By Rae Ritchie.
The Original Celebrity Humanitarian: Jane Fonda
Standing Rock protestors were joined on Thanksgiving by veteran Hollywood actor Jane Fonda. As sources here in the UK and in the US reported, she donated bison meat and yurts to the camp as well as helped to serve a meal. Although this might not be what you expect the glamorous 70-something to be doing on a national holiday, it hardly seems surprising news. Political activism is something that celebrities are involved in now, isn’t it? We’re used to seeing public figures speaking out on causes, as Angelina Jolie and Emma Watson recently have, acting as special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador respectively.
However, the importance of Fonda’s actions shouldn’t be overlooked just because such campaigning is commonplace today. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was actually Fonda who created the category of ‘the celebrity humanitarian’. Particularly after her marriage to the counter-cultural activist Tom Hayden, Fonda spoke out in support of a range of radical causes including the Black Panther Party and, more famously, opposition to US military involvement in Vietnam. Most controversial of all was her 1972 visit to Hanoi, where she was photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery – an image which prompted the long standing nickname ‘Hanoi Jane’.
Around the same time, Fonda developed an interest in feminism, a concern which became apparent in her film work as the 1970s wore on. She chose to focus on films about issues that were important to her, and establishing her own production company allowed her greater freedom to pursue projects that resonated with her political activism. In 1978, for example, she received critical acclaim, including a Best Actress Oscar and a Golden Globe award, for her role in Coming Home, a film about returning injured service personnel. Fonda’s activism and political campaigning continues in the twenty-first century. This ranges from establishing the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at Emory University, Georgia, in 2001, to protesting against oil drilling in Canada in 2015, and now joining those at Standing Rock.
Yet regardless of how well-intentioned Fonda may be, her political activities have not been universally welcomed. Her biography contains a long history of criticism and derision from others. She is certainly a celebrity who divides opinion! In particular, her outspoken opposition to US military involvement in Vietnam generated a huge amount of hostility that still lingers. This even extends to bumper stickers calling her a traitor and a bitch, and pictures of her as urinal targets!
Her visit to Standing Rock attracted negative responses too. Camp member Kandi Mosset asked ‘What is the narrative there? “Oh, we want to help the poor Indians on Thanksgiving of all days? … We don’t need celebrities to come and feed us and get a photo op and just leave.’ Similar accusations of opportunism were made in the 1970s when feminist writer Betty Friedan claimed the actor’s feminist activities were damaging the women’s movement.
Such attacks have not deterred Fonda from getting involved with and speaking out on various causes over the decades. Alongside Standing Rock and environmental concerns, one of her latest areas of activism has been her ‘project of ageing’. As she told US women’s magazine W in a summer 2015 interview, ‘I had a vision: I wanted to give a cultural face to older women.’
Being born into an already famous family meant Fonda could not lie about her age even if she had wanted to, a point wryly made by professor of film Linda Ruth Williams. Even so, Williams argues that a conscious and distinctive project of ageing characterises Fonda’s celebrity status during her sixties and seventies. For example, in her 2010 autobiography, My Life So Far, she wrote about life as three acts, the third of which begins at sixty. Her 2011 TEDxWomen talk, ‘Life’s third act’, picked up on this theme, as did her part memoir, part self-help guide Prime Time: Making the most of all your life (published 2012).
There is undoubtedly some commercial motivation behind these endeavours, particularly as the baby boomer generation begins to swell the numbers of Americans and Brits in their own ‘third act’. As well as her books, there have been workout DVDs targeting an older audience. Lest we become too cynical, as well as being saleable, the personal and political experience of ageing has clearly been central to her activism in recent years. For instance, in her TEDx talk and in Prime Time, Fonda argues for a reconfiguration of how society regards ageing, moving from an arc analogy that presumes decline after sixty to an image of a staircase that elders ascend during their last decades. She positions this vision as a political one in the broadest sense, a challenge to the youth-obsessed culture we live in.
That said, contradictions are rife within Fonda’s vision. In the W interview, for example, she made competing claims, saying that she never enjoyed modelling because she ‘hated all the emphasis on how [she] looked’ but also stating that she always knew what she liked on her body. Likewise her role promoting L’Oreal anti-wrinkle creams seems disingenuous considering she has talked publicly about having plastic surgery.
Furthermore Fonda has seemingly undermined her own commitment to a positive re-envisioning of older age by commenting in interviews that ‘Men are very visual, they want young women. So, for us, it’s all about trying to stay young’. Germaine Greer’s response to this statement drew on long-standing portrayals of Fonda as a silly airhead, a bimbo actress, and also mocked her political aspirations: ‘There’s poor old Jane Fonda. I mean, it’s cost her a fortune. She’s got a back full of steel, a replaced hip and a replaced something else – I don’t think it’s a brain. I think it’s a knee…You just think, Jane, there must have been more to life. Think of the things with her money and clout she could have done. I remember when we thought she was going to save the whale.’
This reaction from one of the most famous feminists of the last fifty years shows that attitudes towards Fonda and her political activism are as ambiguous today as they were in the past. It remains difficult to make any kind of straightforward assessment of the star and her ‘project of ageing’ because there are so many contradictions and inconsistencies, just as there are in other areas of her activism.
No matter what she tries to do, she will attract criticism from some quarter or another, just as she has for the past half century. But irrespective of the rights and wrongs of her actions, I continue to admire Fonda for the efforts she’s made to carve out a new space for women in the public eye. She has carved out a path that actors such as Jolie and Watson can follow. For that, I thank her.