Recently, Buzzfeed published a widely read listicle entitled, “40 Things Every Self-Respecting Man Over 30 Should Own”. Reaction online was mixed. Some men and women considered the list—which included head-scratchers like duct tape, a wine key, a chef’s knife, a flask, playing cards, sunglasses, heavy liquor, a bar set, and a French press—a reasonable tally of objects prerequisite to being a man. Others, largely men, considered the list patronizing at best and destructive at worst. One commenter wrote, “I had twenty out of forty [of these items], and was more proud of the twenty I didn’t have than the twenty I did.” The Buzzfeed list was light on objects indicating any interest in civil society: computers, newspapers, and magazines were deemed inessential. It also lacked objects encouraging men to be interested in their own emotional development. Tools for self-reflection were mysteriously absent, unless you count “a book collection” which, the list’s author noted, didn’t need to have been read, or a record player which, as the list’s author noted, was primarily useful for playing records that make their owner look good. One suspects that a thirty-something male who owns all or nearly all of the items on the Buzzfeed list is more likely smug than admirable—or adult. Enter Jon Martello, the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the porn-addiction dramedy Don Jon. Martello is just the sort of man for whom the Buzzfeed list functions as an essential guidebook, and if Don Jon is successful in its satire of contemporary living, it is primarily in reminding us—as if any reminder were needed—just how invasive and insidious gender typecasting is in America.
Martello is called
“Don Jon” by his friends because he has a long, unbroken streak of
post-clubbing sexual conquests. As with everything in Martello’s life, sex is a
mathematical function; a night out ends with intercourse just as surely as
Mondays are abs, Tuesdays are back, Wednesdays are legs, Thursdays are chest,
and Fridays are shoulders. Don Jon is the sort of borderline sociopath who,
with pathological self-consciousness, aims at and hits all the markers on the Buzzfeed shopping
list: a decent car (#38), black dress shoes (#2), cologne (#7), proper bedding
(#9), a grooming kit (#14), an ironing board (#22), multiple sheet sets (#35),
and so on.
Needless to say, a number
of these items could indeed be considered useful to both men and women of any
age past twenty-one. The problem is with counting them obsessively, as Buzzfeed
and Martello do, as though the only way to get through life is to regularly
award oneself gold stars for meeting the presumed requirements of adulthood.
Despite these daily self-assessments, Martello is forced to endure his boorish
father’s persistent insistence that he’s not yet a man. This likely explains
the fact that the first half of Don Jon is one of the most depressing
movie-going experiences you’ll ever encounter. Never has a young man’s life
seemed so grasping yet emptily routine. Martello surrounds himself with the
trappings of adulthood, but receives none of its satisfactions in return. Would
picking up a newspaper help? Writing in a journal? Reading a favorite literary
classic? Who knows.
Certainly, Martello doesn’t
own any such items, and even if he did it’s not clear that he’d know what to do
with them. In fact, he has so little imagination that he can’t masturbate
without a visual aid; so little patience behind the wheel of a car that he’s a
road-rage homicide waiting to happen; so little self-knowledge that he reacts
with instinctive anger when his closest friend engages him in conversation of a
personal nature; so little soul he can’t look women in the eye when he speaks
to them; so little emotional support that he never speaks to his parents
without arguing with them (and never speaks to his largely mute sister at all);
and so little self-possession that he falls madly in love with a woman
(Scarlett Johansson) simply because she’s a “dime” (a
On the bright side, he does
seem to own a French press (#31).
Of course, being an adult
isn’t a matter of either/or; it’s possible to both own a French press and also
have a rich inner life. The problem, as Don Jon sees it, is that men and
women alike have so routinized their lives and their identities that these days,
lists like the one on Buzzfeed really do, for many, resemble exhaustive
how-to manuals for adulthood. Perhaps this is why the first half of Don Jon
seems at once harrowingly true-to-life but also dizzyingly pornographic in its
broad brushstrokes and general moral shabbiness. Viewers have no idea why
Martello and his two friends (he appears to have no others) continue to spend
time together, as they do nothing but club and criticize one another; Jon even
gets visibly upset when one of the two deigns to knock on his apartment door
unannounced. Viewers likewise have no sense of Jon’s professional life, as his
unsatisfying bartending job is only alluded to twice and seen on-screen (in a
two-second jump-cut) just once. Jon’s family and church life are little more
than a pastiche of uncomfortable Italian and Catholic stereotypes. His
relationship with the seductive, romantic comedy-loving Barbara Sugarman (Johansson)
is miles wide and inches deep, so much so that it’s difficult to say whether
either of the two says an honest word to the other during the film’s
This, then, is what romantic
comedies and pornography alike promise their consumers: a world in which
expectations are obvious and always met, deviations from the norm are both
predictable and harmless, and bean-counting one’s own successes is the only way
to escape one’s suppressed misery. A list of essential man-objects from Buzzfeed
serves much the same function, as it sets easily-attainable expectations for
men while avoiding even the implication that idiosyncrasies are
permissible. Years of being an adult male have taught me that the only
essential objects in a man’s life are those that help him authentically
distinguish himself from his demographic. Equating masculinity with conformity
calls to mind Barbara’s final rebuke of Jon (“I thought you were
different!”)—which is notable primarily because
no viewer of Don Jon could ever have made that mistake in judgment.
