Being Fonda Jane
© April 18, 2005
Well, if nothing else, one thing I’ve learned since writing “Kinda Fonda Jane” is that being Fonda Jane – even kinda – isn’t exactly a good thing to be. In fact, it’s almost as bad as Being John Malkovich (a fate truly to be despised).
Indeed, being Fonda Jane can be downright dangerous, and can lead, in its most benign form, to humorless, ill-considered name-calling. I’ve been dubbed a RINO (by people who've never read another word I've written, no less – which also puts me in the questionable company of John McCain, who likewise urges forgiveness), and I’ve been told that I deserve, for committing the unpardonable crime (an offense on par, surely, with Ms. Fonda’s original sin) of even suggesting that we move toward some sort of rapprochement with this radioactive woman, to go to the gallows with her and rot, right alongside her, in hell.
Phew. And well. That kinda takes the steam off your coffee. Kinda sorta.
And then there was this, the most tortured piece of logic I’ve been offered yet, by a Vietnam veteran, no less: “I spent eight years in the service so that [Jane Fonda] and her kind could bad mouth America. If I had my way, she would be shot.”
Which begged the reply:
“While I honor your service and thank you for it, I have to say: What was the point? Correct me if I'm wrong: But, with all due respect, what you are telling me is that you spent eight years of your life in the service for nothing – if, in fact, as you say, you served so Fonda and "her kind" (apparently to include me) could freely speak their peace. If, then, after Ms. Fonda has exercised her right to free speech, which you say you went to war to protect, you would then turn around and shoot her for it, for what, pray tell, were you fighting?"
I realize it isn’t as simple as that, of course. This man doesn’t really believe Jane Fonda should be shot just because she spoke her mind. He believes she should be shot because she spoke her mind on enemy terrain during war – because if nothing else, she was a willing mouthpiece for enemy propaganda.
One thing I’ve learned for sure is that this brouhaha has become less and less about Jane Fonda and more and more about me, about some readers’ (sometimes diabolically intense) need to force me to think and feel as they do about her, regardless of whether I truly do – in other words, I am being persistently pestered to conform to the groupthink on this one. I must banish all “fonda” Fonda fondness from my brain. So my great sin, it would seem, is not so much in bucking the system itself, as in “being Fonda Jane.” I mean, what kind of blame fool would be fond of Hanoi Jane?
The question itself is a landmine, one I must gingerly sidestep if I’m to avoid being blown to bits. The answer is: No kind, of course. After all, it isn’t “Hanoi Jane” I’m “fond of,” not even kind of; it’s the mature Jane, the one I meet between the pages of her book, My Life So Far, whose voice I find to be impressively authentic and serious.
It’s unfortunate, though understandable, that the whole of this woman’s extraordinary life has come to be defined by what she did during that fateful fortnight in Vietnam. Of course, she has only herself to blame for what she did. But by the same token, can we really condemn her for trying to shift the spotlight away from that one darkened two-week window onto her whole interior world? Isn’t it likely that “Hanoi Jane” is only one part of the many parts which make up Jane Fonda the complex woman, who is more than the sum of these parts, particularly of any one part wrenched out of context?
Much as we don’t want to hear it, there is a lot more to this oft-dehumanized human being than this. If you were too personally affected by what she did – if you are one of those who cannot forgive or forget, no matter what – then clearly you are closed to anything she might have to say of any substance or value because to open yourself up to it is to risk defeating your preconceived, myopic view of her: that she’s crass, self-serving, manipulative, facile, unstable, a dabbler, and (my favorite) an “actress” predisposed by her craft (which is a kind of witch-craft, after all) to shed “crocodile tears” on cue – an argument I find particularly disingenuous, since it suggests that no person can be a talented actor and still retain a shred of sincerity, integrity or credibility. What does this say about Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, I wonder?
And maybe she is all of these things, and more. I do not deny that she may be lying. But neither do I deny that maybe, just maybe, she may be telling the truth, as she knows it.
