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Ms. America

June 2024
17min read


On the cusp of turning 60 in 1997, Jane Fonda decided to compile a video of highlights in her notably eventful life to present to guests at her forthcoming birthday party. In search of a guiding concept, she turned to her daughter Vanessa and asked for her input. She wasn’t prepared, however, for her daughter’s reply. “She said to me, ‘Why don’t you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?’,” Fonda recounts. “Ouch. And so I thought to myself, Is that true. Am I simply a chameleon that changes color according to the times and the men in my life?” Of course, compared with some of the things Jane Fonda has been called, cultural chameleon is positively mild—even flattering. After all, most celebrities enjoy a relatively brief vogue before disappearing from the cultural landscape. By contrast, Jane Fonda’s unusual staying power as an active public figure stems from her uncanny ability to adopt the foliage of successive eras of American culture. She was libertine in the mid-sixties, radical by decade’s end, progressive in the seventies, entrepreneurial in the eighties, and corporate grande dame in the nineties.

It is in fact possible to trace the vicissitudes of American history over the past four decades simply by watching Fonda’s public persona multiply and subdivide like so many stock splits. Her nineties incarnation as “Mrs. Ted Turner” might seem an apotheosis, but it was just another identity pit stop for a public figure who is part Zeitgeist receptacle, part historical timeline, and part cultural encyclopedia.

Fonda’s tendency to intersect with the larger forces of history may be hereditary. The ancestors of her actor father Henry Fonda were among the first Dutch settlers of what is now upstate New York, where the town of Fonda still stands today. The family of Frances Fonda, Jane’s mother, claimed direct descent from Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, whose sister, Lady Jane Seymour, was the third of King Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives. So infatuated was Frances with her regal ancestry that when the Fondas’ baby girl was born, in December 1937, Frances christened her Jane Seymour Fonda. It wasn’t long before the tomboyish girl rejected her “Lady Jane” epithet because, as she recalls, “It made me feel different.”

When Henry Fonda announced in late 1949 that he was leaving his wife for a much younger woman, Frances had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized in a sanitarium, where she committed suicide. Because Jane was 12 at the time, and her brother, Peter, 10, Henry thought it best to tell them that their mother had died of a heart attack. Jane learned the truth a year later, when a classmate leafing through a movie magazine stumbled on the real story. “I was very powerful for the first 10 years of my life,” she recalls today. “I was feisty, I was brave, I had ambition. Then, at the beginning of puberty, it disappeared, and you could have put what was left of me in a thimble.”

While Peter learned to act out his childhood trauma, Jane followed her father’s lead and dissembled. During her adolescence, she nursed tightly packed emotions that might be let out at a moment’s notice—a psychological foundation fit for the soon-to-be actress. She entered Vassar College in the fall of 1955 and quickly earned a reputation as what one observer called a “sophisticated delinquent.” Her college antics, such as sneaking off to spend time with boys at Yale, seem mild enough today, but that hasn’t kept a rumor from circulating among subsequent generations of Vassar students. It holds that Fonda was once barred from the daily afternoon tea service at Rose Hall because she wasn’t wearing the requisite white gloves and pearls, so she promptly left the scene and returned wearing gloves, pearls—and nothing else. “Totally untrue,” Fonda insists. Still, it wouldn’t be the last time that Fonda’s subsequent notoriety would be retroactively projected onto the rest of her life.


Fonda’s ongoing habitation of the American moment began in 1958. Having dropped out of college after her second year, she toyed with the idea of becoming an actress and soon found a teacher in Lee Strasberg, the famous dean of the Actors Studio. Strasberg’s “Method” acting regime was at the zenith of its cultural visibility, having influenced such film stars as Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, and Anne Bancroft. Aspiring actors clamored for entry into the Studio, which accepted only five new members a year for every thousand applicants. Many settled for Strasberg’s more accessible private classes, which were seen as a way to get one’s foot in the Studio door. Fonda met Strasberg while he was working with Marilyn Monroe, his favorite protégé, on Some Like It Hot. After a short interview, she was accepted into the Strasberg fold. “The only reason I took her,” Strasberg said, “was her eyes. There was such panic in her eyes.”

