Jane Fonda shares the world's best contraceptive (and drops the
P-word along the way)
May 04, 2008
By Stephanie Ramage
It's a Monday morning in late April and Jane Fonda, who is in New
Mexico, answers the phone with a simple "Hello?"
When I tell her that I have just watched "Klute," she groans, "Oh,
god, not that one…"
"Klute," the 1971 film in which she starred with a shockingly hot
Donald Sutherland, might be best known as the vehicle for cinema's
longest, most-repeated and sexiest bout of dirty talk. Sutherland, as
investigator John Klute, is wiretapping Fonda as Bree Daniels, a
prostitute and would-be actress.
"Do you mind if I take my sweater off?" she asks an unseen john in
that unmistakable Fonda voicecrisp, cool and confidentand then
adds, "Inhibitions are always nice because they are so nice to
overcome. I think the only way that any of us can ever be happy is to
let it all hang out and, you know, f**k it."
But Klute isn't just a sexy detective flick. It's the story of Bree's
battle with herself. Because she is afraid of men, she needs to
manipulate them, and being able to control them gives her the
illusion of controlling herself. Though sessions with a therapist
help Bree define her problem, it's viewing herself through Klute's
moral and compassionate eyes that allows her to see the business of
selling herself as a trap designed to give her temporary control of
others while denying her real authority over her own life.
The movie won Fonda her first of two Academy Awards for Best Actress.
It also firmly established her as the go-to girl for roles that
require the portrayal of women struggling for independence while
maintaining their femininity. Was there something, even in 1971, that
urged her to help others find what her characters, feeding on her
spirit like so many celluloid succubi, were able to find in film
I ask Fonda when audiences might first have glimpsed the future
founder of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention
(G-CAPP), and she says she has to think about that. In the past
several weeks, she and her staff have been rifling through her films,
as well as films starring her son, Troy Garity, her niece, Bridget
Fonda; her brother, Peter Fonda; and her father, Henry Fonda, to put
together G-CAPP's 13th annual fundraising event, "Three Generations
of Fonda on Film," slated for May 12 at the Woodruff Arts Center, but
she hasn't really looked for bits of her individual identity amid the footage.
There is a long silence. She puts down the phone to let in her dog,
who has been scratching at the door, and then, eventually, she says
decisively, "Probably in the very first one, 'Tall Story,' with
From being a knockout to preventing being knocked up
In 1960's 'Tall Story,' Fonda, then 23 years old, is the
quintessential American girl, who wants only to get married. Her
character, June Ryder, chooses her college because of its basketball
team; she wants to marry a tall man.
"She defined herself by the man she was with," says Fonda, who
explains that such a lack of identity, a lack of control over one's
own lifecommon to June Ryder, Bree Daniels and, later, Sally Bender
in 1978's "Coming Home," for which Fonda won her second Academy
Awardis a tremendous factor in teen pregnancy. Though she points out
that she has never played a poor characterand poor young people are
the demographic most served by G-CAPPthe idea of having options,
having a choice about the kind of life one leads, is one that has
defined both Fonda and G-CAPP.
"This is not just a 'charity' issue, it is something that I feel in
the marrow of my bones. Although I did not grow up poor, I had no one
I could talk to about these things," she says. What she does not say,
but what is detailed in her autobiography, "My Life So Far," is that
her mother committed suicide when Fonda was 12.
"That is something that we see in many cases of teen pregnancy," she
says. "Because I had no one to talk to, I learned that in order to be
popular, I had to please. I was a girl who did not really have agency
over her life, and while G-CAPP works with young girls who do not
have agency over their lives, it's really true for boys and girls,
across all these stereotypes: They do not have agency over their lives."
Most teen pregnancies occur among the poorest segments of the
population, compounding a set of problems that have dogged Georgia
for decades. According to G-CAPP's literature, fewer than four out of
10 teen mothers ever complete high school, and their babies inherit a
wealth of obstacles: The poverty rate for children born to teen
mothers who have never married and have not graduated from high
school is 78 percent. Georgia produces 62 new teen pregnancies each
day. That adds up to more than a staggering 22,500 teen pregnancies
each year, making Georgia the 8th most teen-pregnancy-prone state in
the nation. Teen pregnancies turn on a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty.
"That's why we say that hope is the best contraceptive," says Fonda.
"If you are someone, a boy or a girl, who sees no future, why not
have a baby? For middle class kids who see a future for themselves,
they don't want to compromise that, but if you see no future, then
why not? What we know from G-CAPP is that it has more to do with
what's going on between the ears than with what's going on between the legs."
And obviously, the young women who become pregnant don't get that way
by themselves. The unsupervised hours after school can allow for a
lot of exploration, and that is when G-CAPP's after-school teen
pregnancy prevention program for both boys and girls tackles
age-appropriate Family Life Sexuality Education, beginning in 6th
grade. The program is offered at Iconium Baptist Church on Moreland
Avenue, where G-CAPP rents space. It attracts students from Price
Middle School, MLK Middle School, Coan Middle School and Atlanta
Charter Middle School. Boys are such a big part of G-CAPP's focus
that "Taking Time for Teens, Engaging Young Men and Fathers" will be
the theme of its annual conference next September.
