Author’s Note: Thank you to all the Joan fans who shared their insights with me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to quote everyone, but please know that your words and your passion for Joan helped craft every sentence of this article. I truly appreciate your openness and honesty.
In the wild world of social media, Joan Ferguson is a point of contention among Wentworth fans. Many see her as nothing more than a villainous caricature who serves only to terrorize those around her. To these viewers, she is a raving mad murderess, evil personified, a woman so manipulative and disingenuous that she couldn’t possibly be deserving of sympathy, understanding, or even love.
To others, Joan Ferguson encapsulates so much more than her vile actions. She’s the total sum of her parts—both functional and not. She’s a woman of great power, intellect, strength, and confidence. Yet, at the same time, she’s also a remarkable example of the complete opposite. We’ve seen her fall from incredible heights, crumble under the pressure of her own emotions, and question the very nature of who she is as a human being.
Despite this complexity in characterization, numerous Wentworth viewers are quick to judge Joan’s less than desirable traits as psychopathic, outlandish, and punishable by death. But are they?
Most Joan Ferguson fans would say not. In their view, Joan is simply misunderstood. A tragedy in motion. A fictional manifestation of their own repressed emotions, feelings, aspirations, and fantasies. She embodies all that they tend to keep hidden or have yet to fully realize about themselves.
It’s impossible for any one person (myself, in this case) to fully explain what makes Joan Ferguson a compelling character. In my quest to make a case for Joan, I surveyed several Wentworth fans and asked for their honest, heartfelt input about why they love her. Here’s how they view Joan in their own words:
More Than a Mustache-Twirling Villain
There’s no question that Joan Ferguson is the villain of Wentworth. While many enjoy her wickedly nefarious antics on a superficial level, there are those who appreciate what lies beneath. Thanks to the show’s writers and actress Pamela Rabe, Joan is one of the rare villains on our screens who possesses the depth and humanity to supplement her darkness. It’s this strange, but wonderful combination that particularly fascinates some viewers:
“Every melodrama (and Wentworth is nothing if not that!) needs a great villain. Villains get the story moving; they make things happen. They provoke a range of responses from other characters, as well as revealing dark, uncharted depths of the human condition. And in a world where women are so very tired of being told to be “nice” all the time, there’s something liberating about a really ruthless and flamboyant fictional villainess.” – Quintrovert
“Joan Ferguson is a fictional embodiment of the darkest aspects of the human psyche – the part of oneself which stirs under one’s carefully constructed social self. Like many fictional villains, she appeals to one’s naughty side – the side which most people would never admit exists beneath the surface. As she herself stated: ‘One cannot deny the animal within.'” – Anonymous Joan Fan
“I’ve always enjoyed villains, in particular, female villains, because I find that female villains tend to have strong convictions and motivations and a lot of times those qualities are ones that are not respected in a woman. Female villains were always more of a role model for me, not because of the bad things they do, but because of their strength and their ability to not care what others, particularly men, think about them.” – vinegar_freak
Conceal, Don’t Feel
For some, Joan’s allure rests in the total command she has over her emotions. Only we, the audience, are privy to Joan’s most vulnerable moments, and while some viewers overlook them, there are others who find personal comfort and parallel in these rare glimpses of the true Joan:
“I am a veterinarian and thus have a very emotional job. I became a vet because I love working with animals. When I qualified, I felt for every single person and animal and it nearly broke me emotionally and my physical health suffered. I had to learn to place a wall between myself and my emotions in order to protect myself. I don’t cry with owners anymore and people often perceive me as a capable vet, but somewhat cold and clinical. That’s what resonates so strongly with me about Joan. Like her, I DO feel, I feel too strongly in my job and it ended up nearly breaking me. I needed to learn how to put those emotions away completely and release them in a healthy way later – I run, do yoga, pilates and horseback riding. The scene where Joan closes the door to her office, leans back against it and remembers Jianna, really struck me hard as I do exactly that too after a hard or taxing consult. People don’t see it, they only see the person who seems unphased by emotion and in control when the door opens again.” – Anonymous Joan Fan
Joan’s dearth of emotion also corresponds to an innate ability to make difficult decisions, no matter how abominable or personally traumatic. Whether she’s at the top of her game or hitting rock bottom, Joan always seeks to win. Her focus on the prize is razor sharp and nothing, not even her own emotions, stands to get in the way of it.
