Where Are the 'Real' Women in Movies About Sex Addiction?

Through their male protagonists, two new films smartly critique the media's objectification of women, but don't manage to include three-dimensional female characters of their own.
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Relativity Media; Lionsgate

Two newly released movies about sexual addiction, Don Jon and Thanks for Sharing, represent the latest instance of a sporadic but persistent movie phenomenon: when movies with eerily similar subjects come out around the same time. In the ‘80s there was the series of body-swapping movies like Big and Like Father, Like Son. A decade or so later, it was Armageddon and Deep Impact. Last year there were two Snow White movies, Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror. What’s behind these cinematic couplets? Some might argue it’s a simple case of one studio copying another studio’s good idea; others would claim coincidence. Both might be right. But in each case listed above, we can also point to societal discussions that these movies are participating in, ideas so urgent and systemic that they can’t help but find their way into our entertainment.

For example: I have argued that the body-swapping movies reflected the rise of the Yuppie Era, which found young Americans with more money and responsibility than ever before. The meteor movies confronted, among other things, our existential anxiety over the coming of the new millennium. The Snow White movies were part of a series of 2012 films with female action heroes—a trend that also included The Hunger GamesBrave, and Prometheus—that signal a shift in ideas about gender.

That discussion continues with Thanks for Sharing and Don Jon, which, when taken together, represent a step in the ongoing march towards an honest and fair depiction of women onscreen. It’s not a step forward; more of a side-step. These films attack the male sexual gaze through which women in film are often filtered, though they also fail to actually portray women in any sort of lifelike way.

The story of a lothario who comes to understand the errors of his womanizing ways is certainly not new. Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Warren Beatty, and Matthew McConaughey have famously tackled such characters in the past. These films typically frame the problem as man’s eternal inability to commit, but Don Jon and Thank You for Sharing apply a more critical gaze to their subject by depicting the objectification of females as an actual addiction—a dangerous, even crippling psychological and societal ill. It’s similar to how previous films have depicted alcoholism; one character in Sharing ruins his career over his addiction (he gets caught filming up his boss’s skirt with a secret camera), while Don Jon’s biggest obstacle to a healthy relationship seems to be his friends and family who enable his lascivious ways. Putting these taboos into such familiar forms—with elements of the rom-com and the addiction drama—is a smart move because it makes the characters easier to relate to and the legitimacy of their condition as an actual addiction harder to dismiss.

Ultimately, though, the subject of sexual addiction is a bit of a red herring, as these films are more interested in our society. The true criticism in Thanks for Sharing and Don Jon is reserved for a media that cheapens our interactions through its fixation on sex. The addicts in Sharing struggle to remain sober as they are bombarded with advertisements of scantily clad women (and real-life women who have been influenced by those ads). The character played by Mark Ruffalo even has to stay away from televisions, computers, and smartphones—all instruments of the media—to avoid temptation. Sharing is a movie driven by character, but it is deeply critical of a culture that creates obstacles on its characters’ roads to recovery.

Don Jon goes further, focusing its criticism almost entirely on the media. Jon’s entire world perspective is awash in stereotypes, forcing the audience to contend with how deeply his—and our—perspective has been corrupted by the TV, movies, advertising, and social mores that perpetuate those stereotypes. His girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) has modeled herself after the heroines of her favorite romantic comedies, which the film equates to Jon's porn addiction. Jon goes into graphic detail about how his “real” sexual partners don’t stack up with the antics of porn stars, while his girlfriend becomes furious with Jon anytime his behavior diverges from her romanticized ideal. When he tells her about the pride he takes in cleaning his apartment, for example, she silences him and complains that it’s “not sexy.” Everyone else in his life seems equally influenced by pop culture. His Italian parents (Tony Danza and Glenn Headley) act like Sopranos cast-offs, and his friends have clearly watched too much Entourage. There is not a three-dimensional character in the bunch; it makes for a viewing experience that is emotionally disengaging but deeply thought-provoking.

With the filmmakers so focused on their men, the women in these films get lesser treatment. Part of this is necessary; only 12 percent of sexual addicts—at least those who seek treatment—are women. But both films would have been better served by creating more well-rounded female characters. Even when Jon begins seeing a "real" woman (Julianne Moore), her authenticity is presented without depth. She comes off as just another fantasy—a fantasy of maturity—and it undercuts the film’s depiction of Jon's newfound sobriety.

Likewise, Ruffalo’s character in Sharing dates a woman with issues of her own, an exercise addiction and implied anorexia, but the details of her story are never filled in, and the perfunctory manner with which she shows up again at the film’s end highlights the way the script sees her as a utility. These failures to seriously consider female characters might be excused as resulting from the filmmakers' dogged and well-intentioned focus on the sexist male perspective. Still it is a shame that they never found the time to demonstrate the fruits of their hero’s sobriety: a loving relationship with a complex individual.

The mixed messages of Thanks for Sharing and Don Jon represent just one moment in the movement to correct years of female objectification onscreen. But they offer an opportunity to take stock of where we are: on the road to equality but still with a ways to go.

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Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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