The previous essay focussed on Jane Fonda’s two Oscar speeches, using them as frames to consider her political engagement with a view to understanding how she navigated her activism with her stardom and celebrity image. In this essay I want to look at Fonda from the points of sex, feminism and truth. Fonda’s star persona, while tied to the political activism addressed earlier, is also married to a sexualised image. Her early work in films like Barbarella established her as a sex symbol, and her work in Barefoot in the Park and They Shoot Horses Don’t They? positioned her as a compelling actress, with the latter securing her first Oscar nomination.
Three of Fonda’s roles that this essay will focus on are: Barbarella, Klute and Agnes of God. In Barbarella Fonda plays a highly sexualised space agent tasked with stopping a mad scientist. In Klute (for which Fonda won her first Oscar), she plays prostitute Bree Daniels, tasked with helping a detective investigate a missing person case, and In Agnes of God, Fonda plays Dr Martha Livingstone, a psychologist appointed to investigate a case regarding the death of a baby in a convent. These three women are both built around different ideas of what it means to be sexual, and a consideration of all three reveals Fonda to be a figure that has dealt with sexuality and feminism through challenging work and an evolving star image.
It is useful to note that while this essay looks to consider Fonda’s feminism through a selection of her roles, I cannot speak to Fonda’s feminism on a personal level. I am interested in the relationships between her star image, career, and feminism. While Fonda identifies as a feminist, she has remarked that this identification came a late stage, and required much work. She recalls a journal entry that read “Don't understand the Women's Liberation Movement. There are more important things to have a movement for, it seems to me. To focus on women's issues is diversionary when so much wrong is being done in the world. Each woman should take it upon herself to be liberated and show a man what that means." In sharing this passage Fonda acknowledges how far her feminism has evolved. She is now alert to the different intersections of class, race and so on that impact one’s ability to do feminism, so to speak. Fonda notes that while she began to publicly identify as a feminist in the seventies, “it would be many more years before I would be brave enough to look within myself and locate the multiple ways in which I had internalized sexism and the profound damage that it had done to me.” This is a revealing reflection, and Fonda further goes on to state that her feminism was “theoretical, in my head, not my blood and bones” and notes that “for me to really confront sexism would have required doing something about my relationships with men, and I couldn't.” She goes on to reflect, however, that “when I turned 60 and entered my third and final act, I decided that, no matter how scary it was, I needed to heal the wounds patriarchy had dealt me. I didn't want to come to the end of my life without doing all I could to become a whole, full-voiced woman.” These are the words of a fully reflective feminist, someone who is willing to pay attention to the inadequacies of one’s ideas, and - most importantly - make the move to improve upon them. I will return to Fonda’s feminist reflections, and her ‘third act’, in the third and final essay, but for now, back to Barbarella, Klute, and Agnes of God.
In Barbarella, Fonda is glaringly presented as a sexualised image: a by-product of the male gaze. Her performance plays with popular constructions of femininity. The narrative dovetails conventions of science fiction with the stereotypical image of an attractive, blonde figure. There is a supposed humour in these associations, and Fonda’s character finds herself in many ludicrous setups that flaunt this hyper-sexualised image. The costuming is reminiscent of a Barbie doll, with shiny silvers, and bare midriff: the framing of Fonda’s nudity establishes her as an object of desire, for the heterosexual male gaze. While this objectification and sexualisation ostensibly fits within the mise-en-scene of this film, it created a powerful impression with connotations that transcended this picture and extended to Fonda’s star image itself. In one scene where Barbarella encounters a man from a different planet, their exchange results in him contemplating what Barbarella could “do for him”. Of course this ends up being sexual. There is an attempt at humour in this exchange; Barbarella tries to educate him on her perspective towards sex and its apparent contemporary obsolescence. Her body is used as currency, and positions her within a paradigm of consumption - a seemingly clear, anti-feminist encounter. At this stage in her career Fonda is presented as an ingénue and sex symbol. She operates in a world heavily influenced by popular constructions of femininity. The image, however, was not fixed, and her subsequent film roles and performances would challenge this characterisation.