Strasberg’s approach to acting has often been criticized for producing a generation of mumbling, self-enclosed islands of subjectivity, Marion Brando being a chief example. Yet despite its excesses, Strasberg’s philosophy centered on the belief that actors shouldn’t play a role so much as inhabit it. As he put it in a 1956 New York Times Magazine article, “I stress the difference between the actor who thinks acting is an imitation of life and the actor who feels acting is living. Unless the actor onstage really comes alive, really lives a character, he gives a superficial interpretation.” The Method emphasized the importance of empathy, not imitation: One student who was to play a prostitute in a movie was told to go out and sleep with sailors. It was very possibly under Strasberg’s tutelage—part dramatic training and part group psychoanalysis—that Fonda mastered the two elements that would make her such an effective harbinger and exemplar of her times: empathy and exhibitionism. The technique that allowed her intuitively to appropriate someone else’s subjectivity for the purposes of a screen role would later enable her to conform to, and inhabit, the changing configurations of American culture—to “become” the culture, as it were.

From the high-minded rigor of the Actors Studio, Fonda descended in 1960 into a morass of shallow, forgettable roles, playing a cheerleader in her debut, Tall Story, and a “bad girl” in Walk on the Wild Side. Fearful of becoming just another Hollywood studio player, she made a bold career move in 1963: She accepted the director René Clément’s offer to star in a French film, Joy House, opposite Alain Delon. Although eager to work with Clément, Fonda worried about the repercussions of a cinematic identity crafted abroad. “Nobody’s ever heard of an American actress making a name for herself by taking off to Europe,” her future husband Roger Vadim recalled her saying at the time. But as it turned out, she had unwittingly located the pulse of 1960s cinema.

Fonda chose Paris, which at the time was the capital of New Wave filmmaking, the home of the avant-garde directors Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. “Hollywood had already embarked on a desperate effort to become Europeanized,” notes her biographer Thomas Kiernan. “In their attempt to recover their audiences, American films rapidly became infiltrated by the mannerisms of the French style.”


One of the masters of the “French style” was the director Roger Vadim, who had launched the career of his wife Brigitte Bardot in the 1956 film And God Created Woman. Vadim’s entire cultural mission seemed to center on provoking audiences with movies about sexual frankness. He had mastered the art of embedding risqué adult content in scenarios drawn from classic French novels, thereby coating it with a varnish of respectability. As a result, his movies gained distribution in France and the United States under the guise of “art films.” Interwoven with his film work was Vadim’s reputation as the self-described “pope of hedonism,” a reputation reinforced by his fathering children with two of France’s most famous female stars, Bardot and Catherine Deneuve. Vadim mused on his ability to attract high-profile women in his notorious autobiography Bardot Deneuve Fonda: “For some, the secret was my performance in bed; for others, I was only a vehicle for success; and for still others, I was a Svengali capable of bewitching innocent young girls and molding them as I wished.” Repulsed by and then attracted to Vadim for precisely these reasons, Jane Fonda married him in 1965—which also meant starring in his films and serving as iconographic ammunition in Vadim’s ongoing crusade against bourgeois sexual morality. “I needed someone to teach me how to be a woman,” Fonda remarks today with a laugh, “and I was stupid enough—no, I take that back—superficial enough to think that Vadim would do it. And he taught me a lot, but it’s a certain version of womanhood.”

It was during the Vadim years that Fonda became, in both France and America, a kind of shorthand signifier for hedonism, decadence, and public nudity. Although she bore no resemblance to Brigitte Bardot either physically or stylistically, the French press quickly dubbed Fonda “la BB américaine” and, fond of animal metaphors, described her as “a young wild thing, galloping too fast” and “the black panther I used to watch in the zoo.”

