- Historic Sites
WHY JANE FONDA IS A MIRROR OF THE NATION’S PAST FORTY YEARS
July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
THE FUSION OF SELF, IMAGE, AND CULTURE TOOK HOLD AT THE MOMENT BARBARELLA WAS RELEASED, IN 1968.
Despite her attempts to distance herself from the frivolity of the Vadim years, the public perceived her newfound radicalism through the prism of her immediately preceding incarnation. “Jane Fonda represented unrestrained sexuality to American audiences,” observed the historian David Farber, author of The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s , “and now supporters of the war found that sexuality turned against them.” Tom Hayden, the antiwar activist whom Fonda married in 1973, theorized that her sex-kitten image, combined with her radical antiwar activism, had left her open to charges of “sleeping with the enemy”—both literally and metaphorically: “All these people expected her to be a certain kind of person who occupied, probably, a large part of their fantasies, and when your fantasy life is threatened, and Barbarella becomes revolutionary, it’s very upsetting.”
Apart from her being perceived as a Barbarella-gone-bad, much anti-Fonda animus stemmed from the fact that her immersion in radical politics transcended and defied the public roles traditionally assigned to celebrities, film stars, pin-up girls, daughters of famous people, and women in general. Of course, for Fonda herself, this broadening of her public persona was quite intentional—“being a movie star,” she was fond of saying at the time, “is not a purpose”—but others believed she had ventured into forbidden territory. Henry Fonda took to referring to her as “my alleged daughter,” while Vadim made it clear that she had violated his version of womanhood: “I prefer to be married to a soft and vulnerable woman rather than to an American Joan of Arc.” A sardonic 1971 Life magazine profile depicted her as a bubbleheaded dilettante whose superficial espousal of left-wing politics was everything one would expect from a sex kitten-turned-radical. The misogynist article, entitled “Nag, Nag, Nag! Jane Fonda has become a nonstop activist,” ended with the derisory summation, “If Jane Fonda only had a sense of humor, a sense of history and a power base, she could cause a real commotion.”
As it turned out, Fonda caused quite a commotion during her infamous visit to Hanoi in the summer of 1972. The trip, conceived as a mission to uncover whether the Nixon administration was in fact bombing the dikes of North Vietnam, ended up as the crucible of her public life. Subjected to routine bombing by American planes, and awed by the determination of the North Vietnamese people, she went completely Method; she “became” North Vietnam. All the earmarks of her actress training came into play: a radical immersion in the subject experience resulting in profound empathy, followed by an exhibitionist portrayal of this newly adopted perspective. But this time, Jane completely forgot about the audience. In one fateful moment, she was photographed laughing with her North Vietnamese hosts while seated on an antiaircraft gun. On the index of self-inflicted character assassination by photograph, the Hanoi image ranked somewhere between the Life magazine cover photo of Oswald holding the rifle and the 1988 footage of a helmeted Dukakis inside the Army tank. “The worst thing I ever did in my life” is how Fonda assesses that moment today. “It’s the most stupid, naive thing I could have done. I was so swept up in what was happening that I didn’t even think that there were photographers there and how it could be interpreted. I will go to my grave regretting that—not going to North Vietnam,” she qualifies, “but that photograph.”
She returned to an enraged nation. Several states immediately began introducing legislation that would have made “Hanoi Jane” persona non grata within their borders. The conservative Manchester (N.H.) Union-Leader urged that she be tried for treason and, if found guilty, shot. Some congressmen took this proposal to heart and attempted to prosecute her for treason, sponsoring a House bill—unofficially called the Fonda Amendment to the 1950 Internal Security Act—that would have made it a felony for any citizen to visit a country at war with the United States. Such initiatives foundered on the question of whether the United States was constitutionally at war with Vietnam; nonetheless, Fonda’s Hanoi trip transformed her from a wayward celebrity to a permanently controversial national figure.
Whereas the explicit phase of Jane Fonda’s activism can be regarded as the death rattle of sixties-era New Left radicalism, her political career during the liberal sunset of the Carter years testified to a burgeoning political maturity. By the mid-1970s, a more pragmatic, less impulsive Fonda now characterized herself as a “progressive Democrat”; this repositioning was consistent with the new ambitions of former sixties radicals who now sought a place in the “system,” be it electoral or corporate. Her husband Tom Hayden even bought a suit and ran (unsuccessfully) for the Senate in 1976 with the slogan “The radicalism of the 1960s is becoming the common sense of the 1970s.” To fund the political arm of the Fonda-Hayden alliance, called the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), Fonda launched her own film production company, IPC (for Indochina Peace Campaign).