Scott Stark's Letter to Jane Fonda

In April 2006, Jane Fonda came to my current home town of Austin, Texas to sign copies of her autobiography, My Life So Far. When I had her sign my copy of the book, I gave her a DVD of More Than Meets the Eye: Remaking Jane Fonda, which I had just finished making. Enclosed with the DVD was the following letter. I have not yet received a reply from Ms. Fonda (or her lawyers) -- not that I expect her to even watch it -- but if I do receive a reply I will post it here. -- SS

More Than Meets the Eye: Remaking Jane Fonda

Video by Scott Stark, 2006, 20 mins.

Hello Ms. Fonda,

I hope you will watch this video with the sense of humor, playfulness and thoughtfulness that I tried to put into it.

It is possible that you will find the video problematic, troubling, incomprehensible or just plain silly. Thus I’ve written a few notes below in case your interest is sufficiently piqued. If you’re able to go with it, I think you will see that, as a kind of tongue-in-cheek critique of your career as an activist and later evolution into an exercise mogul, it is ultimately respectful, coming from a perspective of admiration, and engaging of many of your ideas and beliefs, which I share.

I also hope you will not be bothered by the liberal borrowing I made of your texts and quotations for the piece. In fact I would be honored if you would consider this a kind of collaboration, or at least grant me your blessing and permission to screen it. I am not making money off of this video – it inhabits the world of experimental cinema and video art, which if you know anything about it, is considered a non-commercial, fine art form, as well as an economic dead end.

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Briefly about me: I have been making short films and videos for the last 25 years and have had exhibitions at many major art institutions across the U.S. and around the world, including the Whitney Biennial and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. You can read more about my work at

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A remake? of an exercise video? The original idea for the video, which I began shooting in the early 1990s, was that your exercise video series, coming as it did at the cusp of the 1980s, was emblematic of a cultural shift from the politicized, activist climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s into the me-decade of the 80s. You, as Jane-Fonda-the-activist morphing into Jane-Fonda-the-exercise-queen, were certainly a symbol of this cultural shift, and even in many ways one of its driving forces. Some have seen this shift as a betrayal of a certain kind of selfless idealism, replacing it with a more self-centered view of changing the world through self-improvement. More on that in a moment.

The idea of a “remake” of an exercise video, of course, is something of a joke – remakes are usually made of classic films, updated with newer stars and a contemporary cinematic vocabulary. In my version, you see me – a decided non-star – performing the workout while watching it; your original video is always off-screen, implied rather than seen. I introduce myself as a male exerciser into what is largely female terrain, since the original workout video’s core audience was mostly women. I am seen performing the workout in a variety of public and private settings, accentuating a supposed public embarrassment I might feel at inhabiting that feminine landscape, but at the same time acknowledging that I am a part of the cultural shift that I am critiquing. (In fact for many years I attended group aerobics classes, in which I was usually one of only a handful of men, and I have no shame about my place in that world.)

Add to that mixture the song that is played on the soundtrack of your original workout, which goes “There’s much more to you than meets the eye…” That’s certainly a perfect song for a workout tape, for women who may have a self-image problem and are exercising to improve themselves and their sense of worth. It’s something I find rather touching, and it’s partly why your video struck such a strong chord and was so successful.

I think all of these things bring out a certain humor mixed with serious critique mixed with a kind of droll practicality: one could, in fact, do the complete Jane Fonda Workout just by watching my tape.

In the process the video becomes a tongue-in-cheek homage to the original. I have to admit, though, that part of my inspiration for the piece was in response to a supposed betrayal that I felt: the evolution of the ideals of an era that had profoundly influenced me, into something I saw as ultimately self-serving and not doing much good to solve the social ills that had never gone away, and in fact were getting worse in the Reagan/Bush/Clinton years. Again, bear with me, as I’ll have more to say about that.

Thus the title, More Than Meets the Eye: Remaking Jane Fonda, takes on many meanings: a simple video remake, the remaking of a cultural icon and her personal belief system, the remaking of the 70s activist-era into the 80s me-era, and an acknowledgment that there is more to everything than meets the eye, so that you can’t even take what I’m saying at face value.

