Jane Fonda: Was She The First Celebrity Humanitarian?

6 mins

As Jane Fonda, known to some for an acting career spanning decades, a handful for her 80’s inspired aerobics attire, and others for her political activism, enters her eightieth year she is raising her voice on the global stage louder than ever, says Rae Ritchie

At the recent Golden Globes awards, attendees wore black in support of the #TimesUp and #MeToo campaigns against sexual harassment in the film industry that broke out last year. While this mass show of solidarity within the industry is unprecedented, it is not the first time that an actor has worn black as a form of protest at a Hollywood gathering.

Back in 1972, aerobics queen and actress Jane Fonda donned a black Yves Saint Laurent trouser suit for the Oscars ceremony as a way of signalling her opposition to the Vietnam War. That evening she received the Best Actress award for her role in Klute and during her speech she commented that ‘there’s a great deal to say and I’m not going to say it tonight’, her outfit choice spoke for her.

Such a political statement from this Hollywood legend may seem surprising if you know her primarily from her role in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, as a spokeswoman for cosmetics giants L’Oréal or even her days as a doyenne of the aerobics world.  However, eighty-year-old Fonda has long been involved in campaigning for important causes of the era – and faced a barrage of criticism for doing so.

Early activism

Born in 1937 to an acting dynasty, Jane Fonda began her career as a chorus girl before moving into film, finding worldwide fame as the star of 1968 sci-fi classic Barbarella.  Around the same time, she became interested a range of radical social and political issues and after her marriage to counter-cultural activist Tom Hayden, she became more outspoken about her concerns.

Jane Fonda

Fonda shot to fame in Barbarella. Image: James Vaughan, Flickr

Today it is not unusual for celebrities to voice political views, with Angelina Jolie campaigning around female genital mutilation (FGM) and Emma Watson speaking to the UN about feminism, but it was Fonda who blazed a trail before them.  Academics have even credited her with creating the concept of ‘the celebrity humanitarian’.

During the early 1970s, Fonda very publicly opposed US military involvement in Vietnam.  Especially controversial was her 1972 visit to the country, where she was photographed laughing with America’s enemy, the North Vietnamese, while sitting on one of their anti-aircraft batteries.  This led to the nickname ‘Hanoi Jane’, after the Vietnamese capital.  This label has haunted Fonda ever since, despite repeated apologies for any offence caused, particularly among the US Vietnam veterans who regard her as a traitor.

jane fonda

Jane Fonda in 1975, Photographs by Rob Mieremet. Image: Commons Wikimedia

In the early 1970s, Fonda also developed a long-standing interest in feminism.  As the decade wore on, this became increasingly apparent in her film work.  She chose to focus on movies about issues that were important to her, and establishing her own production company also allowed her greater freedom to pursue projects that resonated with her political activism.

A great example of this is Nine to Five, the 1980 smash hit produced by Fonda’s IPC Films.  Featuring three lead women (Fonda, her Grace and Frankie co-star Tomlin and musician Dolly Parton in her first movie role), it told the story of Judy Bernly (Fonda) a middle-aged housewife who is forced to re-enter employment when her husband leaves her for his secretary.

Tomlin and Parton play Bernly’s colleagues in what is often described as a screwball comedy.  However there are serious themes in the film, including gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, inspired by women’s stories that Fonda heard at the real life 9to5 organisation, which was dedicated to supporting the many American housewives who were finding themselves in a similar situation to Judy Bernly.

Today,  Fonda, at 80, and co-star again Lily Tomlin, at 78, are multiple seasons into their Netflix buddy comedy, Grace & Frankie, in which they star and executive produce.

Beyond the laughs the series yet again delves into issues that affect women, most notably this time in later life, such as assisted suicide, dementia or the reality that funerals are now a more frequent part of one’s calendar. The pair were both nominees at this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin co-starred together in the 1980s and again in hit Netflix series Frank and Gracie. Image: Shutterstock

Environmental campaigning

As well as acting, Fonda’s activism and political campaigning continues today. Recently she spoke out in support of women’s rights #MeToo and #TimesUp at one of the many protest rallies that took place on the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President. On a detour from the nearby Sundance Film Festival, Fonda told the crowd gathered in Park City, Utah, that ‘Everything is at stake. We’ve got to give it all we’ve got. Time is up!’

Fonda has criticised Trump before. Shortly after his election in 2016, for example, she told British newspaper The Guardian that her biggest fear about his time in the White House was the environment: ‘We are confronted by someone who is against the very existence of the [Environmental Protection] Agency he’s being put in charge of.  There are many dangers with Trump but the difference here is that we have no time. The tipping point for climate change is looming.’

Jane Fonda

Fonda has been very vocal about her political opinions, particularly when it comes to President Trump’s environmental policies. image: Wikipedia

Perhaps more surprisingly, Fonda has condemned Canada’s liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his environmental stance too. Last year, she spoke of her ‘disappointment’ at his decision to approve pipelines from the Alberta oil sands. The actor highlighted that Trudeau ‘talked so beautifully of needing to meet the requirements of the climate treaty and to respect and hold to the treaties with indigenous people’ at the 2015 Paris climate conference, adding ‘Such a heroic stance he took there, and yet he has betrayed every one of the things he committed to.’

These comments came during her visit to the affected oil sands area with environmental campaign group Greenpeace. Previously she’d attended another oil drilling demonstration in Canada as well as the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota, USA, where Native Americans from the Sioux tribe were trying to prevent the construction of an oil pipeline as they believed it would destroy a sacred burial site and contaminate their reservation’s water source.

Some have criticised Fonda for flying to Canadian protests, an action seen as incompatible with environmental advocacy. Others claim that she’s an opportunist who’s in over her head when it comes to campaigning. Feminist Germaine Greer sniped that Fonda had ‘a replaced hip and a replaced something else – I don’t think it’s a brain… Think of the things with her money and clout she could have done. I remember when we thought she was going to save the whale.’

The things with her money and clout she could have done?  She has done, and continues to do, more than many public figures. Maybe she could have done more. Maybe she has made errors of judgement. Haven’t we all? How many of us, celebrity or not, can report forty plus years of campaigning?  And with the environment becoming an ever more pressing concern as the twenty-first century moves on, perhaps we can hope to see a lot more of Jane Fonda the activist.

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