Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Pornography and Sentimentality: The Ruins of Beauty

Don Jon shows how transcendent value is lost in porn and rom-coms alike.

The film Don Jon, recently released in theaters, has spurred a widespread media discussion about the ills of pornography. NPR, the Atlantic, and Ethika Politika all have interesting stories on the effect porn has had on our populace. But there’s another question inherent in this film that deserves some attention: are romantic comedies similarly dangerous? The Daily Caller’s Matt K. Lewis argues yes. He worries the “rom-com” has had dangerous unintended consequences in our culture:

Anyone who has seen the trailer for the new movie Don Jon knows that Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), really cares about his porn. Fewer know that his love interest, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), is likewise addicted to the sappy fairy tales we call romantic comedies. I like the juxtaposition. Both things can be destructive. But while porn has a bad reputation, those who peddle unrealistic notions about love and marriage and relationships get a pass.

It’s an interesting point, worth exploring. Both porn and the romantic comedy posit important depictions of love and beauty in our world, and influence our understanding of them. Although I have not yet seen Don Jon, I must agree with Lewis: the romantic comedy can have detrimental societal effects, just like porn.

A growing obsession with physical beauty has shaped our culture, fostered by images, art, and media. Recent research indicates that the beauty obsession focuses on an ideal image, a “perfect” beauty of physicality that all attain to reach, derived from a conglomeration of the average emotive or physical reaction. Beauty here defined is largely characterized by sensory, emotional reactions to its perceived presence. These measurements and hypotheses give both beholder and subject a sense of mastery and control over beauty: if it is merely a physical trait, it can be cultivated or changed for optimal results.

But this understanding of beauty lacks any metaphysical rooting. It loses any sense of beauty as gift, or beauty as deeper dignity. This reductive definition encourages what Russell Kirk once called in an essay “the diabolic imagination”: namely, one that “delights in the perverse and subhuman.” Kirk wrote that in fiction, film, and television, “the diabolic imagination struts and postures,” and beauty falls prey to its reductive and sensual powers. It has spread infectiously through various strands of literature and art, and powerfully influences the visually-intensive medium of film.

I would suggest that there are two particular strains of the diabolic imagination in modern society: sentimentality and obscenity, as defined by Flannery O’Connor in her excellent book Mystery and Manners. Both sentimentality and obscenity result from the separation of aesthetic and virtue.

Sentimentality is “an excess, a distortion of sentiment,” according to O’Connor. Such art centers on one’s emotive response to material beauty. Sentimentality seeks physical and circumstantial perfection, and vainly searches for its idyllic embodiment. It refuses to accept human flaws, and denies any limiting or overarching norms of human action: emotion is all that matters. Sentimentality sees goodness as derived in the culmination of desire. Beauty and love are thus limited to physical and emotional fulfillment—without any overarching meaning.

The rom-com embodies many of sentimentality’s vices. Take, for instance, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. It tells the story of an old married couple, Noah and Allie. They supposedly have a wonderful lifelong marriage—yet their love story is entirely based in emotional materialism. The novel overflows with descriptions of their attractiveness. Noah describes love as “an emotion one can’t control.” When Allie explains why she cheats on her fiancé with Noah (sorry, spoiler alert), she tells her mother, “He doesn’t make me feel the way Noah does.” Noah and Allie are justified in betraying and hurting others, if they find emotional fulfillment. This relationship supposedly develops into a lasting marriage.

The romantic comedy faithful risk developing an unhealthy sentimentality, wishfully straining for an image of beauty and love that simply does not—perhaps should not—exist. Many become enslaved to that image, vainly searching for its embodiment, and are disillusioned with anything that falls lower than the rom-com standard. Johansson’s Don Jon character, Barbara, seems to fit this description.

But while sentimentality focuses on one’s emotive response to beauty and love, obscenity fixes upon one’s appetitive response to beauty. Obscenity is characterized by a perverted licentiousness and insatiable appetitive drive. Porn most properly characterizes this obscenity. It focuses purely on fleshly beauty and one’s reaction to that perceived beauty. It fixates on perceived perfection in physical proportion and form. Under its influence, beauty no longer contains permanent or transcendent value. It is a merely temporal item for enjoyment and objectification by the beholder. It can be controlled, consumed, manipulated, and discarded. Beauty is not mysterious—rather, it is completely disrobed and paraded before the senses. This results in a loss of wonder and reverence for beauty’s transcendent element.

Such fixation on the material and obscene has drastically undermined our understanding of virtue and reality. O’Connor wrote that the arts have increasingly depicted “unearned liberties,” and thus “in the public mind the deeper kinds of realism are less and less understandable.” One could perhaps posit that the deeper kind of love is also less and less understandable.

Both sentiment and obscenity descend into disorder. Both encourage an understanding of the person that is either perverse or subhuman: we neither fit the cookie cutter characterizations of porn movies, nor the sappy one-dimensional depictions of the rom-com. Sentimentality’s search for physical, circumstantial perfection has resulted in a disillusioned populace, seeking plastic surgery and suffering from a plethora of horrid eating disorders, all in search of “perfection.” Not only this, the objectification of beauty via porn has (as Ethika Politika suggests) encouraged a perverted understanding of one’s reaction to beauty. Rather than encompassing respect and love, obscenity supports the consumption and trivialization of the beautiful. This effect, coupled with sentimentality, results in a fruitless striving for love, emotive fulfillment, and physical “perfection”—by men and women alike.

This is the picture Don Jon seems to paint: a deep misconception of love, fostered by sentimentality on Barbara’s part and obscenity on Jon’s part. It is time, perhaps, for us to face the unintended consequences of these distorted conceptions of beauty and love. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt told NPR, we like to think of our watching habits as “harmless entertainment,” but “the stuff we watch does matter and it does work its way into the way that we see the world.”