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Jane, Again: Fonda's 'third act' and a return to aerobics

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Lately, Jane Fonda is everywhere on my pop culture radar. She posts frequently on Twitter and on her blog. These posts have focused on exercising and well-being, not surprising themes given Fonda's past. Fonda recently posted a TED talk. As seen in TED's tagline, "ideas worth spreading," it is both a conference and virtual space that "offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other." It is worth a look, if you're not familiar.

In any case, Fonda's talk was "Life's Third Act." Now in her 70s, Fonda is taking on aging, advocating for a new paradigm for thinking about what it means to grow older: age as potential, rather than age as decline. The "third act" metaphor is appropriate for Fonda, though perhaps it is more appropriate to see this as her fourth or fifth life. Fonda started out as an actress in the 1960s (her first act). Though sometimes associated with the sexy and campy Barbarella (1968) , she has twice been nominated for an Academy Award. By the late-1960s Fonda was involved in radical proto-Marxist-style politics. She starred in Godard's Tout Va Bien (1972) which examined the class struggle -- and a film about which I wrote a first-year film essay. In the same year Fonda got herself into some trouble -- in America at least -- for her critique of the Vietnam War and (perceived) sympathies for the North Vietnamese. Fonda has expressed both regret and frustration with the misrepresentation of her position on the war (her second act).

By my count, Fonda's third act was her re-invention as a fitness guru of the early-1980s. According to Amy Hribar (2001), Fonda first took up aerobics as a way to stay active, but began to produce her videos as a way to fundraise for her then-husband Tom Hayden's political campaigns. Regardless of her intentions, Fonda's approach to aerobics was incredibly successful. By the end of the 1980s Fonda's videos had sold an estimated 17 million copies. I remember my mom "doing Jane" with a neighbour from down the street. I may have tried it out myself.

The meaning of Fonda and the aerobics phenomenon has been debated by scholars. For Hillary Radner (1997), Fonda shifted aerobics out of the realm of fitness and good health and into the realm of feminine culture. "Empowerment" in aerobics culture comes not from being strong but from having the perfect body. Hribar further describes Fonda's articulation of aerobics as a feminization of the activity, because of the way that health/beauty were linked in the videos. Hribar and Radner are but two of several scholars who argue that aerobics in the 1980s was overly feminized and encouraged women to "discipline" their bodies according to feminine norms.

What interests me most about Jane and aerobics is that her rationale for taking up the practice is almost the complete opposite of what her critics have suggested. Fonda saw aerobics as a way to break the "weaker sex mould." She reminded the readers of her 1982 Workout Book that the notion of female frailty was Victorian, and argued that society now recognizes "the strong, healthy woman who has fulfilled her physical potential, as beautiful." She further notes that aerobics need not be "namby-pamby" but rather a rigorous form of exercise that really gets the "heart rate up." As Susan Willis and Hillel Schwartz have noted, Fonda marketed her book as a feminist alternative for the exercise market, making it clear that women should strive for health and strength. It seems that this second reading of Fonda and aerobics, as potentially empowering and spiritual, has been lost over time. Talking to undergraduate students today, aerobics/Fonda are remembered for the sexuality, spandex, tube socks and headbands.

If we look to Fonda's self-described "third act" (by my count, at least her fourth) we can see that she is reframing her message of empowerment for an aging boomer demographic. In her TED talk, Fonda argues that the last three decades of life should be seen as an "upward ascension of the human spirit" during which we achieve "wisdom" and "wholeness." Given that Fonda has lived her life on the public stage, it shouldn't be surprising that she has chosen to take these personal revelations to the public, in a book and a set of DVDs titled "Prime Time." Here, Fonda reconceptualizes aerobic fitness as a form of empowerment for seniors, a way to strengthen the "heart, muscles and mind."

So, Jane is again on the scene. She is selling a new ethic of life, and some fitness DVDs in the process. It is easy to be skeptical of this commercialized approach to empowerment and well-being, and to a certain extent, I am. But, we can also see Fonda as a popularizer of alternative health and wellness strategies. Fonda is what David Brooks has called a "bobo" (bourgeois bohemian), a former radical who has made money off the liberal ideals of the 1960s. Like many people, she is seeking validation for her own values and lifestyle, and she is doing so on the public stage.

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