Jane Fonda, the 'Today' Show and the 'C-Word'

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Jane Fonda, the 'Today' Show and the 'C-Word'

Marianne Schnall

Perhaps you've heard the recent controversy over Jane Fonda using the "c- word" on the "Today" show. But the real story is the one behind the scenes. Knowing I would be interviewing both Jane Fonda and playwright Eve Ensler at an event later that evening, I was watching the "Today" show in real time when Meredith Vieira was interviewing Ensler and Fonda on Valentine's Day about the 10 year anniversary of V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls that raises funds and awareness through benefit productions of Ensler's award-winning play "The Vagina Monologues". When talking about all the "A-list celebrities" that have been attracted to helping V-Day, Vierra posed a somewhat quizzical question to Fonda: "You at first were not a big fan of the play. So what turned you around?" Jane was a little taken back, and went on to correct her with the factual story. "Well, it wasn't that I wasn't a big fan - I hadn't seen the play - I live in Georgia, OK?" she explained. "I was asked to do a monologue called "C--t". And I said, I don't think so, I have enough problems." She went on to talk about finally going to New York and seeing the play, which she credited with changing her life, and the impact of her many years traveling all around the world with Eve on behalf of V-Day, performing the play and meeting with and helping violence survivors.

The interview had actually seemed to proceed without any further ado, until about 10 minutes later after the segment, when they suddenly cut from a local news segment back to Vieira, who said somewhat sheepishly, "We were talking about 'The Vagina Monologues' and Jane Fonda inadvertently said a word from the play that you don't say on television. It was a slip and obviously she apologizes, and so do we. We would do nothing to offend the audience. So please accept that apology." However, that certainly didn't settle it - the clip and story spread like wildfire over the Internet, in the news and entertainment headlines, on the blogs, on shows like "Access Hollywood", "Extra" and "The O'Reilly Factor", even becoming the focus of David Letterman's Top Ten List about her using the "c-word" ("Jane Fonda Excuses"). At a star-studded event to celebrate V-Day's ten year anniversary a few hours later, Fonda responded to the entertainment show "Extra" about the incident (which they called her "live 'c-word' fiasco"): "I didn't mean to offend anybody - I just didn't even think about it. What's the big deal?" On "Access Hollywood", asked again about the incident, she had to keep apologizing. "I'm sorry it's been a controversy." She also had fellow V-Day supporters coming to her defense. Said Brooke Shields, "Again - bleep me out. I just don't think c--t is a controversial word. I find it frightening and sad that there was an outrage - gasp - that Jane Fonda said it....it is just a word." Added Glenn Close, "I can say 'vagina' now - out loud! Let's test TV - I can also say "c--t",' she laughed, knowing it would later be bleeped when the segment aired, which it was.

It was in fact Glenn Close who brought down the house when she personally performed that specific monologue, "Reclaiming C--t" at the star-studded benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues at Madison Square Garden in 2001. It was a short piece in which Close repeatedly said the word again and again, getting louder and louder. "I call it c--t. I've reclaimed it. I really like it. C--t. Just listen to it: c--t!" Close dropped to her knees, raising her arm and shouting in triumph. That monologue is just one of many, varied and empowering monologues, serious and joyful, humorous and sad, based on Eve's interviews with 200 women about their vaginas (at the same Madison Square Garden event, Jane Fonda performed "I Was There in the Room", a moving monologue Ensler wrote to describe the experience of witnessing the birth of her grandchild.)

It feels strangely ironic and weirdly coincidental that the 10 year anniversary of V-Day would be marked with an outcry over a word used for 'vagina' (which unfortunately just so happened to be one of 7 words that the FCC has listed as offensive). When Eve first started performing the play Off Broadway in 1996, the word "vagina" was rarely used except in a medical context and very much taboo, so its use in the title and play itself was scandalous. Today, much thanks to The Vagina Monologues, the word "vagina" is now used quite commonly and openly, in headlines, on talk shows, on entertainment programs, even inspiring other cute nicknames like "va-jay-jay." Yet while the play freed women to use the word and talk openly about their bodies, it also sparked something else, even more far-reaching. When women would come up to Ensler after the play night after night and reveal their own personal stories of surviving varied forms of violence, Ensler decided she had to do something about it, launching V-Day, staging thousands of benefit performances of The Vagina Monologues around the world, including a run on Broadway, featuring numerous guest celebrities. V-Day has since raised over 50 million dollars for local anti-violence groups in over 120 countries.

