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.
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.

Presented by

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

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