Is Janet Just a Part of Joanna?
Joanna Russ presents multiple main characters in her novel The Female Man, and no two characters are more interesting to see interact that the characters Janet and Joanna. Janet is very open and inquisitive. She is willing to talk about her society and its ideas and to ask about the ways of the society she finds herself it. This makes her stand out, an oddity and a stranger in this land. Joanna is much more reserved, wanting to belong in society and to fit into the role expected of an American woman in the late 60’s – early 70’s. She’s currently not a woman who would be out speaking on the rise of women’s position in society and on women’s rights. However, as different as these two women are, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps Janet is just a part of Joanna, one that she wishes to express but can’t.
When I first read the section for today, I hit a few spots where I questioned the idea of whether Janet truly existed or was more an illusion or persona created by Joanna to be someone she wasn’t. We talked in class about the times that there is this imagery of spirits and ghosts and then of the scene where they go to the party, which I caught more after I went back and read them a second time. However, a scene that truly made me step back and think about this right away was a scene shortly after what we read for today, as I read slightly ahead until I hit the end of part 4. It’s the scene when Janet and Laura are in bed and we’re getting the idea that it is just the two of them when suddenly Joanna is there telling Janet that this is not how it should be, and then she is fleeing the room, sitting in the hall and screaming because she didn’t want to find herself in that sort of situation with another woman (73-74). I first truly realized that it made so much more sense for her to have Janet as a part of herself or even a persona of sorts when I read this moment, and it was then I reread the other scenes that struck me previously (the scenes we had discussed in class). She has perhaps in this case pushed herself so far from the situation at hand and so far out of her comfort zone that it is easier for her to just imagine it’s Janet who is doing this, that outspoken and free Janet is the one who is carrying on a relationship with a woman and not her. That this part of her, which is not Joanna, can allow herself this pleasure while that part of her that is Joanna and still wants to fit into society can ‘sit in the hall’ and ignore it.
A lot of the time I also couldn’t help but wonder what of this story is in Joanna’s head, if Janet is not truly a person but a piece of Joanna. How much of the party scene is actually happening in the present if Janet is just a figment of her, and what is what she wants to happen that just takes place in her mind? Is she imagining Janet doing these acts, i.e. yelling at the man and fighting him (44-47) while in reality she is just letting this man continue to talk to her and say these things so she seems ladylike? I have yet to work this out myself, though hopefully as more of the novel is read I’ll begin to get more of a sense of what is actually happening and what Joanna is wishing would happen.
It’s also interesting to me that Joanna Russ shares a name with one of her characters, and it is this character who mentions that she “made up” Janet. Now, when I first read this, I had assumed that she just meant she ‘dolled’ her up, tried to make her fit the role of society in the this time by teaching her to look and act a certain way. However, after discussing this in class today, I was more inclined to think that this adds to the idea I had of Janet simply being a part of Joanna, or even just a persona she takes on in certain situations.
Overall, I am really looking forward to finishing the novel and seeing how, and if, this idea continues plays out throughout it.
Russ, Joanna. The Female Man. Beacon Press, 1975