Jane Fonda is white, wealthy and privileged – and she’s using that power for good | Jonno Revanche

Getting arrested is no performative act for a woman who has proved her courage and integrity over and over

As a way to step up her commitment to the global fight against climate inaction, Jane Fonda has decided to start getting arrested – on what seems to be weekly basis.

It’s a curious sentiment for her to feel like she should be doing more, considering her activist history eclipses pretty much the entirety of Hollywood’s, but it’s a genuinely heart-warming notion from our pinko grandmother. (Those pics of her picketing with Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein? You really love to see it.) In recent photos, she is seen dressed immaculately in a Chanel coat, smiling while police take her away, raising her closed fists as high as she can, given the restraints binding them together.

The reaction, interestingly, has been mixed. Young people (ie those who haven’t grown up with an especially firm knowledge of now-aged Hollywood divas– I can’t relate) have taken to Twitter to critique the action. It’s performative, they write from the safety of their Brooklyn apartments – it’s problematic, it’s an irresponsible show of privilege as an older rich white woman … as if her privilege, and manoeuvring of it, isn’t the point.

It’s quite the ouroboros – a tweet calling someone else performative can end up being performative in itself, but it’s par for the course with online discourse these days. It’s also a peculiar misreading of the optics behind Jane’s actions. At her age, garnering media attention and using the tools of recognisability is an effective way of connecting to her much older audience. It’s one that isn’t particularly known for positive contributions to environmental sustainability conversations, and one that might be uninterested in hearing from younger activists on the topic. It’s a shame that’s the case, but integrating older figures into our battles is nothing more than a smart tactical move. It’s time to start getting intergenerational instead of fixating solely on a single voice.

Imagine being 81 years old and facing ostracisation and constant threats by multiple US governments and a powerful contingent of rightwingers, only for young leftwing people to call your activism superficial, and you might have some kind of understanding of how bad faith these criticisms sound. There are, of course, hundreds of celebrities who have tapped into the zeitgeist and the metrics of “wokeness” to appeal to new markets without doing anything significant to, say, change that market, or enact any kind of significant difference or shift in consciousness, so the suspicion is perhaps understandable. It’s nonetheless important for us to parse why legitimate actions are scorned, so that we may be more critical of the powerful, and less susceptible to the ever growing manipulations of modern day PR.

The signifiers of wokeness – beyond being a once-useful term misappropriated from black American vernacular – apparently represent that of deeper thinking, inquiry and action, but can just as easily be used to paint a deceptive veneer. A true measure of character should be how high the stakes are. Will this opinion/collaboration/action lose followers, customers, or will it boost the brand?

I could think of no one more bold than our favourite Sagittarius, who risked her career to campaign against the Vietnam war. Her actions essentially lead to a blacklist. She orchestrated her return to the screen mostly so that she could raise more money for various social causes. To be back in the spotlight despite continuing distrust of her integrity takes guts. Yes, she’s wealthy – but it’s a wealth that has for the most part been distributed, whether being funnelled into socialist movements, Native American struggles, or the Black Panthers when they were at their most prominent. Profits from the film “9 to 5” were donated to union groups; profits from her workout tapes were distributed in similar ways. Even during the recent protests, she’s personally committed to bailing out anyone else who’s been arrested alongside her. Commenters have speculated that her getting arrested takes away attention from those protesting with her, many of whom are non-white and less able to defend themselves against those state forces which so often target and undermine the disenfranchised.

Many celebrities (and non-celebrities for that matter) can be queasy when it comes to understanding their own whiteness – self-flagellating, deflecting, joking about it or ignoring it altogether, rather than distributing wealth, connections and access to those who may need it more (a point demonstrated by Oliver Reeson in their critique of Cyrus Grace Dunham’s new book).

If we’ve been given these protections, it might be more constructive to talk back at them, use them, putting our bodies between those who can’t do the same, undermining the reason that whiteness exists altogether. Activists have known this for years. Understanding the function of “arrestables” is common practice for those in frontline struggles. This isn’t performative – it’s a much needed show of solidarity, and one that can usurp the damage that state violence enacts upon so many of us.

• Jonno Revanche is a writer and photographer based in Sydney and Adelaide

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Jonno Revanche

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