Before going to bed at the US Naval Academy, a plebe shouts “Good night!” to the senior midshipman in the company, and the company commander answers “Good night!” in reply. A litany of good nights then passes down the chain of the company’s command. At the end of this ritual courtesy, the plebe yells the final good night: “Good night, Jane Fonda!” and the entire company shouts its enthusiastic retort: “Good night, bitch!” Until that point, the performance has simply closed the day with a homage to hierarchy, with the lowest in the company, the plebe, showing deference to upperclass leaders. It reminds everyone of the rigid service academy structure, inherited from British boys’ schools like Eton, in which upperclassmen dominate their juniors. The plebe plays the role of a child performing nightly valedictories to parents. But the final exchange, a unanimous curse of the former actress, former workout queen and former antiwar activist, serves quite a different end. The mock good night to Fonda reassures even the lowliest plebe of his insider status by expressing collective contempt for an outsider. According to an anonymous Naval Academy source, the ritual has been practiced by some but not all companies over the years, although in the past two years a few company officers have discouraged it.
But why Jane Fonda? Why not a more contemporary adversary? Naval Academy midshipmen weren’t even born when Fonda spoke out against having US troops in Vietnam; many of them don’t even know who she is until they are introduced to the mythic Jane at the academy. Soldier folklore during the Vietnam War and for several years afterward made fun of Ho Chi Minh, his “gooks” and the notorious VC, but those figures of ridicule stepped aside in the first Gulf War, to be replaced by Saddam Hussein and his fellow Iraqis (“ragheads” in the jokes, songs and stories), and most recently by the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. All, that is, except Jane Fonda, who even as a grandmother in her mid-60s continues to attract a seemingly endless stream of abuse. More than thirty years after her trip to North Vietnam, veterans fill cyberspace with their resentment, and new recruits learn that being a real warrior and hating Jane Fonda are synonymous.
Along with fresh recruits, both commissioned and enlisted, in other branches of the military, naval officers-in-training learn that just as military identity prescribes adulation for heroic military figures, it also encourages ridicule of despised civilians. In their plebe year, freshmen make the dramatic transition from civilian to military status, from home to barracks. They leave a world in which mothers have played a large part in their lives and enter an institution that remains largely male in numbers and traditions, despite opening its doors to women in the late 1970s. The good-night ritual articulates the need to repudiate the life left behind and to embrace a martial future.
The Navy certainly has no monopoly on hatred of Jane Fonda; active-duty members and veterans of all the services freely express their disdain for the sex-kitten-turned-dressed-down-radical. Some of the more vitriolic veterans’ websites provide forums in which contributors vent their anger toward the actress. As one vet writes, “Jane Fonda should have been shot, and will never be forgiven.” Another man posting to a hate-Fonda website describes his disappointment when he went to see the film Coming Home and her character wasn’t killed. They rail at “Hanoi Jane,” belittle “Jane Fondle” and castigate her as a “pinko slut” who “appeared nude in movies, smoked pot, smuggled drugs, used profanity publicly, and now, worst of all, was aiding and abetting the enemy during wartime.” Most recently, hate-Fonda sites have displayed Photoshopped images designed to undermine the campaign of John Kerry by presenting the two side by side (along with real photos showing them several rows apart at an antiwar rally).