Lock Her Up

For Jane Fonda, the year 1968 began and ended in bed. The bed at the start was literal. This bed, which she shared with her then-husband, New Wave rake Roger Vadim, was in Jane’s honey-colored stone farmhouse in a hamlet west of Paris. Jane was pregnant and at risk of miscarrying and under orders to rest. Outside, dissent was mounting. Inside there was television and on television there was the war. For the first time, Jane paid attention and she was devastated. Jane began meeting with GI resisters. One of them gave her a book: The Village of Ben Suc, Jonathan Schell’s account of a US military operation that leveled a prosperous North Vietnamese farming village, leaving no trace behind. Later she would write that the book had “blown me wide open.” Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the Night of the Barricades launched a general strike, and Jane, floating on a raft on the cyan waters of Saint-Tropez, studied The Autobiography of Malcolm X and found she was roused by its narrative of personal transformation.

The bed at the end of the year was figurative. Barbarella, which was directed by her husband, opened in theaters in mid-October. The film begins with a song and a trick: To the bright, psychedelic space pop of Glitterhouse, Jane, suspended in zero gravity—a slab of Plexiglas on which she lies supine (her visible reflection gives it away)—performs a kind of striptease, removing her inflated space suit piece by piece. At last, there is Jane, her celestial perfection hard-won by Dexedrine, bulimia, and compulsive exercise. For the remaining ninety minutes, her windswept blond bouffant ornaments assorted formfitting arrangements of metallic mesh, tattered woven nylon, long-haired fur, and clear vinyl. Accessorized with a chrome-and-wood ray gun and knee-high boots, Jane, our “astronavigatrix Earth Girl,” adventures to the wicked city of Sogo (for Sodom and Gomorrah) on orders from the president of Earth. There she faces off against jaw-snapping mechanical dolls, a nefarious lesbian queen, and, finally, the target of her mission, a villainous mad scientist called Durand Durand. Along the way, men help her and she shows her gratitude by having sex with them. As Barbarella, Jane embodied the beau ideal of the 1960s American woman: Wide-eyed, loyal, and a bit naive, she is good-hearted and she is good in bed. She is the centerfold, but she is also a secretary or a librarian or a cheerleader. Even when she carries a gun, she is not threatening. She is always ready for it and you can have her.

The contradictions in this image of the apple-pie libertine had throughout the decade been contained and legitimated by Playboy’s exaltation of the pinup as all-American. By 1968, the fragile equilibrium was showing signs of stress. That summer, hundreds of young women protested outside the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, announcing to the country that they no longer wanted to be subservient to men or to please men at their own expense. Jane’s sex-kitten image would not hold. She left her husband, cut her hair into the shag mullet made famous by her 1970 mug shot, and stopped wearing makeup. She became a leader in the anti-war movement, traveling the country and demanding that the men fighting overseas come home. Men didn’t like it. They wanted the old Jane—the kind of woman whom in times of war men hang on their walls as a symbol of what it is they are fighting for.

Jane Fonda—American, Traitor, Bitch.Barbarella, it has been said, was a favorite pinup of GIs at the time. By the end of the war, this image of Fonda had been replaced by another one: the photograph of Jane straddling a Vietnamese antiaircraft gun—a gun that had been used to shoot down American planes—on her infamous trip to North Vietnam in 1972. During the visit, at the invitation of the Vietnam Committee for Solidarity with the American People, Jane visited a kindergarten and an agricultural co-op; she toured a textile factory and various hospitals. Believing, however naively, that she might make American pilots reconsider their participation in the war, she took to the airwaves of Radio Hanoi. “Tonight, when you are alone, ask yourselves: What are you doing?” she pleaded. On at least one of these broadcasts, she called the war “an American tragedy.”

Jane Fonda in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, 1968. © Paramount Pictures Corporation.
Jane Fonda in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, 1968. © Paramount Pictures Corporation.

Opposing the war at this time was not a particularly radical thing to do. Vietnam was by then widely recognized across the political spectrum as a disaster. Likewise, Jane’s trip to Hanoi, while brave, was not anomalous: Joan Baez, Susan Sontag, and David Dellinger all made their way to the city and were just as outspoken. But America’s dream girl had betrayed American soldiers, and the photograph published in the New York Post on Jane’s return to New York would incite a gush of fury and vitriol nonpareil. The contempt, originating almost entirely with commentators who happened to be men and focusing almost entirely on Fonda’s appearance, made it clear that her real transgression was not that she opposed the war but that she was no longer Barbarella. Not only was Jane a “traitorous meddler,” she was “shrill.” She “talked too fast.” She “didn’t smile enough.” She “didn’t have a sense of humor.” Later, journalist David Halberstam would recount of the press conference Jane gave on her return, “She wasn’t that smart. And she was in way over her head. . . . [She] is a stupid fucking actress.”

As a woman is wont to do, Jane apologized. She has apologized for her insensitivity to the troops on television and in public appearances and in interviews. She has apologized in her book. Her apology is by now a kind of ritual performed every few years. Yet if today Jane’s image were to surface in a barracks, it would almost certainly be on the face of a urinal cake. Poor Jane. Even when she turned her celebrity to other endeavors, she was still not doing it right. Most recently, BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis employed Jane the 1980s aerobics maven as a symbol for the failures of the New Left (she “gave up socialism and started another revolution”) and the rise of Donald Trump. If only women weren’t so stubbornly narcissistic, Curtis seems to be saying, one might be in the White House.

Sarah Resnick is a writer living in New York. Her essay “H.,” first published in n+1, was anthologized in The Best American Essays 2017.