What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Jane Fonda?
Probably not her Oscar-winning turns in Klute and Coming Home. Perhaps not even her pioneering exercise videos. Not even her comeback in Monster in Law.
Chances are pretty good that the first thing you thought of is that infamous picture of young Jane, perched atop an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi, laughing and clapping and smiling. Without any additional context, the picture suggests that in the midst of the Vietnam War, Fonda was prepared to gleefully take aim at American aircraft and shoot them out of the sky.
It was an optic Fonda now says she was oblivious to in that moment in 1972, and counter to everything she believed then and now. She explains that she was winding down an exhausting two week tour of North Vietnam, and she’d just exchanged songs with soldiers gathered for the occasion. It was a transcendent moment of mutual understanding, with both the soldiers and Fonda singing songs about peace, liberty and happiness. As a peace activist, she recalls feeling overcome with emotion in the moment, feeling like some understanding was achieved. Lost in the moment, she simply wasn’t mindful of where she was sitting, what she was doing, and what it might look like. Cameramen snapped away, capturing a scene that looked very different from what Fonda was experiencing.
Moments later, as Fonda was leaving, it occurred to her what the scene would really look like, and how it might be interpreted. She tried then to reel it back in, but it was too late. That scene would be used for the war — and against Fonda — for decades to come.
Nearly half a century later, in spite of all her success and achievements, she’s still answering for it. She’ll probably answer for it until the day she dies, and even after it will be an indelible part of her legacy.
“I carry this heavy in my heart,” she said in a 2011 blog post. “I have apologized numerous times for any pain I may have caused servicemen and their families because of this photograph. It was never my intention to cause harm.”
What must that be like? Knowing that no matter what you do, you will be deeply despised for a moment that was misunderstood at best and deliberately, malevolently misinterpreted at worst?
It takes moxie to hold your head up, stick by your principles, and carry on, but that’s just what Jane Fonda has done. You may not agree with her politics or her actions, but it’s hard to argue with her moxie. Here’s what I see:
It takes moxie to own your mistakes.
Fonda has never tried to weasel out of taking responsibility for that infamous photo.
“It is possible that it was a set up, that the Vietnamese had it all planned,” she said. “I will never know. But if they did I can’t blame them. The buck stops here. If I was used, I allowed it to happen.”
Her apologies will never be enough for some. One man waited an hour and a half at one of her book signings to spit tobacco juice in her face. She never left her seat. She simply cleaned off and carried on, signing books for all who remained in line.
Her appearances are frequently protested, and even still she carries on, often reiterating her apologies, neither wavering from taking responsibility nor displaying any bitterness towards her accusers. That takes moxie.
Moxie embraces destiny.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Fonda would end up an actor. She is, after all, the progeny of the legendary Henry Fonda.
But Jane didn’t set out to become an actress. She attended Vassar College but dropped out to study art in Paris. Her talent wasn’t quite strong enough, so she returned to the United States and took a job as a secretary. She didn’t last long; she was fired when she refused to sleep with her boss. She landed a couple of modeling gigs, but a fateful meeting with famed acting coach Lee Strasberg changed the course of her life. Strasberg recognized her talent and encouraged her. From that moment, she was consumed with acting.
While being Henry Fonda’s daughter might have opened doors for her, it was her own talent that carried her through. And near the end of his life, she opened a great door for him when she optioned the rights for On Golden Pond. The Fondas appeared together in the film, which earned the elder Fonda his only Academy Award just months before his death.
Moxie looks out for other people.
Just as Fonda’s destiny as an actor isn’t surprising, her destiny as an activist isn’t surprising, either.
Empathy, the ability to feel what others’ feel, is central to acting. It’s not surprising that so many actors take stands on social issues. Fonda has been an outspoken activist against war, and for human rights and workers’ rights. She’s currently campaigning for better wages for service workers.
“Now, I’ve always felt very blessed to be an actor. It’s a profession of empathy because we’re invited to become other human beings and understand their reality,” said Fonda in a first-person piece she wrote for InStyle. “But it’s my work as an activist that has given me purpose.”
Even one of her most significant commercial successes – her wildly successful workout videos – was borne out of activism.
“A lot of people don’t realize this, but the idea for my workout video came from the need to raise money for the Campaign for Economic Democracy. I had been doing a workout like that of [fitness instructor] Leni Cazden, and since we were in a recession, I was trying to think of a business that could help raise funds for the campaign. Someone once told me that you should never go into a business you don’t understand. And if there was one thing I understood, it was working out. So that decided it. And we raised a lot of money,” she said.
It takes moxie to put your money where your mouth is, and Fonda has done that though a lot of charitable giving to a variety of causes over the years.
Fonda has a new biographical documentary out recently on HBO. Will you be watching?