Terence Blacker: The time is past for Barbarella feminism

Jane Fonda's theme is simple and consistent: nothing is ever Jane's fault
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It must have been a truly momentous occasion when, at the Albert Hall this week, Jane Fonda addressed the massed ranks of the Women's Institutes of Great Britain. Here was the legendary actress-activist - Barbarella, Hanoi Jane, fitness guru, feminist, celebrity radical and now a message-toting memoirist - coming face to face with a great, enduring institution of British domestic and social life.

Frankly, if that event failed to throw up some kind of clue as to where the great gender debate now stands after 50 turbulent years, then nothing would.

Of course, Jane Fonda has spoken of other things as she has promoted her autobiography. Iraq, genital mutilation, teenage pregnancy, education and the problems of the Third World have all had a look-in, but it is on the matter of men and women that she has been able to talk with particular authority.

After all, it was she who was brave enough to be a gabby leftie decades before it became a good career move for celebrities to spout the pieties of the moment about making poverty history. In her day, she represented a potent and gorgeous kind of female power. Off-screen, she was tough, forthright and outspoken, but then suddenly she would pop up in a film as frisky, cute and unclothed as any other Sixties babe.

Part of a great Hollywood dynasty, she won an Oscar herself, and then made a fortune out of the simple idea that women would feel better about themselves if they went to the gym now and then. Her marital history was action-packed too, and included, out of her three husbands so far, both a famous radical and a billionaire. All in all, she has covered the waterfront. Now she has decided to give us the benefit of her accumulated experience and wisdom.

So what is the message, Jane?

At first glance, it seems straightforward enough. "Don't think you have to be defined by a man," she told her Women's Institute audience - a fair point, if a bit obvious after all these years. And don't try to be perfect. "I grew up feeling that, in order to be loved, I had to be perfect which is terrible because nobody is perfect."

There's no denying that, either - the callowest member of the Women's Institute will have discovered that it is imperfection that makes a person interesting - but surely there must be more after all these years.

There is. The theme of Jane Fonda's promotional interviews, and presumably the autobiography itself, has been simple and consistent: nothing is ever Jane's fault.

Family life was unhappy because poor old Henry Fonda was so uptight that he made her feel bad about herself. Although she was good-looking, her boyfriends had somehow made her feel inadequate. Even when she was an international star and married to Roger Vadim, his behaviour played havoc with her self-esteem.

Trying to be perfect, as usual, Jane not only allowed her husband to introduce French hookers into the marriage bed but ended up going out herself to procure them for a jolly little threesome chez Vadim. "It really hurt me," is the way she remembers it now. "It reinforced my feeling that I wasn't good enough."

It is at about this time, that even her most devoted fan - me, for example - is likely to experience a sharp twinge of irritation. Is she not responsible for anything, this woman? There are various ways of reminiscing about bad behaviour in one's youth, ranging from the sheepish to the boastful, but there is something particularly pathetic about a woman deciding to include raunchy stuff in her memoirs but describing it in dreary, self-pitying terms of victimhood. Now, as then, Jane seems to want to have it both ways.

This is Barbarella feminism. Like the dippy innocent that she played in that outer-space version of Candide, Jane Fonda has got up all to all sorts of things but, even when she is having fun in real-life versions of the orgasmatron machine, she is never quite responsible for it.

Blaming men for this and that does not sound like feminism to me; it sounds more like bleating. Even that great call to arms, in which she urges girls and women to avoid defining themselves by men, has a whiff of defeatism and dependence to it. By this stage of gender evolution, what sane woman would consider seeing herself in a male context?

A woman who looks back on her life and sees herself let down by one man after another - he was too cold, he was too power-crazed, he was too randy, he was not randy enough - is already hoisting the white flag in the gender war.

Perhaps it is unfair to judge Jane Fonda by the way she has promoted her book rather than the book itself - after all, she has been on the side of the angels more often than not during her life. But playing the victim card, as most of the Women's Institute audience will have known, can send out the wrong messages. Those teenage girls who, in a survey last week, selected stroppy, large-breasted personalities like Jordan and Jodie Marsh as their role models may have caused huffing and puffing in certain quarters but they perhaps, rather than yesterday's heroines, are the true keepers of the feminist flame.