Jane Fonda took offense last week when the host of “Megyn Kelly TODAY” asked her why the actor had said she “wasn’t proud” that she’d had plastic surgery.
“We really want to talk about that now?” the annoyed star shot back, giving Ms. Kelly a disdainful look that quickly became an internet meme.
Her reaction made Ms. Fonda an instant hero. “Fonda handled it like a champ,” CNN commentator Mel Robbins wrote in a typical response. “A Master Class in Handling Ageism,” Fortune called it. “ALL HAIL QUEEN JANE,” blogger Luvvie Ajayi declared.
Ms. Kelly’s question, everyone seemed to agree, was impertinent, sexist and insulting. A properly respectful reporter would never ask an aging star to talk about plastic surgery. “We can focus on what she’s created, what she’s accomplished, what she’s thinking,” the Chicago Tribune’s Heidi Stevens preached. Let her talk about her movie!
Contrary to the critics, Ms. Kelly’s mistake wasn’t that she introduced a trivial question into a serious discussion. It’s that she naively assumed she could hijack what amounted to a video press release with a legitimate reportorial inquiry. Ms. Kelly didn’t stick to the Hollywood script.
Ms. Fonda will turn 80 in December. She could pass for 60. She is one of the few serious actresses who has had good plastic surgery — the subtle, effective kind she might get away with denying — and has publicly acknowledged the alterations. Usually the only people in Hollywood who’ll admit they’ve had work done are plastic-surgery disasters or comediennes, whose singular frankness on the subject is the theme of the new documentary “Take My Nose ... Please!”
“Fonda posted her surgeon’s name on her web diary, and talked to multiple TV hosts about her face work while on a 2012 press tour. In those interviews the question was not off-limits,” said Joan Kron, the documentary’s director-producer and a veteran chronicler of the science and culture of cosmetic surgery. (Ms. Kron is a friend of mine, and I make a brief appearance in the film.) “But when sitting with [co-star Robert] Redford, who is amazingly youthful-looking for his age but has spoken out against Hollywood’s overuse of Botox, perhaps she was trying to protect him from the subject or herself from his criticism.”
In less-contentious settings, Ms. Fonda has said she had the work done to buy herself more time as an actress and to bring her appearance in line with her self-perception. “I would walk by a store window and catch sight of myself,” she told NPR’s Diane Rehm in 2011, pantomiming jumping back in horror. “Whoa, who’s that? I don’t feel like that person in the reflection looks like, and I decided that I wanted to look more like how I feel.”
As a model of aging, Ms. Fonda is the opposite of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who died at 91 as a perpetual adolescent whose era had long passed. She is constantly reinventing herself. “She’s always moving forward, and doesn’t look back,” Mr. Redford told Ms. Kelly. Ms. Fonda’s physical transformation is part of that story. Yet even as she acknowledges her perfectly understandable professional and personal reasons for having cosmetic surgery, she seems to regard it as sign of personal weakness.
Ms. Kelly had the audacity to ask why. It’s a good question. Why must public figures pretend that “aging gracefully” means accepting whatever nature doles out? Why can’t cosmetic surgery be as morally neutral as makeup or hair dye? Why do we surround cosmetic surgery with obfuscations and outright lies?
When aging stars pretend that their youthful faces are merely the product of good personal habits, they aren’t downplaying the importance of appearance or encouraging people to focus on more important things. They’re doing exactly the opposite — asserting their superiority to the aging plebes whose chins droop and foreheads crease. Ms. Fonda does have excellent posture, but no 80-year-old has a neck like that without the medical intervention she acknowledges but so many others deny.
Ms. Kelly may not yet grasp the rules of morning show bookings, but she isn’t the bad guy here. The stars who lie about their faces are. They’re the ones who perpetuate the stigma. They’re also the ones Ms. Fonda should blame for making her a cosmetic-surgery spokesperson. In a more honest world, she wouldn’t be asked about plastic surgery because her frankness wouldn’t be newsworthy. But until more public figures are willing to break the conspiracy of silence, Ms. Kelly’s taboo question will remain considerably more intriguing than “Why do you like the movie you’re here to promote?”
Bloomberg View columnist Virginia Postrel was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”