Jane Fonda Talks about Teens and Escaping Stereotypes

June 28, 2014

The hall was packed with a very receptive audience for author and actress Jane Fonda, who appeared as part of the Auditorium Speaker Series on Saturday morning at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, I arrived late, and as I settled in, she was getting weepy talking about how special librarians were to her life as she grew up.  Fonda’s mother died when she was 12, and she used her personal tragedy as a segue to discussing how critical adolescence is to the development of personality. She talked about this in the context of her latest book, Being a Teen: Everything Teen Girls and Boys Should Know About Relationships, Sex, Love, Health, Identity, and More, which came out in paperback in March from Random House.

Fonda made a very good point about how girls, in the first decade of their lives, probably have the most agency of their lives and how, by their teenage years, they are challenged to behave as a “female” in the stereotypical sense. This results in their authentic voices going “underground.” The analogy she used was asking girls at different ages what they wanted on their pizza; the 10 year-olds were ready to give a list of toppings, the 13 year-olds would shrug, and the 15 year-olds would simply say, “Whatever you want.”

As she began talking about boys, however, she started getting choked up. Boys tend to become “more like a man,” in the stereotypical sense, which results in suppressing feelings and can lead to addictive behaviors. Being the mother of a 12-year-old boy, I saw what she was saying. Jane! Truth! Witness! I’ve got to get this book…

Fonda explained that adolescence is the time to teach boys how to understand their feelings, even as this becomes challenging as boys who are more empathetic often get “friend-zoned" (my expression). This got a laugh, one of many.

This prompted many questions about cultural constraints during the Q & A. Fonda made the point that cultural messages affect the decisions boys make and that in the US and around the world “we have a toxic masculinity at work,” confounding efforts to teach boys how to be empathetic grown-ups.

She wrapped up the talk by reminding librarians that they have a lot of influence to advance these ideas. “Librarians are really good at suggesting things: ‘Try this or try this.’”  Books like her latest can help further her goals to create more authentic relationships between men and women.

MICHELE LESURE, a freelance blogger for American Libraries, lives in a house divided, being an MLIS candidate at Florida State University, as well as working in the main branch library at the University of Florida. She tries to remain neutral because she doesn’t look good in either crimson and gold or orange and blue.


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