Where I part company with my conservative brethren is in my willingness to at least entertain the possibility that she is not quite as shallow as we have formerly believed her to be. In fact, I’m so willing to consider this possibility that I’ve been doing something this week that most of my critics will never even contemplate doing – I’m actually reading her book! (Gasp!) After all, for years I’ve been reading all the rotten things people have been saying about her, most of them admittedly justified; so, in the interest of fairness, should not impartiality and intellectual honesty demand that I give her a hearing too? After all, we have nothing to fear from the whole story – from the truth, insofar as it can be known.
Why do I dare believe Ms. Fonda, the Barbarella of yore, has substance? Because she has important things to say, especially to women, concerning topics other than her involvement in the anti-war movement. She is most effective, I think, when addressing the subject of female self-esteem, noting the necessity of framing one’s self-concept independent of men (a lesson she no doubt learned the hard way from her three disastrous marriages, during which she “twisted herself like a pretzel” in order to become whatever the man in her life at the moment “wanted her to be”).
She further urges us to avoid the trap of “perfection,” which is, it seems to me, an especially instructive lesson for the former Barbarella to hand down. In particular, she speaks to the topic of eating disorders and female reproductive health and responsibility. (And before I am wrongly accused of condoning Ms. Fonda’s pro-choice position, I must note, in my defense and hers, that the goal of her activism in this arena is to encourage adolescent reproductive health by stressing pregnancy prevention, not termination.)
One thing Jane Fonda and I probably share in common is this concern for women’s issues. While I’m a conservative, I’m also, at heart, a “feminist” (for want of a better word). No, I’m not a FemiNazi, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe FemiNazis exist. I do. But I’m not one of them. (I do not take up radical feminist causes, for instance, nor do I support abortion on demand, nor do I favor same-sex unions. I do not use this word in its most polarizing form.)
So, as both a conservative and a feminist, I am presented with a peculiar dilemma when considering the controversial case of Jane Fonda. Fonda describes herself as a “feminist Christian” (admittedly an oxymoron, but no more of one, really, than a “conservative feminist”). The conservative in me wants to take her to task, while the feminist in me needs to understand her.
So, in my last article, “Kinda Fonda Jane,” I took a lot of heat for riding (rather too cavalierly, according to some) to her defense. Perhaps it was my tone of voice that got me in trouble – and I’m well aware that my propensity for punning can sometimes land me in hot water. The title, while witty and clever, was a little unfortunate, in hindsight, because it may have led some readers to believe I thought the whole thing was a joke.
I thought nothing of the kind. These are weighty issues that deserve to be considered, so this time I have made a concerted effort to dispense with the wit and proceed with the polemic.
There are those who have suggested that I propose to excuse Ms. Fonda’s radical actions during the war by arguing that she was a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool believer. Because she believed is not the reason why I suggested we forgive her. It is, however, a reason which those who are so inclined can use to try and understand her. (Even Hitler begs understanding, lest we allow another like him to rise up.) For anyone to suggest that I have put forth anything other than her Christian faith as a road to redemption (as some critics have done) is to grossly oversimplify and twist my thesis.
And to those who would attempt to argue the empirical evidence with me, I can say only this: What is actually open to debate here is not so much what Jane Fonda did in Hanoi in July of 1972 (http://www.snopes.com/military/fonda.asp) as whether or not we should forgive her for it. This latter is strictly a subjective decision, one each of us must make in his or her own heart of hearts, and is therefore purely a matter of opinion and individual conscience (much as is whether to conscientiously object in wartime).
And to those who say that Ms. Fonda cannot possibly have repented of her Vietnam sins because she opposes the current war in Iraq, I am amazed that I find it necessary to point out what should be, prima facie, obvious to all fair-minded, educated people: That she need not embrace conservatism (or reject liberalism) in order to be forgiven or even to be given another chance. She need not reject out of hand her former renunciation of the Vietnam War in order to attain spiritual redemption, either. Doubtless even some Democrats and liberals go to heaven too. Probably even some of them who were wrong about Vietnam and Iraq occasionally manage to slip past Peter’s Velcro-covered fingers at the pearly gate.
Ms. Fonda’s detractors charge that she should “apologize,” which, truthfully, it seems to me, she has tried to do, on more than one occasion. But even this is not enough, for these folks in the main don’t like the way she has apologized. I guarantee you not even very public groveling and prostration would do the trick for most of them. They would still say her genuflections are fake and that she is only getting down on her hands and knees now to sell a few more lousy books. (The book is actually quite good, by the way.)