The films she made in France, while successfully endowing her with sought-after European cachet, also tended to reinforce her association with free-loving nudism. American critics like Judith Grist ignored the plot of Vadim’s 1966 film The Game Is Over and dwelled instead on the near-nudity, dubbing Fonda a “Miss Screen Nude of ‘67.” (Fonda later remarked that, in the United States, “if you do a Dostoyevsky film and take your bra off, you’re a sex symbol.”) The American distributors of another Vadim/Fonda movie, Circle of Love , placed an eight-story-high billboard of a nude Fonda atop a Broadway theater, an image not even drawn from the film itself. “What shocked me personally was that the poster was extremely ugly,” remarked the relentlessly casual Vadim.

Another example of the almost subliminal association made between Jane Fonda and the new morality was Newsweek’s decision to feature a barebacked photo of the actress for a cover story titled “The Permissive Society,” evoking her as the child of Eros even though the article barely mentioned her. Questioned by the press about whether she had exhibitionist tendencies, Fonda spontaneously realized that she had been Method living—applying Method acting to the entirety of her life. “I do in life exactly what I do when I act,” she admitted, “talking like the character, and so on- as an experiment.” The fact that the American public and media conflated her with her vixenish film roles, that she tended to “become” her onscreen self in real life, and that her films reflected the sexual libertinism of the sixties, produced a unique synergy in which Jane Fonda the actress, the person, and the cultural phenomenon all melded into one entity. This fusion of self, image, and culture took hold at the very moment Barbarella was released, in 1968.


Barbarella, the kitschy sci-fi hit about a sexually uninhibited space woman, emblazoned her sex-symbol image forever after in the public mind. While Barbarella wasn’t a “movement movie” like Bonnie and Clyde, its free-love ethic implicated it in the cultural revolt sweeping the United States in the form of the hippie counterculture. Looking back on his Barbarella-era theories of sexual revolution from the vantage point of the 1980s, Vadim recalled the “aura of intoxication” of the late sixties, where “ancestral rules were on shaky ground,” and concluded, “Jane and I were guinea pigs of an unstable era, and we did not know it.” As it turned out, it was this very instability that would separate Fonda from Vadim and launch her into the most controversial phase of her life/career.

She had spent several years justifying American foreign policy to Vadim and his French friends, all of whom relentlessly criticized America’s intervention in Vietnam. Indeed, she had once been bestowed the title of “Miss Army Recruiting of 1962,” whereupon she gave an animated acceptance speech on America’s need for a strong military. “I was very defensive,” she recalls. “My father had fought in World War II, and I really believed that if our flag was flying somewhere, what we were doing in the name of the flag must be noble.” But gradually she came to oppose the Vietnam war. In 1968, pregnant with her first child, Vanessa, during the near-collapse of the de Gaulle government in France, she underwent an epiphany: “In the streets there was revolution, and then there was my own revolution—which childbirth is. I was seeing people in the United States putting their lives on the line to try to end the war, and I realized I wanted to be there.” Taking her newborn child with her, she abruptly terminated the French phase of her life, returning to a Hollywood brimming with radical activism.

Nineteen sixty-nine was the year of the radical celebrity in Hollywood. Fonda’s brother, Peter, starred in Easy Rider, the youth-culture hit that expressed hippie fears of a silent-but-deadly majority, while actors like Marion Brando and Paul Newman lent support to groups ranging from the Black Panthers to antiwar activists and Native Americans. Fonda landed on U.S. soil and dove headfirst into radical politics, holding press conferences for Huey Newton, visiting Native Americans who had seized Alcatraz, and devoting particular attention to the G.I. Coffeehouse movement, which was attempting to instill antiwar sentiment in U.S. soldiers. This abrupt shift in personas was replicated onscreen. At her most campy and frivolous in Barbarella , her next part was that of misanthropic, suicidal Gloria in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, perhaps the most brutally realistic role of her film career. In a prescient commentary, the film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “Jane Fonda stands a good chance of personifying American tensions and dominating our movies in the seventies as Bette Davis did in the thirties.” Nominated Best Actress for her harrowing performance, Fonda flashed a Black Panther fist-salute as she strode into the Oscars.


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).

