ArtsCancel CultureCelebs

Why my father “cancelled” Jane Fonda (and Frank Sinatra)…

… and why US playwright Jeremy Kareken will never censor an artist, whatever their views.

It’s 1979. I am nine years old. I see a television advertisement for a movie called the China Syndrome, a thriller based on a fictional disaster at a nuclear power plant. For some reason my nine year old brain decided that my nine year old eyes should see this. My father said no. Not because it would be too scary, but because it starred Jane Fonda. “We don’t see movies with Jane Fonda.” Over the years this would become a fight – how the Kareken family would never see a movie starring Jane Fonda.

My father was a Republican, and like many second generation Americans, fiercely patriotic. His father had fled Turkish partisans and raised his Armenian-American family in downstate Illinois. This country had given him safety, liberty, and most of all: life. So when Jane Fonda made a public visit to the North Vietnamese during the height of the Vietnam war, as part of the Viet Cong’s propaganda, my father didn’t take kindly. He cancelled her. Never again would he be caught in a Jane Fonda movie. I couldn’t understand his deeply-felt religion about the United States.

Make no mistake, his love for America was religious. After marrying my mother, Lynne Marcus, in 1961, they had to decide in which religion to raise the children. My mother was Jewish, my father raised in a mishmosh of whatever bits of Armenian Orthodoxy my grandparents could remember and the Church of Christ to which my grandparents belonged in Illinois. They settled on Unitarianism. But when they started harping on social justice or nuclear disarmament, my father realized his true religion was American – and Republican at that. We marched out of the Unitarian church never to return.

My father had also cancelled other entertainers – his own private blacklist. I vaguely remembered when he came to cancel Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, and Barbara Streisand. But I remember how he had cancelled Jane Fonda most of all, for giving aid and comfort to America’s enemies. And it troubled me – for in other ways my father was a very open minded person. A gifted attorney, he could argue either side of an argument or both. If he caught me being either liberal or conservative without critically thinking about the issue, he cross examined me until I gave the other side of the argument due consideration.

When I became an adult and got my own VCR or DVD player, I began watching Jane Fonda films, many of the ones I missed. I devoured Klute, Barbarella, The China Syndrome, and On Golden Pond. And I discovered something – I really didn’t like her very much. Maybe it was leftover programming my father had visited on me, or maybe I always thought she seemed so wooden or prepared and poised in a way I just don’t like from actors. Maybe it was the way her character always seemed to be so “right” at the end of her films, but I just never cared for her when I tried to. But I refused to cancel Jane Fonda, and I refused to cancel any actor or artist who would give me pleasure – despite their feelings or failings as humans.

Other actors and artists my father cancelled from the family have since filled my life with joy. I came to admit to my therapist that my first sexual memory was of Barbara Streisand in her tank top in the appalling the Main Event. But beyond that, her voice and her talents are unassailable. And Frank Sinatra, because of reputed Communist ties (never proven). Was there anyone finer at expressing the American songbook?

One of the hallmarks of religious thinking gone wrong is when religion comes to define heresy and blasphemy. Despite my eventual distaste for Jane Fonda herself, I find myself attracted to heretics. Maybe the religious zealots are right to cancel someone, and maybe they’re not, but don’t let them ever make the decision for you. I lost my father this year, but even his occasional poor judgment in black-listing passionate Democrats and leftists hasn’t caused me to cancel his gifts and my memory of what he gave to me – the ability and urge to think for myself.

Photo credit: Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome

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Jeremy Kareken

Jeremy Kareken is a playwright living in the United States. He co-wrote Lifespan of a Fact, starring Daniel Radcliffe which was a Broadway hit in the 2018-19 season.

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