Two moments in Don Jon
are particularly revelatory of the movie’s implicit critique of contemporary
masculinity. In the first, Jon patronizingly tells a friend that “if you
do things right,” you end up with a great girl, having the best sex of
your life. It’s a fraught moment because Jon—an under-employed porn addict with
an anger management problem who also (horrors!) loves vacuuming and dusting—has
no more sense of how a man “does things right” than does Buzzfeed.
His sense of a man’s moral obligation begins and ends with confession-eligible
sins, destructive but obligatory family dinners, misogynistic male bonding
exercises, and favoring weightlifting to cardio.
He even misuses the items
on the Buzzfeed list. He drives his souped-up car like an ass, he uses
his dressing and grooming and apartment-cleaning skills to no purpose other
than casual sex with women whose names he doesn’t know, and he deploys his
ostentatious masculinity (one imagines him owning #27, a Leatherman) to
intimidate classmates at night school, belittle his peers, and perpetuate an
emotionally abusive relationship with his father.
In a second great moment of
gender critique, Jon interrogates a priest who’s given him the same penance for
two sins: affectionate premarital sex with a woman he respects, and emotionally
empty premarital sex with multiple women he doesn’t. Having been assigned ten
Hail Marys for each, he asks, “How did you arrive at that number?”
It’s a poignant question, one that could be directed to Justin Abarca, author
of the Buzzfeed list.
How did “40
Things Every Self-Respecting Man Over 30 Should Own” end up including a
flask and not a magazine subscription? Or “good socks” (#32) and not a
pet you have to care for? Or “brown dress shoes” (#3) and not some area of interest you might have actually
read up on, rather than merely (as Abarca condones) appearing to have done so?
Why forty items, rather than twenty or sixty? Why only items you can buy, and not
abstractions you can access for free? What magical fairy-dust alights on a
man’s shoulder at thirty, making him need undershirts (#24) afterwards, but not
before that age? And who is our hypothetical “self-respecting man”
doing this all for, anyway? Himself? A woman who thinks “jumper
cables” (#23) are more essential to a self-respecting thirty-something
than, say, integrity, courage, articulateness, and generosity?
Reasonable people can
disagree as to whether rom-com cliches are as destructive to a woman’s sense of
self and her romantic expectations as pornography is to the same things in
men’s lives. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether hair gel (absent from
Abarca’s list) is a worthy addition to a man’s grooming kit, or—as Martello’s
eventual savior, middle-aged pothead Esther (Julianne Moore), says—entirely
superfluous. But what seems beyond contention or debate is the noxious first
principle proposed by Buzzfeed: that self-respect arises from
a short roster of material goods, rather than strength of character, a sense of
humor, and self-possession. As well to say that a woman may be judged (to
borrow from one Martello voice-over) by whether her breasts are fake, her butt
perfect, her willingness to give oral sex and receive a facial unambiguous, and
her facility with ten or more sexual positions incontrovertible.
The second half of Don
Jon is remarkable—and surprisingly affecting—because in it we see Martello
indulging what are, to him, eccentricities: playing basketball, drinking
coffee, listening to and making eye contact with women when they speak, styling
his hair without product, treating his friends decently, subduing his perpetually
creepy and aggressive body language, and judging a woman by the way she makes
him feel, not by the boxes she ticks on some teenager-ready jerk-off checklist.
Maybe all those who lauded a thirty-something’s version of that checklist—”40
Things Every Self-Respecting Man Over 30 Should Own”—should steal a page
from Martello’s revised playbook and close their eyes, imagine a man or woman
whose presentation and lifestyle hasn’t been pre-approved by American media,
and see whether they can still find physical and emotional delight in the
unsupervised oddities of a real-life man.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.