“If you want to send a message,” the film mogul Samuel Goldywn once said about political movies, “use Western Union.” Fonda’s cinematic successes of the late seventies proved, quite to the contrary, that message films could ride high at the box office. The key was subtlety and audience appeal. “You can’t propagandize,” she insisted, cognizant of her mistakes earlier in the decade. “It has to be a good, well-told story. If you don’t have that, people won’t go.” Having learned the hard way that audiences took her onscreen persona as her real one, she mastered the art of casting herself against type, playing apolitical characters onscreen and thereby confounding her reputation as a left-wing rabble-rouser. Her film roles belied her public image, enabling her to finesse her political agenda for easy, almost subliminal consumption by a mass audience. In !PC’s first feature film, Coming Home (1978), she played the politically neutral wife of a career Army officer who falls in love with a handicapped veteran who comes to oppose the war. The film’s implicit message—that an antiwar conscience actually translates into a superior masculinity—was conveyed through the two men, not through Fonda, but her performance earned her a second Oscar for Best Actress.


This calibration of her political and cinematic identities netted her critical acclaim and box-office success even while rehabilitating her public image. At the same time, her political concerns had a knack for shadowing, and at times even anticipating, the cultural and political permutations of the late seventies. In 1979 she co-produced The China Syndrome, cannily playing a politically apathetic, career-minded TV reporter who accidentally witnesses a meltdown while visiting a nuclear power plant. No sooner had the film opened than a real-life nuclear accident occurred in Pennsylvania, producing a bizarre convergence in which audiences went to see The China Syndrome in order to understand Three Mile Island. Fonda’s antinuke message was so effective that the “father of the H-bomb,” Edward Teller, actually blamed her for the heart attack he suffered at the time. The 1980 hit Nine to Five took on the issues of sexual harassment and women’s workplace grievances through the easily palatable formula of slapstick comedy, and Fonda cast the film’s players with the strategic care of a presidential candidate choosing a running mate. Knowing that “there are still a lot of people out there who would like to see me dead,” especially in more conservative regions of the country, she picked Dolly Parton because “Dolly gets us the South.”

By 1980, the year her political nemesis Ronald Reagan was elected President, Jane Fonda had staged a remarkable comeback: a Gallup poll ranked her among the world’s 10 most admired women. But despite the success of her films, she foresaw the diminished earning potential she could expect as an actress in her mid-forties and worried about securing new funding sources for the CED. As it turned out, the answer to her financial concerns would launch her next, and most lucrative, cultural incarnation. “This was at the height of Lyndon Larouche, and I discovered that he funded his organization through a computer business,” Fonda recalls. “So I said to Tom, ‘Let’s borrow a page from the right wing and figure out a business that we can start.’ Now, I’m about as far from a businesswoman as anybody could possibly be. But one day it just hit me: There’s one thing I understand, and that’s exercise. I know what works, and I know what it can do for a woman. Why don’t I turn it into a business?” Drawing from an exercise routine she had developed over the past twenty years that built on her early ballet training, she launched the “Workout,” an interdisciplinary regimen that incorporated calisthenics, dance, and aerobics.


Once again, Jane Fonda had tapped the spirit of the age. She opened her first Workout center in Beverly Hills, in 1979, and the concept took off. Workout centers spread to other cities, and Jane Fonda’s Workout Book sold nearly two million copies in its first year. Not only did her newest endeavor mesh with, as well as fortify, the fitness craze of the 1980s, it also helped jump-start the infant home-video industry. When the entrepreneur Stuart Karl persuaded her to release a video version of the Workout, her videocassettes quickly became bestsellers. By 1982 her fitness empire had taken in an astonishing $20 million. Like a vertically integrated corporation, the diversification of her professional identities now had a mutually reinforcing, synergistic effect. Showing off her fit, middle-aged body onscreen promoted her Workout routine; the Workout and film roles subsidized Hayden’s successful campaign for California State Assembly in 1982. At the same time, Jane Fonda the “political actress” now mutated into an emblem of the fitness-crazed, body-conscious, “say no to drugs” eighties.


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.

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