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Politics: In an early version of my video, there was almost no text; the only overt political referents were the zooms at the end to objects which were already in the background but previously unseen, including a picture of Malcolm X and an Apple billboard with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Both of those images represent personalities of the anti-war, civil rights era who have now been largely co-opted by media labeling, most obviously by portraying John and Yoko’s radicalism as a symbol of innovation to sell computers. There is also an image of you in your Barbarella outfit, a looping reference back to your pre-dissident days; as you have noted many times publicly, you have become a kind of cultural icon that is used for a lot of different purposes -- a “lightning rod,” as you say -- which often have no connection to who you really are. I think the combination of these images touches upon a personal and political evolution that you describe so well in your book, and also obliquely sums up my own complex feelings about the cultural shift I described above. The fact that these images were always in the background during the entire video, though previously unnoticed, is a metaphor for the idea that all of these ideas and images are part of the cultural fabric of our current world, even though we take them for granted and hardly notice them. They are what we are made of.

Whatever happened, though, to those provocative ideas about revolution and radicalism and social injustice and racism and the criminality of war that you and so many others spoke of, that provoked such anger and outrage but also helped lead to some powerful changes? Have those been invisibly subsumed as well into the cultural fabric? Are they simply tag lines for advertising campaigns, colorful backgrounds for situation comedies, nostalgic retro-fashions like paisleys and bell bottoms? Was there ever a real power and meaning to those words, and does anyone remember them? 

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Bringing it on home, Jane: In early 2006, nearly three years into another criminal and ill-planned war, I started thinking about the video again, and thought it would be interesting to try and revive some of those provocative statements of yours and place them over the images, making the ideas I’d had about cultural and political shifts over the last 20-30 years a bit more overt. I decided to use contemporary anti-war quotes of yours that you’d made back in the early 70s, adding another voice to the your voice which we hear on the soundtrack, providing a stark contrast between the 70s and 80s. At the same time I’d be able to cherry-pick the quotes, using your words to voice my own feelings about the Iraq War and highlighting the lessons that were never really learned and mostly ignored from Vietnam. I wanted to use quotes of yours from the Vietnam era so they’d be in the present tense, with a practical urgency to them. 

I first started scanning the internet, finding a few 70s-era Jane Fonda quotes (often on websites run by people who hated you); then I started looking into some of the biographies that have been written about you, again picking out actual quotes from the time; and I even found a poorly dubbed copy of FTA which had you speaking articulately to Air Force pilots, asking them to stop their bombing of North Vietnam. 

Then I came to your autobiography. At first I wanted simply to find some more 70s-era quotes, but of course it’s mostly written from today’s perspective. As I started reading it, however, I realized there was a lot being said that fed into my ideas about women’s self-esteem (e.g. your accounts of bulimia, your own self-worth), the many cultural shifts I was interested in, and, not least, your own blossoming activism and involvement in the anti-war movement. I must say, I found your explanation of how the U.S. became entangled in Vietnam, and why we stayed there, and why it was all so wrong, one of the clearest and most profound documents I’ve read on the subject. Really, I think this book should be a must read for anyone wondering about what the hell we’re doing in Iraq or Afghanistan or Central or South America or you-name-the-third-world-country; unfortunately I doubt anyone who’s mind really needs to be changed about it will bother to read it. 

Anyway I decided then that the “remake” should have two additional elements to it: a running commentary excerpted from My Life So Far (which runs horizontally across the screen), and provocative quotes of yours from the Vietnam era (which scroll vertically). As you, Jane Fonda, are not specifically identified as the author of the texts until the end credits, I was interested in how the “I” of the narrative could easily be confused with me, the male performer (a friend told me she at first wondered if I really did buy Kotex as a teenager); thus a feminized (as in “feminine,” not “feminist”) representation of my masculine form becomes a part of an exploration of female adolescence, sexuality, denial of self, acquiescence to men, and an acknowledgment that I as a male inhabit the same world as girls and women who are struggling with these ideas. The video, even with its music and exercise noise going on in the background, charts a spiritual growth of one person’s evolution into an activist, which in turn informs a very perceptive view of both the criminality of war, and what shapes women’s attitudes about themselves and their place in the world.   

The political becomes deeply personal. 

In the process of making this video (and reading your book) I developed a deeper understanding of your motivations for developing the exercise videos and came see them as extensions of your own evolution as a feminist and activist, as a way of empowering women, of personalizing the political. The video then becomes, for me, an exploratory essay; and it allows me to give voice, using your very public statements, to my own complicated and somewhat chaotic feelings about the world. 

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Thank you for taking the time to read through this, Ms. Fonda. Again, I hope you will approach the video with the sense of humor and thoughtful exploration that I intended. If you have any comments about it feel free to contact me at the above email address.

Scott Stark
April 2006

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