Hanoi Jane: War, Sex & Fantasies of Betrayal

By Briley, Ron | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2011 | Go to article overview
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Hanoi Jane: War, Sex & Fantasies of Betrayal


Briley, Ron, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Hanoi Jane: War, Sex & Fantasies of Betrayal Jerry Lembcke. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.

In Hanoi Jane, Jerry Lembcke, professor of sociology at The College of the Holy Cross, seeks to understand why the myth of actress Jane Fonda as a traitor who gave aid and comfort to the enemy during the Vietnam War continues to resonate in American culture long after Fonda's retirement from social activism and the silver screen. Of course, Fonda did travel to North Vietnam in July 1972, meeting with prisoners of war and recording radio broadcasts critical of the war. Lembcke dispels several myths regarding Fonda's controversial visit to Hanoi. He finds no evidence for the allegation that when prisoners slipped her notes for their families, Fonda turned these communications over to the North Vietnamese, who severely beat the prisoners for breaking the rules, killing three of them. In addition, Lembcke suggests that few service personnel even heard her radio broadcasts from Hanoi, undermining the notion that Fonda was responsible for spreading defeatism among American soldiers.

On the other hand, Fonda was popular with many servicemen for her contributions to the FTA (Free the Army) variety shows which toured near military bases and criticized the military and civilian leadership responsible for the Vietnam War. Yet, Lembcke notes that while a favorite performer, Fonda was not the founder of this antiwar organization. In fact, Fonda was only one of many antiwar activists who visited North Vietnam during the waning years of the conflict. And her visit actually generated little controversy in the American press, which gave more coverage to the pilgrimage of former Attorney General Ramsey Clark to Hanoi. Fonda's emergence as the face of antiwar activism during the Vietnam era occurred following the conflict, and Lembcke argues that Fonda's story fits the trope that the political right would employ to assert that the Vietnam War was lost by a betrayal of the soldiers on the home front. To assure that future conflicts are not undermined by dissent and that all Americans support the troops, the myth of Hanoi Jane is resurrected by the right as a warning to those who might question American foreign and military policies.

It was essential to scapegoat a figure such as Jane Fonda so that warriors did not have to question their own masculinity. Lembcke asserts that the betrayal of prisoners of war is crucial to the Hanoi Jane mythology as it resonates with the tradition of captivity narratives dating back to the nation's Puritan ancestors and cultural fears that captives might succumb to the attractions of "the other" found paradoxically both outside of civilization and within the dominant culture itself. Lembcke writes, "Hanoi Jane represented the antiwarrior latent within the culture, the self-indulgent and rebellious underbelly of America that could, and did, turn hard men soft and cost the nation its victory in Southeast Asia" (38).

Hanoi Jane was also a sexualized object, which Lembcke argues was based upon a misreading of Fonda's science-fiction character Barbarella (1968) as a sex kitten rather than a more complicated bisexual persona. Lembcke certainly seems to have a point in his analysis of Barbarella, but he tends to ignore that soldier fantasies of Fonda as a sexual object may have more to do with her Oscar-winning portrayal of sexy prostitute Bree Daniels in Klute (1971).

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