Is it just me, or does anyone else find it disconcerting and discomfiting that many of the critics appear to drop all the blame for the carnage (the killing fields of Cambodia) and the quagmire (Vietnam itself) at the feet of one (hysterical) woman? Is Jane Fonda really the Helen of the modern age?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it was JFK, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon – not Jane Fonda – who sent these good men to those mayhem-strangled jungles in the first place, was it not? Whatever else we can say about her motivations (including her adversarial ideological leanings at the time), Jane Fonda did at least want to stop the bombing and bring the soldiers home, whether she achieved that mission or not.
Even if Hanoi Jane was directly or indirectly responsible for many deaths, how many more young men were felled before she went? Do we really think she was trying to add to the number of the dead or to quit the killing on both sides? How many deaths, do we suppose, belong to the ghosts of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon?
Rather than blame Jane Fonda strictly, for all of it, as so many of my correspondents seem to do, shouldn't we hold to account the system that drafted and pressed into service these impressionable young men in the first place? Whatever we may think of the current conflict in Iraq (which I, unlike Ms. Fonda, wholeheartedly support), at least our modern army is all-volunteer. Rumsfeld knows what he’s doing there.
Yes, there is no denying that Jane Fonda committed some sort of treason (though the extent of her aiding and abetting appears to have been confined to the promulgation of pro-Viet Cong propaganda). Less strictly speaking, John Kerry committed treason too, and so did quite a few others during that era. But we are kidding ourselves if we deny the real reason why neither she nor Kerry has been prosecuted for their crimes: There is simply no genuine consensus in this country which in any way indicates that a majority of Americans favor holding these "traitors" to account. Why? Because, frankly, too many of us are still too riddled with doubts and vexed with questions about Vietnam – what we were doing there, why we there in the first place.
Conversely, there is no such lack of consensus on the current war on terror, and so we, as a society, condone holding John Walker Linde's feet to the fire. And we had no trouble socking it to Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose during WWII either, another conflict which was undeniably morally clear.
And maybe we should have held Fonda's treacherous tootsies to the stove, too, long before now – but the statute of limitations has effectively run out. And that's precisely my point. It's time to fish or cut bait. Charge the woman or let her go.
And yes, treason should be a crime punishable by imprisonment, but it isn't, not always, for the collective will to prosecute in these cases too often depends on the prevailing popular sentiment about the worthiness of the cause. And even if it were, it should no more be a punishable offense for Fonda than for Kerry. And here it's worth noting: Whatever else we may say about Jane Fonda, we have to give her this much, at least – unlike John Kerry, whose every move was motivated by ambition and not conviction, Fonda's radical flame-throws were fueled by an actual ideology, however ill-conceived.
Furthermore, if treason really were a death-penalty crime, my guess is that Barbarella never would have parked her bulimic arse on that anti-aircraft battery to begin with.
We can hardly fault her for what we as a society aren't willing to stand up for, now, can we? More rigorous enforcement of the prohibitions against this kind of behavior would have doubtless served as a more powerful deterrent than all the enraged ravings of her detractors combined.
And finally, much as it might satisfy our psychological purposes to demand a scapegoat, our lust for one still does not justify the witchhunt. The truth is a louse: It is never easy to tease out. And when you finally do manage get your mits on it, it has an infuriating way of jumping around, so no matter how carefully you think you are handling it, you never really get a good grip.
And the real truth is this: There are many people and events, besides Jane Fonda and her anti-war activities, which, when taken together, formed the fulcrum upon which our failure in Vietnam turned.
But it's so much easier for Ms. Fonda’s most astringent, one-note critics to just let Jane take all the blame. Why not? It's been done before. Let the seditious actress play Eve to Nixon’s Adam: Let her be the lightning rod for the pols' bad choices. Let her be the repository for our collective guilt and confusion over this most mistake-strewn and murky period of our history.
And then, when you're tired of hearing her mouth off about it, tell her where to stuff her big fat apple. ▪
Karen Hathaway Pittman is a freelance writer and poet whose political commentary is widely featured on the web. You may read her articles and poems online at http://karenhpittman.blogspot.com. She lives with her husband and cat in the New York City metropolitan area.