Sex, Love, and Brooklyn: Magical Cougar or Evil, Sexy Baby?

10/14/2013 11:45 AM |


We need to talk about Don Jon. Well, at least I need to talk about this movie. Let me be clear, I don’t want to review the movie. I just want to talk about the two leading ladies in the film, who are supposed to be on opposite ends of some kind of fictional female binary.

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First you have Scarlett Johansson, who plays Barbara Sugarman. She’s the beautiful, sexy vixen who isn’t interested in getting to know the “real you” but wants instead to mold her boyfriend into her perfect fantasy: a white collar “sophisticate.” She artfully manipulates Don Jon’s whole life, making him attend night classes, ridiculing him for cleaning his apartment (he should get a maid) and forbidding him to watch porn. The poor guy barely recognizes himself in the mirror anymore, and yet he’s grateful he has her—after all she’s everything he’s ever dreamed of in a girlfriend. Need I repeat: she is a beautiful, sexy vixen. Yet, somehow Don Jon still finds their sex life unsatisfying. Go figure.

Thank god, for Julianne Moore, who plays the ghostly Esther. She is the sad—but also beautiful—older woman who has a tragic secret in her past. She is comfortable in her own skin, and comfortable with giving and receiving pleasure for the sake of pleasure. She wants nothing from Don, except a little tenderness.

Julianne Moore is the magical adult character that has become a recent trope, (anyone remember Katheryn Hahn’s cameo in Girls?). It’s her part in the movie I find the most troublesome. I mean, where the hell is my magical adult character that’s going to teach me what it means to have integrity, confidence, and how to find love? Do these people really exist? If so, where do I find them? Is there a match making site?

Ultimately this is a movie about what happens when you refuse to allow yourself to see your romantic partner for who they really are. Yet the movie never lets us actually see how complex either of these women are. Simply put, ScarJo is a sexy baby, and Moore is a sexy mommy—pick your Freudian complex.

Why I’m writing about this at all is because I recently dated someone younger than me. The whole time I was watching Don Jon, I was squirming in my seat because I realized I’ve acted like both ScarJo and Moore…in the same relationship. Well, my plan was to play the Moore character in this real life relationship. I wanted to be the confident, sexy older woman, full of knowledge and empathy. There were moments when I think I achieved this (especially with how gracefully I accepted his ending the relationship.) But there were also moments when I was the nagging girlfriend who just wanted to make sure he liked me.

Watching this movie I felt most for the women in Don Jon’s life. He was never going to see past their personas. Then I started to feel sorry for myself and I wondered if this most recent guy just couldn’t see past my (sex columnist) persona? Could I see past his?

I understand we’re supposed to see the ScarJo character as a social climber who only wants a boyfriend with a good job, but I saw her as beautiful woman who’s probably had to deal with unwanted attention her entire life. As a coping mechanism she’s created a pretty specific, albeit shady, way of sifting through the men who only want to sleep with her. She also knows what she wants: a partner that respected his own intelligence and wants to have a baby. So why does she get vilified?

I left Don Jon with an icky feeling in the pit of my stomach; I related to this supposedly awful Barbara Sugarman. In this past relationship I thought the guy was being flaky with me, trying to push me away, or keep me on a back burner as someone to be just physical with. That’s not what I wanted, and I needed to express this to him. I agonized over the right way to communicate this. I came up with different speeches, and I asked all the women in my life for their advice. My fear was that I would come across as a shrew instead of as someone being vulnerable and sensible.

Eventually I went with being as honest as possible and said to him, “You know when I was younger and I wasn’t that interested in someone, or invested in where we might be going I would just slowly start to ignore them, or break our plans, or be really flaky until he got the picture. It was because I didn’t know how to say no. So, now I need to know if that’s what you’re doing with me?”

When I said this I thought I was living up to my Julianne Moore ideal, but the next day when I started to second guess myself, I felt like I had demanded something with the petulance of Scar Jo. Why are there only two options? You can be the magical cougar (to use Ebert’s words) or the evil sexy baby. What happens when you’re both, or neither?

The next day after this speech, I left his apartment thinking, “Goddammit. All I want to do is take care of you, and have you take care of me in return! Why is this such a problem?”

Walking out of his building, I ran into a woman who I sometimes nanny for. She asked if I was available to babysit that coming Saturday. I had to laugh even though I said yes. Someone wanted me to be the caregiver in their life, it just wasn’t the one I wanted.

Follow Lacy Warner on twitter @laceoface