Fonda explains that there is a mentality among economically
disadvantaged boys that dictates a very narrow view of how they can
become men. Their options, she says, are limited.
"So they think that if only they can impregnate a lot of girls then
they can prove their manhood," she says. "There's a sense that if you
don't knock up a girl before you're 20, you're really a p**sy."
Oops, there's that word. She's using the language used by peers to
describe boys who don't knock up girls, but it's almost as bad as the
C-word that got Fonda into trouble with NBC a few months ago when she
let it drop on NBC's "Today" show.
Fonda was explaining that playwright Eve Ensler had asked her to do a
monologue called 'C**t" for her play "The Vagina Monologues."
"It wasn't that I wasn't a fan of the play," she told host Meredith
Viera. "I hadn't seen the playI live in Georgia, okay? And I was
asked to do a monologue called 'C**t.'"
(In the spirit of full disclosure, I went to see "The Vagina
Monologues" in 2001, here in Atlanta, where it has been performed
The word problem
Fonda's life has been littered with well-intentioned words that have
gotten her into trouble. Consider, for example, her contretemps with
Gov. Zell Miller in 1998.
At that time, she'd told a United Nations group that parts of Georgia
resembled a Third World country, where "children are starving to
death" and "people live in tar-paper shacks with no indoor plumbing."
For natives of rural Georgia like me, her remarks didn't seem
terribly off-the-mark; after all she hadn't said that all of the
state was like that. But she apologized anyway. The problem word,
she says, was "starving."
"It was Zell Miller who freaked out," she says. "He's got a short
fuse and he got really, really angry and spouted off in public
because he is from north Georgia. I apologized because I had used the
word 'starving' and if you're going to be literal, the word is
Apologies are as much a part of Fonda's public persona as her
passionate opinions. She famously protested against the Vietnam War,
going so far as to be photographed perched atop a North Vietnamese
anti-aircraft gun, for which she earned the nickname "Hanoi Jane."
Though she never apologized for opposing the war, she did later
apologize to all those whom she had hurt through her anti-war activism.
In a 1988 interview on ABC's "20/20" with Barbara Walters, in
response to criticism from a group of New England Vietnam veterans,
she said, "I would like to say something, not just to Vietnam
veterans in New England, but to men who were in Vietnam, who I hurt,
or whose pain I caused to deepen because of things that I said or
did. I was trying to help end the killing and the war, but there were
times when I was thoughtless and careless about it and I'm very sorry
that I hurt them. And I want to apologize to them and their families.
... I will go to my grave regretting the photograph of me in an
anti-aircraft gun, which looks like I was trying to shoot at American
planes. It hurt so many soldiers. It galvanized such hostility. It
was the most horrible thing I could possibly have done."
Sorrow and forgiveness, she says, have shaped who she is and the
mission of G-CAPP.
"All of us have wounds that we need to heal, and you can't really
heal unless you know how to forgive," she says now. "Forgiveness has
to come first. That's a fundamental precept not only of Christianity,
but of every major religion. There are people who have said and done
terrible things to me, but I have to forgive them if I am going to
heal. I have asked people to forgive me because my intention was
never to hurt people."
Fonda could be forgiven for taking a glum view of life in rural
Georgia in 1994. It was then that she met a pregnant teen in the
state for the first time. While visiting Phoebe Putney Hospital in
Albany, she was introduced to a 14 year-old African-American girl in labor.
"They told me 'She lives in a tar-paper shack where there is no
indoor plumbing.' That is when it really hit me, as I looked at her,
I could not judge her. I remember thinking, 'I wish I could take this
girl and introduce her to other girls I know,'" says Fonda. "If you
want to break the cycle of poverty, you don't judge them, you take
them in your arms, something that I think many of them have never had."
Fonda says she has been surprised to sometimes encounter people who
feel that pregnant teenage girls deserve what they get.
"People will ask, 'Why are you doing this for these girls?' It's
interesting that no one ever asks 'Why are you doing these programs
for boys?'" she says. "The attitude seems to be that the girls have
been 'bad.' But, they don't need more punishment."
If it's incongruous that one the world's iconic sex kittens is now a
crusader to prevent teen pregnancyand, by the way, to prevent
abortions by preventing the pregnancies that occasion themit helps
to remember that during much of the time that America was writhing
its way through the sexual revolution, Fonda was not here. She was in
France, married to the famous director Roger Vadim. There, she was
stunned at the number of juenes filles meres"child mothers," young
women who had children without being married.
"But, they were not 13, 14, and 15. That's an important
distinctionthey were 19, 20, and 21. They were approaching
adulthood," she explains. "In the U.S. in those days, my impression
of it was that they tended not to be single, that girls who got
pregnant got married or got abortions. It's very easy to understand:
If you don't want to have a baby when you're too young, you're going
to do everything you can to prevent it. If you see no future for
yourself in a poor environment, where is the motivation to use birth
control? You're going to be careful if you have a future to plan for."