For some Joan fans, it’s this intensity and ambition that captivates them:
“Like Joan, I have a desire to be in a position of power and control in many aspects of my life; however, I would not go to the same extremes to reach them (thank goodness). I also identify with Joan’s ability to quietly stand back and assess situations in order to ensure that I will obtain the most desirable outcomes when I act. I don’t like revealing my emotions or acting on them because, like Joan, I think doing so often leads to mistakes. I think many people view me as a repressed, cold person due to the traits I have mentioned; however, I think I in fact feel too much at times, but this is not always visible to people who do not know me.” – Anonymous Joan Fan
“Joan is always thinking ahead. She never rests on her laurels. She’s the kind of person you’d want organizing a plan of attack for an elite military squad provided you were prepared for a long game.” – Heather Snodgrass
Nevertheless, She Persists
For other fans, it’s Joan’s capacity to endure in spite of herself that resonates most strongly with them. Though much of Joan’s story arc involves a multitude of characters, she lives in near isolation. She’s emotionally unavailable, ill-equipped for sensitive human interaction, and struggling to find a person who truly understands her. Her reclusive tendencies, at least on an emotional level, give fans lots of food for thought about notions of solitude, loneliness, and the resolve it takes to weather life without intimacy or kinship:
“95% of Joan’s life is lived below the surface and shared with no one; she is an isolated, repressed, subterranean figure. To some extent this is her “choice”, but her secrets, her history and other people’s reactions to her have also placed her in this position. She has no reliable confidante, no family, no (living) beloved – she can’t even sustain a relationship with a goldfish! And yet somehow she endures. I suspect this resonates with a number of viewers who have experienced some level of isolation, particularly when it is related to gender and sexuality, as appears to be the case with Joan.” – Quintrovert
“I find Joan’s loneliness fascinating. She never acknowledges it, and yet it constantly surrounds her. In some ways, I think she feels proud of it (because it places her above all the other women–at least in her mind), but I miss the moments–particularly in S2 and S3—when the audience can see that this forced separation and loneliness can also be a confusing hardship for her.” – JoanTheProfound
An Unconventional Woman
As one fan put it: “Joan is everything women are constantly told not to be.” Even casual followers of Wentworth can testify to Joan’s blatant disregard for convention. She defies every social contract women are silently and unknowingly forced into at birth. She’s a powerhouse of strength, authority, ambition, and sexuality. And she makes absolutely no excuses or apologies for any of it.
For the many women who love Joan, her unwillingness to compromise herself strikes a chord:
“Her refusal to fulfill social norms or conventions is absolutely delicious, because it reminds us of the power of refusal. As a woman watching the show, I find this power of refusal to be particularly resonating, because it’s in direct violation of the gendered social conditioning that many of us experience during our girlhoods (to be “good,” quiet, obedient, etc.). Joan is a BAMF because she says NO and means it!” – JoanTheProfound
Joan’s social noncompliance, both in terms of gender and morality, also compels fans to consider their own social or ethical standing:
“Through her amorality and rejection of conventional norms of femininity, she allows you as an audience member to compare, contrast and possibly even reconcile your own nature with her actions. To have a character who operates from a completely different spectrum of morality and sexuality and holds very different concepts of right-and-wrong; love, hate, desire, vengeance and betrayal; and power and control, it forces you to clarify your own moral reasoning.” – Nautilus
The Tragic Dark Angel
Over the course of the show, viewers have learned that Joan’s past is filled to the brim with pain, possible abuse, and most certainly heartache. As she battles her private anguish and learns to balance it with her ambitions, we come to understand that she’s a person of infinite potential that’s never truly or fully realized.
No matter how skilled, focused, or hardworking Joan is, she’s forever stunted by that which haunts her. Oftentimes Joan’s tragic past creates emotional and psychological roadblocks that she struggles to move past, and some fans are drawn to her because of it:
“I tend to always side with those who are misunderstood and often compare her to the likes of Severus Snape, The Phantom (from Phantom of the Opera) and Maleficent…somewhat tortured characters with a traumatic background/childhood which has shaped them into the hardened characters.” – The Saint
“I think she’s a very misunderstood woman who’s had some horrible things happen to her in her past/as a child, maybe in the form of mental/emotional and physical abuse and neglect that have caused her to be the woman she is now. She’s been starved of the basic things she’s needed to help her become a balanced human being, resulting in the closed off, vulnerable, angry, hurt, hard, not able to experience or show emotions, woman that she is now.” – Nat
“Joan is my avenging dark angel. And I think she is that to everyone that is drawn to her…She does on our behalf what sometimes we only wished in our minds we could do. She stands up for all the broken people of the world. And she does it with pride. You watch, when they do finally kill her, she will die with her head held high. Because even death will not rob her of her pride and dignity.” – Milena Toma
I, myself, fall into this last group of fans. For me, Joan puts the strange pain, disappointment, and confusion of life’s hurdles into striking perspective. We’ve seen her grapple with the torment of lost love and turn that grief into something deathly sinister. We’ve seen her carry the burden of her misfortunes squarely on her shoulders and allow it to drive her forward, and we’ve also seen her stifle it to meet the challenges of a greater purpose. Had any number of us who’ve experienced heartbreak and adversity been wired or bred differently, we may very well have followed the same path.
She’s a glimpse of who I might have become had I allowed my own pain and hardship to overrun my natural inclination toward compassion and self reflection. She’s a reminder to treat others, especially those who are different, with love and understanding. Most of all, she has served as a warning to love myself, no matter how undeserving of that I think I may be.
In many ways, watching Joan is like looking into a funhouse mirror. Despite her very obvious shortcomings, she moves in her world with incredible strength, confidence, and conviction. And this shows me that I also have the ability to overcome weaknesses and self-doubt because I, without question, exist on a higher moral and ethical plane than Joan Ferguson does—as do most of her fans.
It’s easy to dismiss what we don’t understand, as many have done with a character like Joan and the people who love her. But we, like Joan, are the total sum of our own experiences. We identify with Joan because some facet of who she is, however miniscule or unpleasant, speaks to us in deeply personal ways. That’s the beauty of this character—her complexity cultivates a broad range of human reactions and responses, each of which forces us to consider where we stand in relation to her.
In essence, Joan Ferguson accomplishes what all fictional characters should: prompt us to question ourselves, our actions, our perceptions, and our motivations. Her very existence calls us to contemplate our own prejudices when encountering someone who is “unusual” as well as make peace with the parts of ourselves we’ve struggled to accept.
Tara Martinez is a New York-based writer with a passion for pop culture and a penchant for analysis. She frequently covers film, television, and representations of women in the media.