. The aforementioned breadth of pornographic access now available to anybody with a decent bandwidth does come with its own new set of (fucking) problems. Have porn tubes and torrents turned sexual fantasies into just another realm of modern capitalism, with the tyranny of too many imaginary choices leading to real-life indecision? Or do sites that offer free streaming porn videos simply offer the opportunity to indulge harmlessly in mental side trips into endless sexual variety? The answer is probably somewhere between the two. Porn is not the real-life intimacy-murdering monster it’s sometimes made out to be, but neither is it a perfectly self-contained night-world that never spills over IRL.

In an incredibly smart and postmodern promotional move, trailers for Don Jon are currently running as the ads before videos on Pornhub, the popular pornographic YouTube clone. It is brilliant, because to even acknowledge you saw the gimmick is to cop to having been cruising Pornhub recently. When you do admit it you’ll find out something you might have already suspected; you’re not the only one using these sites. Don Jon further blurs the lines between public movie theater viewing and what people watch at home behind closed tabs by intercutting moments from porn clips throughout the film. It’s another clever gimmick that could just be gimmicky but works incredibly well, due to Lauren Zuckerman’s editing. Decontextualized semi-graphic sexual images run through Jon’s mind like flashbacks from a boozy night and interrupt his life (sometimes during intercourse) like psychosomatic pop-up ads. No matter how hot the dime he scores at the club, there’s always the potential promise of something better, someone hotter, a more fulfilling orgasm.


One of the longer porn clips in Don Jon features adult actress Sunny Lane, showing off her barely clad body for a camera. Lane is fascinating, and not just because she is an excellent porn star. She trained as an ice dancer before a career-ending injury turned her toward stripping, and then porn. Lane’s parents managed her ice dancing career, and transitioned into managing her porn career. Her mother formerly sewed her ice dancing costumes and now makes Sunny Lane’s outfits for dancing and porn. Her dad claims he’s never seen his daughter’s work. Porn stars, even amateurs, are only faceless and interchangeable if you want them to be. Watch enough of anything and you’ll get to know the repertory players.

Don Jon is a romantic comedy geared toward men, in the tradition of High Fidelity and even Annie Hall. It has a message, but it’s not front-loaded in an obnoxious way. The movie itself is charming and funny, avoiding formulaic traps. You can tell from the first minute that it probably won’t end in a white wedding. Like (500) Days of Summer, it’s a romantic comedy that interrogates romantic comedies as a form, but without (500) Days’ bitter and defensive aftertaste. Gordon-Levitt disappears believably into his Don Jon persona, tamping down his usual overeager theater kid energy for something more calculatedly macho, slipping on a snakeskin of gelled hair and V-necks. Gordon-Levitt channels The Situation, while Scarlett Johansson slips effortlessly into a JWoww impersonation. It shouldn’t necessarily work, but it does — granted you are willing to pretend that “New Jersey” is not set-dressed parts of Los Angeles, and that two extraterrestrially gorgeous movie stars could easily be regular people with blue-collar jobs.

Don Jon takes the stance that having set expectations for potential partners dooms those relationships to fail, because checklists are fundamentally selfish. Two people who match up on paper won’t necessarily mesh. Chemistry goes beyond stats. Jon has been conditioned by porn to expect nothing less than perfect-looking women with exaggerated sexual characteristics who will do whatever he wants in bed, while Johansson’s character, Barbara, is equally numbed to reality by romantic comedies and thinks there is only one correct way to be romanced by a man. She wants The Notebook! He wants Deep Throatbook! The juxtaposition of Jon’s porn fetish and Barbara’s fairy-tale fixation makes sense. They have different expectations of what “a happy ending” means. It makes sense within Don Jon’s rigidly gendered heterosexual suburban milieu, where the women cook every night for men who yell at sports on TV, but it really applies across both genders. Plenty of guys take the terrible love life advice offered up by Say Anything, and the unrealistic sexual scripts that porn relays as standard messes with women’s minds as much as men’s. There’s a lot of focus on porn distorting men’s views of how women’s bodies should look, but male porn stars cater increasingly to the female gaze too. Porn sidebar ads trumpet male insecurities about stamina and penis size.

Playing off romantic comedy conventions while subverting them, Don Jon is the best romantic comedy in years. Gordon-Levitt clearly cares about the genre and wants to push it forward into the present. It’s surprising, considering JGL’s prior work might have led you to believe he would be the sort of guy who’d wax nostalgic over ’30s screwball comedies and rat-a-tat banter (actually that sort of guy: Aaron Sorkin). The witty script is bolstered further through strong supporting performances from Tony Danza as Jon’s old-school Italian American father, Johansson as Jon’s perfect 10 girlfriend, and Julianne Moore, effortlessly fleshing out her role beyond manic pixie dream MILF. It’s a modestly made movie with grand ambitions, to spark conversations about the way we live and have sex now. Human relationships are complicated, because humans are incredibly flawed. Don Jon takes an optimistic approach, lighting the way toward better communication.

Don Jon is a movie about how movies make it impossibly hard for real life to measure up to what movies assure us is possible. Even though porn depicts fantasies about sex, they are equally fantasies of unreasonable personal power, like superhero movies. Any idea hoisted directly out of the mind will hit friction in reality, which is the one possibility most movies don’t make any room for. Unlike porn pile-driver moves or Pinterest weddings, real passion is spontaneous. Even the most exact re-creation of an idealized plan is bound to go off script at some point. In most rom-coms, the couple always reconciles at the last minute in some kind of grand gesture, which often leads to kissing in the rain. In porno threesomes, there are never logistical complications or fumbles, let alone emotional ones. The more media you consume, the more pressing it is that you learn how to critique it, to differentiate between reality and hyperreality.

In other words, whether your poison is Love Actually or Oil Overload 9, don’t believe everything you see onscreen.

Filed Under: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Movies, Scarlett Johansson

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

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