Letter from the Editors: Cuffing season for Jane Fonda, and the power of celebrity activism

When it was announced in May that Jane Fonda would receive the 2019 Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award for Excellence in Film from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, it wasn’t most people’s first thought that the accomplished actress would accept the award while in the midst of being arrested by Washington, D.C. police. But that’s exactly what happened Friday afternoon. The star of hits like “Monster-in-Law” and “Grace and Frankie” shouted, “BAFTA, thank you!” and “I’m very honored!” while being led to a patrol car in zip-tie handcuffs.

To some, it may appear rude not to accept such a high honor in person, but Fonda made it clear that she has other priorities.

“I’m sorry that I’m not there, but as you may have heard I’ve been getting arrested … but it’s for a good cause,” she said in a prerecorded video. That “good cause” is the climate movement, which picked up steam late this summer as historic youth-led climate strikes rippled across our rapidly heating planet. Inspired by young activists like Greta Thunberg, Fonda announced she would be moving to D.C. for four months to be arrested every Friday (with some occasional special guests) in protest of government inaction on carbon emissions.

Fonda is no stranger to law enforcement. One of her most iconic photographs is a mugshot taken after her arrest at the Cleveland airport in 1970, her fist held up in defiance of state violence and in solidarity with Vietnam War protestors. And she’s been vocal on a number of issues, attending a #MeToo rally last year.

The New York Times called Fonda’s first climate arrest “a high-profile act of civil disobedience.” “High-profile” is the operative phrase here — it matters that someone as famous as Fonda is devoting her time, resources and criminal record to a social movement.

In other celebrity activism news, Chance the Rapper repped a Chicago Teachers Union sweatshirt during his hosting-performing gig on “Saturday Night Live” last weekend. He spoke out in solidarity with the tens of thousands of teachers and staffers on strike in the city, telling teachers, “I fully support you. I just wish that when I was in school, my teachers had gone on a strike.” Chance, who himself grew up in Chicago Public Schools, has for years spoken up in support of the system. He’s also put his money where his mouth is — in 2017, he pledged $1 million of his personal funds to CPS, and later that year donated another $2.2 million raised through his nonprofit.

It’s easy to dismiss celebrities’ activism as performative, especially when their privilege makes them less vulnerable to the policing system that targets low-income folks and people of color. And it can be dangerous when we mistake visibility for expertise. Famous people who don’t use their platforms carefully can spread misinformation — see Jenny McCarthy becoming the public face of the anti-vax movement.

But telling celebrities to “stick to acting” (or whatever it is that made them famous in the first place) is not realistic. Whether we like it or not, fame is a capital –– and it can drastically change public opinion. And if a celebrity has proven to continuously invest their capital for the sake of benefiting society, why not celebrate them for being an ally? Their privilege is, in a sense, the most valuable thing they can offer to a movement. They can afford the bail and hostile interactions with police officers –– a luxury that is not granted to marginalized activists.

Lady Gaga might believe that “fame is prison” — and it’s true that it might get some people in handcuffs. But fame can also be a powerful tool for liberation.

— Maddie Burakoff, Catherine Kim and Alex Schwartz