Astride the intersection of politics and culture stands Jane Fonda like a female colossus. Or at least a nicely aging Barbarella. Her new memoir, "My Life So Far," documents how the personal became political over four of her seven decades - and the sexual revolution, the Vietnam war, the Black Panthers, the Native American movement, the cult of celebrity, thinness and fitness are all twisted into her body "like a pretzel." But she still can't straighten out the pretzel.
She joins a group of celebrity women who expose, without meaning to, the raw hypocrisy and naivete of feminist dogma. Like Simone de Beauvoir, the grandmother of modern feminism, she pimped for her man. Jane Fonda found hookers to form threesomes with Roger Vadim, the director who was her first husband. She pretended to revel in the orgies, all the while lying to him and to herself: "So adept was I at burying my real feelings and compartmentalizing myself that I eventually had myself convinced that I enjoyed it." Young women on college campuses who celebrate their "hookups" can do a little reality testing against Jane's sexual illusions.
Jane didn't stay home to bake cookies, but like the famous former first lady she indulged in heavy masochism standing by her man after he cheated on her. She caught Ted Turner, her rich and powerful third husband, enjoying a "nooner" only a month after they were married. "I've always needed a backup in case something happens to us," he told her. Eventually another woman would be waiting in the wings as her wifely understudy, but it took years for her to leave him. So intimidated was Jane by her No. 3 man that when she discovered religion she was afraid to tell him for fear "he would have either asked me to choose between him and it, or bullied me out of it."
What helped Jane finally find her voice was an invitation to be a presenter at the Academy Awards in 2000, a Vera Wang dress and a chic haircut by an expensive stylist. She got "new hair" to go with "new thinking." Such renewal coincided with her "vaginal epiphany" in seeing Eve Ensler's play "The Vagina Monologues."
Jane's childhood - a mother's suicide and a father's coldness - provides sympathy for the grown-up woman, but she stretches her personal life on a narrow frame of feminist attitudinizing. She came late to feminism because she didn't want to bash men, but in her enlightened "gender-grounded narrative" she discovers she can love them more "because I see how patriarchy's toxic cloistering has dehumanized them as well." So that explains why Henry Fonda was such a terrible father.
She apologizes, sort of, for the Hanoi Jane image she acquired when she sat on a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun site, posing as a gunner shooting down American fliers. She interprets her opposition to the Vietnam War in a feminist context. "Fear of being considered unmanly is so deeply ingrained that I believe a series of U.S. presidents refused to withdraw from Vietnam because they were afraid of being called soft," she writes. "How many lives have been lost because leaders needed to prove they were 'real men'?"
Jane prefers the manliness of Tom Hayden, the anti-war activist who was her No. 2 man. She greeted him with awe when "he appeared out of the darkness, an odd figure with a long braid, beaded headband, baggy khaki pants, and rubber sandals of the type I've been told the Vietnamese made out of the tires of abandoned U.S. vehicles." When she asked why he dressed that way, he told her "how the Vietnamese War paralleled our genocide against the Native Americans and that the experience had made him identify with the Indians." Nobody has ever seen an Apache brave in rubber sandals, but so powerful an aphrodisiac was beaded headband and baggy khakis that they went on to conceive a baby to testify to their belief in "our country's future." Toxic cloistering didn't do Tom any good, either. On her 51st birthday he announced that he had fallen in love with another woman.
While Jane's reasons for staying with men who treat her badly are laced with personal psychological insights and provide fascinating reading, her book is undercut by pretentious posturing, reducing foreign policy to feminism: "Unfortunately, there are some so wedded to the notion of American omnipotence (manhood) that they claim the right to destroy any regime they don't like."
Jane says she finds sustenance and spiritual nourishment now in Christian faith. But her feminism reveals to her that Christianity is flawed, too. Its "patriarchal, hierarchal structure" is the next conundrum to be challenged. Her memoir, she reminds us, is merely "My Life So Far."