The previous essay looked at Fonda’s star image and feminism through her performances in three different films, playing three different women. In this piece I want to focus on how Fonda further complicates her own star image by incorporating different ventures separate from her acting and indeed political activism, namely her subsequent return, her fitness home movie empire, her twenty year break from acting and her career re-invention which has taken us to present day 80 year old Fonda – a woman with the self declared aim of giving a cultural face to older woman. Fonda may be 80, but her engagement with her own image, the power of her work, and her cultural currency remains crucial and compelling.
In 1982, alongside Fonda’s thriving acting career, she released her first workout video Jane Fonda’s Workout. This video would turn out to be ground breaking and propel Fonda and her image into new territories. The video came about from Fonda’s 1981 exercise book Jane Fonda’s Workout Book. Fonda’s passion for exercise, and the techniques she learned from Leni Cazden, led her to write this book, which incorporated her personal well-being philosophies alongside the physical work. Separate to the exercise video, Fonda’s book had extreme success, sitting at No1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 6 months, spending 16 months in the top 5. Fonda herself has recounted the origins of the famous video. She has stated that she was reluctant at first to make the shift from written work to home video VHS, initially thinking, “No way, I’m an actor and it would be bad for my career.” This viewpoint confirms Fonda’s knowingness of the power of image in a performer’s career, and the necessity to maintain one’s star identity, carefully. However, as time passed Fonda’s mind changed. Alongside Leni Cazden, Fonda operated a workout studio in Beverly Hills that had been open for two years and was, in her words, “wildly successful”. Fonda herself didn’t own the studio; it was owned by the political group that her then-husband Tom Hayden and Fonda founded: The California Campaign for Economic Democracy. Fonda stated this organisation is where the profits from the studio went, and as such this shifted her thinking; “what the heck, it won’t take long, not too many people will see it and a video will bring in a little extra funding to CED”, she determined. This reconfirms Fonda’s commitment to political cause and how she can direct success garnered from her career and star image towards the matters she cares for, despite previous and persistent backlash and political tumult.
While Fonda credits many factors, such as a growing aerobic craze, a technology boom, and an increased demand for physical education in creating the immense success of her first workout video (which would bring about an empire of home videos and ancillary materials) it was, I would argue, largely down to Fonda and the inimitable qualities her star image offered. Fonda also credits Stuart and Debbie Karl for making it possible. Karl was an entrepreneur and saw the potential for home video cassettes being a lucrative venture, and spurred by his wife’s desire to do the Jane Fonda Workout in the privacy of her own home, led Karl into discussions with Fonda, resulting in the production of the video. As the success of the video grew the image Fonda presented resonated deeply. Fonda’s leggings and outfits were replicated by many people using the video, and resulted in the construction of a very specific image of Fonda – as female exercise guru. Fonda became a self-help icon of sorts for many. Her star image evolved greatly from the controversy of the Hanoi incident, and her creative success in acting, as well as her commercial success in the home fitness empire. This shifted Fonda into a different celebrity context: her star image had broken the mould and she was offering a different narrative for what women could do.
The success of Fonda’s home exercise empire continued to grow, and while she acted in many well received films in the mid to late eighties, including Agnes of God, Fonda would go on to announce her retirement from acting in the early nineties. 1990’s Stanley & Iris was a critical and commercial failure prompting Fonda’s departure, and she wouldn’t work in film again until 2005’s Monster –in-Law. Fonda has stated that her retirement came about at a pivotal moment in her life: “I was 49 and I was really unhappy. I sat on the edge of my hotel room bed and I was trying to envision a future for myself, and I couldn’t. I thought, "I can’t keep doing this." I can’t act if I’m miserable and so I thought, "Well, I’m just going to stop." I bought some property in New Mexico and I was going to become a full-time environmental activist. And then Ted Turner came into my life. People think I gave up acting because of him. The fact is that I was on the way out. I had 10 years with him that were fabulous and then I had five years writing my memoir, which was very cathartic.” This is reflective of what we’ve known about Fonda – her passions run deep and her commitment to activism is as important a part of her working life as acting. Fonda’s decision to enter retirement, however, also speaks to Hollywood’s exclusion of older women. It is no secret that roles for women over the age of sixty are sparse, even when you are an established and celebrated performer. And with a successful business empire, a passion for political activism, and many causes dear to her heart, Fonda’s decision to leave, while disappointing, on reflection was not surprising.
Up to her retirement Fonda’s acting career shifted significantly. Her acting and film roles evolved from the sex-symbol days of Barbarella through to the emotional realism of Klute. Coupled with her fitness empire, it isn’t surprising that the vehicle Fonda chose to exit retirement was the mainstream rom-com, Monster-in-Law. Co-starring in a film like this, opposite Jennifer Lopez, and playing a disgruntled, wealthy, and on-paper ‘unlikeable’ mother-in-law-to-be was an interesting choice for a two-time Oscar winner. Fonda has stated that: “At the end of that process I got offered Monster-in-Law. I was now 62. Even though it was a popcorn movie it was transformative for me in terms of my career. It was the only strategic career thing I ever did. I thought, "Hmm, people will come to see J.Lo and they will either rediscover me, or, if they’re young, they’ll discover Fonda, which is absolutely what happened.” This is a revealing statement and affirms that Fonda is acutely aware of her star image and how she has been and could continue to be received by audiences. This process that Fonda speaks of is the centering of herself, her journey for spiritual enlightenment, and the writing of her memoir My Life So Far. Fonda’s use of memoir is an interesting point to consider before exploring her return to acting and her work in Monster-in-Law.
