I posted about Trixie Belden as one of my earliest, favorite People Who Looked Like Me. But I’d be really remiss not to post about the One True Baby Butch I looked up to through my teen years.
Simultaneously an object of one of my longest-standing crushes and an example of how to perform as a tomboy/butch, Jo Polniaczek of The Facts of Life was one of the touchstones of my adolescence. She first appeared on the show after its major reorg in 1980, and stuck with the show until it folded in 1988, which neatly bracketed my wakening realizations about How I Felt About Other Girls and the first times I stumblingly came out to friends in college.
Like Jo, I tried very hard to “soften” my tomboy image as I grew up. I have photos of me with long hair, in makeup and skirt, and I don’t even look quite as uncomfortable as I felt in those pics. My hair didn’t get quite as high as Jo’s did in the late episodes, but it was a close thing. And I only briefly had a mullet.
But Jo really was was the one visual tutorial I had for how to be butch. I wasn’t a working-class Polish-American kid, but if I squinted, I could still spot the Irish-American dye factory foremen and shoemakers in my family history. For my last two years of high school, I was also a scholarship student at a local private school. I couldn’t claim any particular mechanical aptitude, but I was at least not afraid to change my own damn tires once I learned to drive. So I was certainly closer to Jo than… pretty much any other girl attending Eastland.
Jo had that masculine kata, the firm connection to the earth with each step, shoulders back, arms and fists ready to take up space, arms crossed to fend off the world when she was at rest. She didn’t smile unless she wanted to — she certainly wouldn’t smile if some dude told her to on the street — and she almost never hid her cynicism behind an acceptable feminine expression.
The ongoing flirtation (what? what would you call it?) between Jo and Blair fueled some of my most frustrating moments of watching television. Just kiss already! I wanted to shout, but couldn’t because, you know, I was watching these shows with my parents. You know you want to! I knew I wanted them to.
Look at that flannel. Just look at it. It is a thing of beauty.
Mallory Ortberg put it beautifully:
Every one of Jo and Blair’s interactions falls into one of the following categories: Unhand Me You Brute You Awful Brute You’re Covered In Oil And You’ll Get My Hair Greasy, My God I Hate You Come Closer And Breathe Into My Mouth So I Can Tell You Just how Much I Hate You, and LEAVE HER ALONE SHE’S MINE. Blair’s not just from the right side of the track; her father owns most of the track. Jo’s not just a motorcycle-riding, jeans-wearing rebel without a cause, she’s the Artful Dodger in Jo March’s body in James Dean’s clothes.
I never wrote fanfic about Jo; I actually feel kind of remiss that I didn’t. I suppose I read too much about Lisa Whelchel’s born-again Stuff to be able to manage to write something that put Jo and Blair in that long-waited clinch. And so much else about Jo just didn’t need fanfic… it was text, it was there for us to see if we chose to.
People keep talking about a Xena reboot, and that’s cool, especially if Xena/Gabrielle is text, but I’d love a Facts of Life reboot where Jo and Blair do kiss and carry on a 1980s super-closeted torrid roommate relationship. Nowadays, that kind of thing would be a Historical Piece. For me, it would be the resolution of 35 years of frustration.
In any case, thank you, Jo and Nancy McKeon, for giving me that one tiny glimpse, that one striking example of gender performance that could carry me on for years until I could take up my own space and stomp the earth myself. Until that time, I did my best imitation of Jo and carried on.