It may have been the "c-word" that got all the attention, but on that same "Today" show, Ensler debuted a new "f-word", which went largely unnoticed. "After ten years, I can fundamentally say that there is a global pattern which I am now calling "femicide" that is systemically undermining, undoing and desecrating women". Vieira revealed that her colleague Ann Curry was "finding that out in Africa, the worst cases of rape in the world right now." Ensler agreed. "I was in the Congo in November and it is an incredible example - 200,000 women raped over the past ten years.... And yet it is still accepted because it is so intricate and so a part of our everyday life." Fonda then spoke proudly about V-Day's programs to help address the problem there, including "building a whole village so that 100 women can stay and heal. And then become leaders."

Eight hours after Jane Fonda's infamous "c-word" incident, I interviewed her at the V-Day gala anniversary event at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. Fonda was emotional as she spoke to me about the 10 year anniversary of V-Day. "We are all so proud of everything that V-Day's done - it's just totally amazing that a little work of art that she created Off-Broadway has become this global movement that has made such a difference."

I then asked her about how knowing Eve and V-Day had personally affected her. "Before I saw Eve perform The Vagina Monologues, I could describe myself as a theoretical feminist - I mean, I was doing the right things and making the right movies, but behind the closed doors, in my life I wasn't living it. And after I saw The Vagina Monologues - I think while I was laughing - it slipped from my head into my body, and I became an embodied feminist. And just spending so much time with Eve and traveling in many parts of the world with her - it's made me braver, it's certainly made me understand violence against women a lot more. You know, I have it in my family [Fonda's mother, who killed herself when she was twelve, had been sexually abused], I have it among my friends - but seeing it in so many different parts of the world has really brought it home to me, how epidemic it is."

She added, "But then next to that is watching - particularly I think in Jerusalem, when Eve and I visited a home for abused girls, and she asked to meet with six or seven of them, and they were all together for the first time telling their stories. And there were two things - it was the way Eve listened to them. I learned what therapeutic listening is. The way she listened and asked questions, you could tell that it was transforming these girls and then the fact that they were for the first time hearing each other stories showed me the value of breaking the wall of silence, and becoming sisters. It was very powerful. It changed my life."

She also spoke about the importance of changing the "mindset and mentality" that produces violence. "I think that's partly the value of the play. I remember when I first saw it there were a number of men in the audience as well. And I think it does change men as well as women - and the movement changes men as well as women. And that's why I am so excited that men are going to be involved in New Orleans." Fonda was here referring to V-Day's must-go-to, two day historic mega anniversary celebration, V to the Tenth, taking place in New Orleans at the New Orleans Arena and Louisiana Superdome, in which Fonda will appear along with an esteemed list of noted speakers, global activists and stars such as Oprah Winfrey, Salma Hayek, Sally Field, Glenn Close, Jessica Alba, and Jennifer Hudson (and many others) to raise money and awareness for V-Day and for the women of New Orleans, as well as to reflect on the intersection of many issues that contribute to violence, and to tragedies such as what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Says Fonda of V to the Tenth, "It's going to be fun, on a lot of levels. And as always in the V-Day events, we're going to laugh and we're going to cry and we're going to create sisterhood and brotherhood and we're going to help the women of New Orleans. "

Aside from helping women in the literal gender sense, Fonda sees the valuing of feminine values and attributes as "very connected to the planet. There was a reason that for ancient peoples, God was Sophia. I think the rising of the feminine, within the masculine, the feminization of masculinity, is going to be critical to our survival as a species and as a planet."

I should probably reveal that I was on the founding committee of V-Day with Eve, so I can truly appreciate the incredible accomplishments of V-Day - and the depth of Jane Fonda's commitment to V-Day and this issue. I still remember sitting in Eve Ensler's living room, when V-Day was struggling over financing for the Madison Square Garden event, when Eve announced with such excitement and relief that Jane Fonda had just pledged 1 million dollars. So I felt rightfully defensive about this "c-word" attack on Jane, and also befuddled that this was the "story" that the media chose given the opportunity to cover V-Day's 10 year anniversary. As Eve Ensler reminded the audience at the event later that evening, "According to the U.N., one of every three women will be beaten, raped or abused in some fashion in their lifetime." This, in my opinion, should have been what made the news that night, and every night, until as V-Day so boldly aims for, the violence stops. Given it was a Presidential election season, I asked Ensler what we should be demanding of our leaders. She answered, "We should be saying of every candidate that you need to make violence against women a front and center issue. And none of them are doing that." How can we expect them to, when the media - and the public - would rather obsess about a meaningless and inadvertent use of a slang word?

For more on V-Day and V to the Tenth visit www.vday.org

This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Marianne Schnall is a writer and interviewer, founder of Feminist.com, and co-founder of EcoMall.com.

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