Ms. America

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It might seem paradoxical that she found her greatest mainstream appeal during the Reagan era, but Jane Fonda’s Workout rhetoric also proclaimed a return to a strenuous life and a code of self-discipline that aptly, if perversely, meshed with the President’s neoconservative philosophy. Indeed, Fonda once defended her Workout regimen—deemed too rigorous by some critics—by articulating a “zero tolerance” approach to fitness wimpiness worthy of a White House press conference: “I shed no tears for the Beverly Hills matron who cries and drinks and takes drugs. You have the ability to get off your butt and find out what life is about. If you don’t, that’s your problem, not someone else’s.”

Part Murphy Brown, part Teddy Roosevelt, the eighties Fonda was a solid role model for entrepreneurial feminists and career moms. But the nineties Fonda was perplexing. Fresh on the heels of her breakup with Hayden after 16 years of marriage, she met the media baron Ted Turner and married him in 1991. Despite their disparate cultural orbits, Fonda and Turner shared a high-profile public presence and similar family tragedies; Turner’s father, like Fonda’s mother, had taken his own life, when Ted was 24. Fonda chose this turning point to retire gracefully from cinema, her financial independence having spared her from the lesser roles normally allotted to older actresses. She still devoted her time to an array of causes, particularly the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention. The nineties Fonda also embraced Christianity, after a lifetime of agnosticism. Yet even these ostensibly conservative turns were enacted with characteristic Fonda bravura. In true Civil Rights-era fashion, she frequently attends a black Baptist church. Her inner permutations, though less publicly visible than before, also contributed to the recent disintegration of her marriage. She attributes the rupture with Turner to a continuing pursuit of personal growth and self-definition. “You can lose a marriage when you find your voice,” Fonda says, “if you didn’t have a voice when you got into the marriage.”

 

Any summation of Jane Fonda’s life must begin with the question: Who is she? Indeed, in the kaleidoscope of identities that constitute her past, many observers and detractors still attempt to reduce her to one of her many incarnations. Hanoi Jane, for some, is the quintessential Fonda, while others attempt to explain her life through her successive marriages. But she eludes all such interpretations. Vadim titled his autobiography Bardot Deneuve Fonda, thereby boiling his life down to the women in it; a Fonda autobiography called Vadim Hayden Turner would surely sell, but it wouldn’t explain the complexity of her public image. If one factor does stand out, it is that Fonda had her formative training as a Method actress and approached her subsequent personae —from libertine to disciplinarian—like sought-after roles that accorded her a vivid and all-encompassing, if temporary, identity. Yet this only brings us back to her daughter’s chameleon remark, and begs the question: Was Fonda’s life merely a series of performances, each played with Oscar-worthy conviction?

She herself has trouble answering such questions. “It’s like my whole life has been a quest for growing up,” she muses. “I had no mother, my father was remote, I had to invent myself, and I used men to do it.” What is unique, however, is that Fonda also used the shifting configurations of our culture to assemble her identities. One consequence of this symbiosis with great national currents is that Fonda the historical figure now affords us a guided tour of nearly 40 years of American history. This unique historical utility, in turn, points to what is perhaps the greatest meaning of her life.

During the making of Klute, in 1970, Fonda’s antiwar militancy placed her at odds with much of the film’s crew, and one day she arrived to find the set decorated with American flags. Still, by the end of the shoot she had won over the crew because, as the director, Alan Pakula, put it, “above all else, she is quintessentially an American.” When one adds up all of her incarnations—sixties sex kitten, seventies feminist, eighties fitness drill sergeant, nineties church lady—and factors in her ability to thrive in conservative and radical times alike, what emerges is a highly visible existence that has managed to encompass the country’s moral, cultural, and political contradictions without being overwhelmed by them. Whether evinced in her moralistic politics, her entrepreneurial zeal, her thirst for novelty, or her capacity for self-reinvention, the larger message of Jane Fonda’s life may just be: Jane Fonda is America.