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Activist and actress Jane Fonda was on hand Friday at Thierry Fremaux’s Lumiere fest in Lyon to receive a career honor and give a masterclass at the city’s Celestins Theater.
That order is important, as Fonda identifies herself as an activist — or in French parlance, a militant — first, and an actress second.
It was fitting then that while much of the masterclass focused on her life’s work, she continually veered back to discussing the current political situation in the United States, all in a conversation mostly in French. Fonda said that as the patriarchy is fighting back, feminists have to have understanding and sympathy for men.
“I have great sympathy for men. It’s hard to be young and it’s hard to be a man — really,” she said, as the audience chuckled. “Really — to be ‘a man.’ To be a man and to be human. Everything about our culture robs men of their humanity, of their heart, and there are some men who fight back and are good, feminist men, but we as women, as feminists have to understand what happens to boys and to men as they grow up and feel great empathy. You know it’s terrible to think, ‘If it’s not me who is bringing in the money and the food then I’m nobody.’ Oh God, you get tired.”
She joked that the testosterone of men goes down as women’s testosterone goes up in life, and said that in the U.S. there are a lot of men who have a second family in their 60s with women in their 30s and are better fathers to their second batch of children.
“I’m glad I’m not a man, and I’m glad I’m old,” she said. Reflecting on having a career in her 80s, she said she thought she would be gardening and writing a book at this age but changed her mind after the election of Donald Trump. “I realized it was no longer possible,” she said.
However she thanked the president. “It’s the first time many people in the United States have realized the point that racism is just below the surface, that it hasn’t passed,” she said. “We are, the word now is ‘woke.’ We’re woke; we’re active like never before. And that is formidable. So for that I say thank you, Mr. ___,” as she jokingly zipped her lips. But she ‘checked her privilege’ and added that she realizes that through her activism she never faced jail. “I am white, I am rich and I am famous,” she said.
But her Hanoi Jane pics — the 1972 photos of her sitting atop a Vietnamese missile —are the biggest regret of her life. “I will go to my death regretting it. It’s a terrible thing that I did and I’m still paying for it today.”
That also led to her being followed and going into legal battle with the FBI, but she said she is rooting for them today.
Fonda said that her career was never her first priority, but that has changed. “Because I discovered that to be a great militant is helped greatly by having a popular TV series,” she joked. “So I want to continue to be popular in my work so I can do better militancy.”
She said she made the recent film Book Club not only for the money, but to keep a high profile as she was campaigning for ballot initiatives in California and people would recognize her. She also donates the money to charities and causes, she said. Fonda added that she now works with an acting coach — something she didn’t do when she was younger. “Part of it now is that I have to be very good because I am a militant now. I’m 81, and I’m very lucky at my age to have a steady job and to have a lot of young fans, and I never imagined that at my age it would be like this.”
The situation for women has changed so much in this century alone, that it is important for feminists to keep it in perspective, and understand that the patriarchy is fighting back at this moment, Fonda explained.
“The patriarchy is profoundly injured, by women, by blacks. Look at the present situation in the United States, and there it is — voila it is not acceptable to them,” she said. “The patriarchy is trying to make a comeback. We will erase anything that is to do with [former President Barack] Obama. We will make America great: It means make America a white man. Put women back in their place. Blacks will be nothing. It’s like when an monster is injured it is more dangerous. It’s happening all over the world — Italy, Germany, the Philippines — the monster of the patriarchy is fighting for its life against the progress of women, the LGBTQ and the young people of color around the world.”
“But it is a battle for the planet, for the climate, for the future. And for the first time there is a possibility that there won’t be a future, and it’s very dangerous,” she said, framing it as an existential crisis in the United States that is not only about climate change but extends to the “suicide” of the opioid epidemic.
Touching on the new HBO documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, much of the conversation was framed by the men in her life, and she counted off three acts (exes Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden and Ted Turner). She discussed working with first husband Roger Vadim and how their life in Paris during the student uprising of 1968 shaped her worldview and launched her activism. She also said that Turner was her “favorite ex-husband, and still is.” Fonda was also asked about her relationship with her father, Henry Fonda, and her brother, Peter Fonda. She said her relationship with the former was very similar to the one depicted onscreen in On Golden Pond ,as he was from a generation that “didn’t speak very much with their children and didn’t deal with emotions,” but demurred when asked about Peter, noting only that she loves him deeply and it’s “very complicated.”
She also said that she cried when she won her first Oscar for Klute, the role of a prostitute that she had initially balked at because she is a feminist, not because she won but because she had won before her father won an Oscar. She said she had ultimately taken the role — and been criticized by feminists for allowing herself to be objectified — but believed the character had been sexually abused as a child which led her to this behavior.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, filmed a year earlier and which led to her first Oscar nomination, had “been a turning point” for her in her activism. “It was the first time that I did a film that had something to tell about the world, about the society of America that eats itself with commercialism,” she said.
During the 1980s she didn’t work, and it was during the time of her perimenopause. “For many women this is a very, very difficult age with the hormonal changes that are unknown to us, and what is happening and women are silent about it,” she said. She started making her famous workout videos because she believed they could be empowering for women. “Women wanted to change their lives. In the morning when they brush their teeth, they would see that they had biceps on their arms, and then they would stand up to their boss,” she said, quoting Thomas Jefferson: “Revolution begins in the muscles.”
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