In Klute Fonda presents a different view of sex and sexualisation. In this film her character’s sexuality is darker and complicated by the thrilling narrative of the plot, her role as a sex worker, and the scenes in which Bree discusses her relationship to men, her body, and her sense of self. Where Barbarella constructed Fonda as a sex symbol that trafficked in the conventions of youth, attraction, and naivety, this film offers a more realistic, reflective, and challenging representation. Where Barbarella depicted porno-sci-fi, Klute attempts to depict a shattering reality. Fonda’s performance is textured and intimate, a world away from the flimsy femininity of Barbarella. Throughout the film we witness Bree’s encounters with her therapist. The therapist/patient relationship is about a quest for truth and discovery of the (woman’s) self. In these encounters with her therapist, Bree discloses her history and reflects on her emotions and responses to sex. She says that her work as a prostitute made her feel like she “wasn’t alone, like I had some control over my life, that I could determine things for myself”. This revelation is interesting in that it reveals how Bree connects the detached sexual encounters of her work with control. The bodily control she experiences is undermined by the emotional weight she experiences. In another sequence Bree describes the joy of a sexual encounter and relationship, stating that “I feel. My body feels; I enjoy making love with him.” This discussion of bodily pleasure is revealing, it is so far removed from the sexualisation of Barbarella and offers a complex contrast to simplified representations of female desire and sexuality.
Comparing Barbarella and Klute highlights the tension present in the good/bad dichotomy of sexuality that Hollywood frequently imposes on female characters. In these two instances, Fonda explores what it means to be both sexual and a sexualised object. Barbarella as a film wants Fonda to perform a certain type of sexuality, whereas Bree in Klute deconstructs her own performance of sexuality in the context of her sex work. Both roles reveal something different about what it could mean to be sexual and to represent sexuality, and both performances illustrate an evolution of Fonda’s performance style and approach to acting.
In one encounter with her therapist Bree concludes with this: “I guess I just realised that, uh… that I don’t really give a damn”. This statement serves as a powerful rebuke of expectation. If we consider Fonda’s star image from the sex-symbol creation of Barbarella to the self-reflective Bree in Klute, and from the campish, delicate performance in the former to the sparse, realistic portrayal in the latter, we can see an evolution and a correction. Fonda’s performances both establish and deconstruct what it means to be a sex object.
In Agnes of God, Fonda plays Dr Martha Livingstone, an ostensibly objective professional woman who is defined by her expert work. However, there is something she is keeping from us. She exhibits a vulnerability that is tied to motherhood, and performs a narrative function within the film, but that speaks to larger concerns beyond it. Martha is childless and this is raised within the film. She states that she has begun the menopause and her chance at motherhood has eluded her. This is an odd disclosure and when I watched it with the eyes of a 2017 viewer it felt jarring and obtrusive. There was an element of shame attached to it, almost as if to justify her character not having children she had to be unable to conceive. It was as if Martha was only fully relatable when she could justify her childless identity. Much like Bree’s monologues with her therapist in Klute, Martha is on a quest for truth. She needs to understand what happened in the convent, how the baby died and who is responsible. This film binds a woman’s body, motherhood, and the church with a search for truth. This is a film about women helping women. It has an integrity that Barbarella could never achieve (nor one that I imagine it wanted to), and to an extent it avoids the male gaze and centrism present in Klute. This is a film concerned with the female body – with pregnancy, with life and death. It is about judgment and the quest for truth. It draws on the iconography of religion and its connotations of female sin are clear to see. It raises conflicted and challenging issues about female autonomy and agency.
These three films hold Fonda in different positions of sexualisation and womanhood. Considering them together allows us to see the shift from young starlet and sex object, to complicated character actress through to the established star. Agnes of God’s disclosure of Martha’s menopause challenges the sexualised base of Fonda’s star image. It presents her as aged - as a woman, no longer a girl. The contrast of characters, and indeed of performance styles, illustrates the evolution of both Fonda’s star image and her film career. She has moved from passive sexualised characters to powerful, inquisitive, self-assured women seeking truth.
These three performances also show a development in understanding Fonda’s feminism. While Fonda is concerned with many causes close to her heart (campaigning extensively for women’s reproductive rights, environmental activism, and speaking about rape, sexual assault, and the damaging effects of the patriarchy on both girls and boys), viewing her feminism from a perspective of the characters she has played reveals something about how Hollywood has viewed (and still views) women, and how one figure such as Fonda has challenged this. These three roles complicate our understanding of Fonda’s feminism and star image. Her work in Barbarella could be seen as offensive and sensationalist sexualisation, and any claims made about Fonda’s integrity and feminist credibility are often undercut by this sex-symbol image. Her reflections on this role however, and her declared humour towards it suggest a knowingness regarding her own image. Where the previous essay suggested that Fonda navigated the tumult of political activism and female celebrity, I contest that these roles – and their conflicted views of sex and womanhood – show Fonda’s ability to navigate an evolving feminism. She is present, alive, and still seeking truth.
Words by Daniel Massie
To celebrate Jane Fonda's birthday we will be hosting a screening of Barbarella at Genesis Cinema, London on the 2nd February 2018. More information here: https://genesiscinema.co.uk/GenesisCinema.dll/WhatsOn?Film=9734590