Golden Goddess: Why Jane Fonda is still a feminist force at 80
As well as painting a complex and heartwarming portrait of the legendary star and political activist, last year’s The Guardian interview made screen icon Jane Fonda appear incredibly relatable as she laughed off a post-Cannes hangover, shared her understandable disdain for open-mouthed slobbering love scenes in modern movies, and excitement at enjoying a thriving career at 80.
In her golden years, Fonda appeared to be just as outspoken, lovable, and daring as ever. As her comments on and active involvement with various political movements such as Black Lives Matter and Time’s Up continue to prove, Fonda also hasn’t slowed down her momentum as a feminist powerhouse leveraging her power for action and change. That’s as apparent in the work Fonda does on screen as it is with her political activism off.
For example, recently Fonda starred alongside Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Candice Bergen (Miss Congeniality), and Mary Steenburgen (Step Brothers) in Book Club, centered around the sexual awakening of four older women who have their loins suitably set alight by reading Fifty Shades of Grey in their book club.
Book Club isn’t just about a bunch of geriatric women getting horny for a spanking, but is also about female solidarity and empowerment. Why shouldn’t women of a certain age be able to encourage each other to rediscover and enjoy their sex lives?
Likewise, Fonda’s hit Netflix Originals comedy Grace and Frankie in which she stars alongside fellow feminist powerhouse Lily Tomlin (Grandma) was also created to challenge society’s willful ignorance of older women and their lives and desires. Fonda told Harper’s Bazaar:
“I wanted to give a cultural face to older women and that’s what I love about being on Grace and Frankie. We tried to show the downsides of being older, like the fear of falling and breaking your hip or the fact that nobody pays any attention to you because you’re not young and beautiful anymore, the worries about having boyfriends and what they’re going to think of your body, and all those kinds of things. But we also wanted to say, ‘Hey, don’t count us out! We’re still smart, we can still be funny, we can still be active, we can still have sex’.”
Of course Fonda is still raising her fist and causing a fuss about such issues – aside from her fifteen year retirement from the industry (which started at 50 and ended at 65), it’s something the actor has done throughout her career. With erotic sci-fi cult classic Barbarella, Fonda took a lot of heat from feminists who accused the movie of exploiting female sexuality for cheap male thrills.
Fonda once described the film as being a “kind of tongue-in-cheek satire against bourgeois morality” and also defended the movie for being less damaging than some of her more seemingly innocent roles.
Barbarella is a film that’s always brought up, but as a matter of fact, I was hardly ever nude. Most of the pictures where I was dressed to the teeth and played a cute little ingénue were more exploitative than the ones with nudity because they portrayed women as silly, as mindless, as motivated purely by sex in relation to men.
Though camp and silly, the film continues to divide feminists who argue whether the film offers a progressive commentary on the sexual liberation of women, or some cheap laughs at our expense. Speaking to The Guardian, Fonda conceded, “it wasn’t much fun to make it” but “nobody forced me.”
Sexual liberation aside, Fonda is also renowned for depicting sharp and shrewd female characters with a low tolerance for bullshit. In The Morning After, Nine to Five, The China Syndrome, and Klute (which Fonda described to O Magazine as being “the first movie I made in which I identified myself as a feminist. It was also my first Academy Award”), the actor depicts ruthlessly strong, well-crafted female characters challenging a dominant male society with a headstrong vigor.
However, it’s her work in the late 70s that is the stuff that continues to carve Fonda out as a woman who obstinately believes in letting your art express your beliefs. Earning herself the nickname Hanoi Jane for traveling to the Vietnamese capital in 1972 to denounce the U.S. bombing campaigns taking place there, Fonda worked tirelessly in opposition to a war she didn’t believe in.
However, Fonda also drew controversy when a photo of her posing on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft sparked widespread hatred among veterans and the South Vietnamese. (The star has since apologized and shared her side of the story on her official website.) Despite her continuing to inspire controversy, Fonda went on to produce and star in Vietnam war movie Coming Home in 1978 (for which she won her second Academy Award).
Even if you disagree with her activism, you have to admire her moxie in pursuing this film during the peak of divisive public image. Not only did Fonda refuse to back down, she also made her voice louder about the war at a time when people were urging her to stay quiet.
While some modern stars seem perfectly content in wearing a badge and calling it activism, Fonda continues to use her power to encourage awareness, show support, and find active ways to help bring about change. From her speaking up and showing support for the Black Panthers to campaigning for the rights of single mothers and Native Americans to visiting Angela Davis in jail (and talking with her about “everyone joining forces to stop repression in this country and beyond”), Fonda could never be accused of virtue signalling.
More recently, she even served dinner to demonstrators at Standing Rock, stating in an impassioned op-ed for Time “These are people fighting not simply against their oppressors but also for the earth and all its creatures including us.
If we can do this it will represent an historic turning point,” and got real about some of the shortcomings (but ultimate power) of the Time’s Up movement stating, “It was the fact that white—famous white women spoke out and were believed. Black women have been speaking out long before.” Fonda is a troubadour for intersectional feminism and everything it stands for.
At 80 she represents a new form of female power where she’s raising a voice that society has long dictated shouldn’t be listened to and using it to make profound and important statements. Not just about politics or society, but about life and the complexity of womanhood, too. Fonda is an absolute queen and long may she reign.