Through her memoirs it is possible to view Fonda as a powerfully reflective figure, using the struggles of her own life to create a feminist outlook with lessons on learning in public and her evolving senses of womanhood and feminism. In her book, Fonda details her mother’s suicide, her struggles with her own body image growing and throughout her career, her history with eating disorders and her relationship to feminism. This is all done through the prism and awareness that her celebrity and star image affords, marking her feminism as an interesting and compelling thing. Fonda’s willingness to reflect openly on the events of her life, whether they be related to her acting and fitness empire, her political activism and the surrounding controversies, provides a model for a living and invigorated interrogation of self, that engages with the social concerns of a life fully lived.
With Monster-in-Law Fonda did indeed return. On one hand her relationship with Lopez’s character in the film represented a classically displayed trope of the tension between young and old, and spoke to conflicts of race and class. It may be a popcorn film as Fonda would call it, but through its popular vernaculars it nevertheless explored complex and interesting topics. Furthermore, the pairing of Fonda and Lopez presented an interesting avenue for Fonda’s stardom and what it could mean. She was clearly no longer the ingénue or the starlet, and the currency of her prestige pictures seemed a thing of the past. However, this contrast between the current stardom of Lopez marked the strength of Fonda’s stardom. Her return to film proved she had a power and value that, despite an absence, continued to have considerable mileage.
It is interesting to consider another way in which Fonda marked her return. in 2006 it was announced that Fonda would be the face of L’Oréal’s new anti-aging treatment ‘Age Re-Perfect’ - a product geared towards an over 65 demographic. For many younger people this, along Monster-In-Law perhaps was their introduction to Fonda. This sideline of Fonda’s rebooted image arguably complicates her feminism. If one was being critical, you could assess that the days of disruptive political activism were relegated for Fonda becoming a mouthpiece for a corporation that promoted a very gendered view toward aging and femininity, an idea that ostensibly contrasts with the power of Fonda’s earlier image.
Fonda went on the star in 2007’s Georgia Rule, playing grandmother to Lindsay Lohan and mother to Felicity Huffman. This film signalled Fonda’s embrace of older female roles that trafficked in the maternal, or indeed grand maternal, tropes of older womanhood. Her character offered wise counsel in the film and in terms of her star image the placement with Lindsay Lohan and the media scandal that surrounded her painted Fonda in a new light of esteem and respect. It seemed her days of political controversy were a thing of the past and she was now a ‘grandmother’ figure in Hollywood, for better or for worse.
In 2014 Fonda took on the role of Leona Lansing in Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived and under-seen The Newsroom. Fonda has stated that this role, playing a powerful and glamorous network executive, removed from the homeliness and domesticity of her work in Georgia Rule and Monster-in-Law signalled one thing: “she’s back.”
Fonda’s recent work in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie is especially interesting when considering her star image and what it now represents as an actress reaching her eighth decade. Grace and Frankie is a comedy series that reteams Fonda with 9-5’s Lily Tomlin as two best friends in a state of re-evaluation after their respective husbands announce they’re both gay and, in fact, in love with each other. The paradigm shift between film and TV has been remarked on lots in recent years, with the boundaries of where stars can perform more fluid than ever. There is no longer the stigma of failure embedded in a film star’s transition to TV. The actors go where the work is, and in this case Netflix provided the platform for Fonda to say what she wanted to say and to achieve what she wanted to achieve. Fonda has stated that she has long wanted to “give a cultural face to old age” and that is what she is doing with Grace and Frankie. Much of the media coverage surrounding Fonda’s recent work, alongside part of how her return to acting was received, makes a point of discussing her face, namely the plastic surgeries she has had. I’m not interested in this, women aren’t their bodies, and the media’s interest in shaming age (among many other things) is as frustrating as their mocking examinations of what surgery was had and when. Fonda can do as she pleases with her body and her face. Her star image cannot be reduced to her visage; it is about politics and art, acting and business – it is a complicated and complex entity. However, Fonda’s desire to provide this cultural face speaks to her continued work and activism. Fonda’s acting, as it stands, isn’t divorced from her activism - they are inextricably linked. The work she is doing has value not only artistically but also culturally. Fonda’s upcoming film Book Club is a comedy starring Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, and Diane Keaton, all celebrated actresses over the age of sixty. As a fan of actresses, and especially older Academy Award winning actresses this is exciting. But more than this, it suggests a promising space for older actresses to work, hopefully offering a narrative that promotes friendship and sisterhood, and does indeed offer the ‘cultural face’ that Fonda describes. Fonda has stated that throughout her career and life the political became personal and then the personal became political. She believes it took her thirty years to truly get what it means to be an “embodied feminist” but assesses that “it's OK to be a late bloomer as long as you don't miss the flower show.” Fonda’s third act is a flower show indeed: replete with poignant reflections, compelling performances, and a continually evolving star image.
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