“I have spent the last two years working with GIs and Vietnam veterans, and have spoken in front of hundreds of thousands of anti-war protesters, telling them that our men in uniform aren’t the enemy. Now by mistake, I appear in a photograph to be their enemy. I carry this heavy in my heart. I always will.” -- Jane Fonda
Confronting the images of popular culture and deconstructing their myths is what drives You Must Remember This (YMRT), the acclaimed podcast by film historian Karina Longworth. The show lays bare “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century” and, over the course of 100 episodes, Longworth repeatedly revisits stories from the Golden Age of Film that were once considered gospel and turns the narrative on its head -- like the tale of "Hanoi Jane" Fonda.
As images go, the photograph of actress and activist Jane Fonda sitting astride a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun during the Vietnam War is indelible, and it's one that Longworth examines at length in ‘Jean and Jane,’ a 9-episode season of YMRT. A deep dive into the storied lives of two movie stars, the season follows these women’s fortunes as they intersect and diverge down the decades from the 1950s onward, culminating in Fonda’s reinvention as the first queen of home fitness, and Seberg’s tragic decline and death.
Throughout the season, Longworth identifies several similarities between these two women. They both start as consistently underestimated blonde ingenues, they both make films with Jean-Luc Godard, and they both have professional and personal ties to France. Yet the fact that both actresses were “hounded” by the FBI as a result of their outspoken activism was, Longworth says, a major motivation for combining their narratives. Both Fonda and Seberg advocated for civil rights and supported the Black Panthers, and both were vilified by the media (at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI). But Fonda became a target for right-wing ire after she aligned herself with the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the "Hanoi Jane" image would haunt Fonda even to this day.
Beyond that iconic photograph, the details of Jane Fonda’s anti-Vietnam War activism aren’t widely remembered in 2017. Longworth herself says that before entering the exhaustive research phase for 'Jean and Jane,' she only “knew what a lot of people think they know -- which is, ‘that she did something really bad in Vietnam that some people have never forgiven her for.’” Those unfamiliar with the extent of Fonda’s involvement in the anti-war movement could be forgiven for assuming that the extent of her involvement was that fateful 1972 trip to Vietnam where she climbed on top of a North Vietnamese gun.
But as 'Jean and Jane' makes clear, Fonda’s fight against the Vietnam War went far deeper than the popular image. She was no part-time activist, effectively placing her career on hold just after 1969’s Academy Award-winning They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? to dedicate herself to the cause. Fonda later said that her desire to learn about social causes was sparked after seeing a magazine with a Native American activist on the cover, accompanied by the words “Red Power."
In recognition of her hitherto-charmed life as the talented, privileged daughter of actor Henry Fonda, Fonda said later that “it took a moment in history where millions of people were changing to show me that there was another way to be.” At that time she was interested in a number of causes, including the civil rights movement, the rise of the Black Panthers, the Native American struggle -- the latter of which inspired a 1970 visit to Alcatraz Island during its occupation by Native American protesters. But it wouldn't be long before Fonda focused all her energy on the growing anti-war movement.
Fonda's evolution into political activist coincided with a period of personal reinvention away the conventionally alluring, sex-kittenish persona she cultivated in movies like Barbarella and toward an entirely new image. This new-look Fonda had short hair, defiantly unglamorous clothes and minimal makeup -- a seismic shift that Longworth calls “symbolic in the culture.” In the anti-war cause and in this new guise, Longworth explains, Fonda “found her identity as an activist” -- one that she would ultimately “find impossible to shake.”
At first, Fonda worked to remedy her lack of understanding of the war. She went on her own version of a fact-finding tour: speaking with the enlisted men she encountered during her time in the "G.I. coffeehouses” that had sprung up around military bases.
“I was just realizing that this war was going on and I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t even know where Vietnam was,” Fonda recalled later.
One Photo's Permanent Damage
In 1972, Fonda traveled to Hanoi to witness the war's destruction. Her North Vietnamese hosts insisted the actress visit an anti-aircraft installation -- a request she agreed to, recounts Longworth in her podcast, out of politeness to those who had treated her well thus far. After a boozy luncheon with some reporters, Fonda’s hosts placed a helmet on her head and suggested she climb into the seat of an anti-aircraft gun, to much laughter.
She was “up there less than a minute," recounts Longworth -- but as the surrounding journalists took pictures and film footage, Fonda realized instantaneously the magnitude of what she'd just done. She begged her translator to ensure the photos were destroyed, and was assured they would be.
It was, of course, too late. Fonda returned to the United States to screen the footage she filmed of war-torn Vietnam: footage that exposed the Nixon administration’s lies regarding the U.S. bombing in the area, which the president had promised to stop. But its impact was hobbled after the New York Post ran the gun photo, accompanied by the now-immortal phrase “Hanoi Jane."
“It wasn’t a smart thing to be photographed on this gun,” Longworth said during an interview with KQED. “As much as you can say that she had good intentions, and that she actually did important work in terms of proving that some lies that the U.S. government were saying about the war were lies, she walked into a North Vietnamese publicity stunt. It was a mistake. And she said it was a mistake.”
