Jane Fonda Battles the Friend Zone and Toxic Masculinity in One Speech

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Jane Fonda. Photo: Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images

On Saturday, Jane Fonda spoke at the International Conference on Masculinities as part of a conversation about gender equality. Her simply stated opinion: "Masculinity, as it’s defined now, is toxic."

In researching her 2014 book, Being a Teen, Fonda interviewed young men from a variety of backgrounds and found that many of them had "a lot of fear around their masculinity, if they were seen as too soft or too relational." The boys told her they're worried about "how to get girls to like them" and how to be "popular and not be a wuss." 

Fonda said that many young women today fall into these limits about perceived masculinity by rejecting nicer guys. As panel leader Chloe Angyal acknowledged, Jane Fonda is addressing the "friend zone" phenomena. "What always touches me so much is that in my meetings with young boys," said Fonda, "are the boys that say, I know how to treat girls, I treat them with respect, I’m a feminist boy, but she’s my best friend. She won’t be my girlfriend. The girls want to be girlfriends to players, who don’t always treat them well."

Fonda said that she was moved by the ability of young men to express their feelings. "You want to cry when you hear them talk about how much their friends mean to them. They speak to my heart," she said. "I don’t know women that express themselves so profoundly and emotionally, and it’s like, where does that go?"

Fonda put this problem in the context of her Vietnam activism. She quoted former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's professed goal of separating "human emotions from the larger issues of human welfare," which she saw as exemplifying of the dangers of a "masculine" attitude. "It just blew my mind, because there’s the problem: this deep sense that you have to cut your thoughts from your emotions. That that is the sign of intelligence and maturity," she said, "but in fact this split is a sign of trauma."

"The wound is patriarchy," Fonda said. "It has caused men to bifurcate and it has robbed them of humanity. And the going wisdom is that that’s just the way men are. Boys will be boys, and that’s how men are, and it's women who are mature and emotional." It's the current perceptions of masculinity that have hindered young men's emotional expression, she said, "And that’s really what we’re all here for, is to figure out: How do we get it back?"