It didn't take long for Fonda to admit publicly that she'd made a mistake, and she continues today to express her regret over the picture and what it did to her work.
"I made it easy for the media to choose a dubious if not downright hostile lens through which to view me, pronouncing myself a revolutionary woman while Barbarella had just played in a theater around the corner,” Fonda stated in a later interview.
A 'Gender Betrayal' of Male Fantasy
Early in 'Jean and Jane', Longworth draws the listener’s attention to a video online which crystallizes the sense of betrayal some still feel about Fonda’s transformation from sex kitten to anti-war activist. In it, images of Fonda in full Barbarella garb appear with the words “What we wanted” -- before being replaced by Fonda in her makeup-less protester role, and the words “What we got.”
It’s hard not to see the sheer vehemence of the anti-Fonda sentiment as saying a great deal about what men thought women -- particularly famous women -- were here to do, to look and to be. One thing they were not here to do: fiercely criticize the masculine sphere of war.
“This idea that she had this period, like, her most stringent as an activist was coinciding with her deliberate refusal to play into the male gaze, is obviously really interesting,” Longworth said.
The fantasy of womanhood peddled in movies like Barbarella in the late 1960s was, Longworth says, “really convincing -- and there wasn’t a lot of media that asked consumers of it to think about how they were being manipulated… So when [Fonda] very abruptly -- or so it seemed to the public and the media -- changed the way she looked and changed her stated ideology and even walked away from making movies so she could spend her whole day doing activism, I think that felt like a betrayal to the people who had bought into the sexual fantasy."
Fonda herself was all too aware of this.
“I realize,” Fonda said, “that it is not just a U.S. citizen laughing and clapping on a Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. I am Henry Fonda’s privileged daughter who appears to be thumbing my nose at the country that has provided me these privileges. More than that, I am a woman, which makes my sitting there even more of a betrayal. A gender betrayal. And I am a woman who is seen as Barbarella, a character who exists on some subliminal level as an embodiment of men’s fantasies. Barbarella has become their enemy.”
A Precursor to Today's Celebrity-Political Complex
It’s this notion of betrayal -- of femininity, of cultural expectation, of one’s country and its military mission against another nation -- that continually resounds in Fonda's story. Longworth won’t go so far as to equate Fonda’s criticism of the war with an implicit criticism of masculinity, but thinks that the actress, with her defiantly unglamorous look, “was an affront to masculinity in some ways.”
When a person -- an actress, from a storied acting dynasty, no less -- expresses political views, it’s as if every subsequent move, every statement that follows must be perfect, in a way that leaves no room for human error or moral complexity. Any misstep, and everything that’s come before, can be immediately invalidated. Perhaps it’s this degree of judgement and scrutiny that assuming a political platform invites which dissuades today’s stars from speaking out like Fonda did.
Social media, Longworth says, can dupe us into “the illusion we’re getting the ‘real stuff’” from our celebrities, when in reality “their personas and their personalities in the public space are so mediated and so protected. So I don’t think anybody’s really putting themselves out there like that.” The ones that do dare to express political leanings and notions are often mocked for it, she reminds me. Just look at Kanye West: “He’s so dismissed and so discredited, always. So… that kind of thing becomes so scary for [other stars]. They don’t want to even try to wade into those waters.”
It’s telling that when you when you ask most people to name any recent public figures that met with Fonda-level opprobrium for their activism, they’ll probably name the Dixie Chicks. In 2003, lead singer Natalie Maines’ outspoken comments on George W. Bush’s imminent invasion of Iraq (“We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas”) invoked a backlash that all but halted the band’s career -- but in the 14 years since, have we really avoided more scandalous political stances?
Longworth is keen that we don’t forget current-day figures like Shailene Woodley, the young actress who was arrested protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. But it’s been a long while since a star’s activism had a truly scarring impact on their career and reputation. When I ask if she can imagine one of today’s actors or actresses stumbling into an on-camera "Hanoi Jane" moment, Longworth is skeptical.
“I think that an equivalent person to Jane Fonda today would be too scared to do something like that," she says. "I don’t see anyone putting themselves on the line like that. So they wouldn’t even risk a ‘two-minute lapse of sanity.’”
Later, in an email, Longworth drew my attention to an article in the conservative-leaning National Review that casts an approving eye on the transformation of singer Miley Cyrus back into the country-loving, long-locked, unthreatening presence which defined the earlier years of her career. Equating Cyrus’s move away from pro-Clinton, anti-Trump political statements with her transition back to being “wholesome”, it notes how she appears “chastened by her ill-advised foray into lefty activism and the annoy-the-bourgeoisie gonzo aesthetic that went with it.”
This 24-year-old woman, it implies, has never been more attractive than when she finally abandoned all that politics stuff. Forty-five years after Fonda straddled the gun and became "Hanoi Jane," perhaps some things stay the same.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.