Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wednesday Addams, Smasher of the Patriarchy

What does it mean to be a little girl? There's so much cultural baggage associated with female childhood. On the one hand, little girls are pure and innocent and needing of protection. They're the emotional backdrop of a thousand action movies - the father must get home and save his darling little girl. On the other hand, little girls are threatening. They're creepy. They're the demons of a thousand horror movies - the family unit must save itself from the imprecations of a terrifying little girl who wants to destroy them.

And then there's Wednesday Addams. She's another thing entirely.

Wednesday Addams was the hero of my childhood. A little girl who looked sort of like me, who was pasty and awkward, but who took no crap from anyone. Who defended her right to self-determination with a vengeance if needed. Who spoke up for those who weren't given a voice. Who set fire to her enemies. I'm not saying it was healthy or tame, but she was my favorite character as a child. In a lot of ways, she still is.

She's not nice, she's not fragile, she's not kind or sweet or even vaguely pleasant. She's mean and angry and cynical and disaffected and sarcastic and snide and everything I wanted to be as a child. She's also an intersectional feminist. And a little girl. She's the best.

The Addams Family movies of the early nineties (The Addams Family and Addams Family Values) were the kind of movies that never really made sense logically, but somehow worked all the same. They were loose on plot and big on tone, with outlandish storylines pretty much just there so that the actual Addams family had something to react to. 

The movies were like extended improv sessions, where we stuck the Addams family members in weird situations and got to watch how they reacted. See Gomez and Morticia go to parent teacher meetings! Watch Wednesday and Pugsley at summer camp! What's an Addams family wedding like? A birthday party?

The point of the movies was never the plot, but rather the experience of the characters in contrast to the world around them, and as long as you remember that, the movies hold up very well. They're still fun and weird and kooky and occasionally deeply disturbing. They're still deeply ridiculous. And Wednesday is still really, really threatening.

That's right, threatening. Part of why I loved these movies so much as a kid was because Wednesday, far from being a delicate flower, or even playing second fiddle to her brother, is arguably the most dangerous character in the whole story. She has a sense of apathy and morbid misery mixed in with a violent streak and superhuman strength. She's very threatening. Especially to everyone she views as, well, a threat.

Now, admittedly, most of this is coming from Addams Family Values. While I really do enjoy The Addams Family, it's not until the second movie that Wednesday's character really crystalizes, and there's a good reason for that. Simply put, in the second movie, she's at precisely the right age to perfectly subvert our expectations of girlhood.

In Family Values, Wednesday is directly prepubescent. A tween, if that were ever an appropriate word to apply to her. She's just on the cusp of developing hormonal urges, secondary sexual characteristics, and a more formed idea about who she herself will be as an adult. But, she is still a child, so she still occupies that cultural space of supposed innocence and vulnerability. She's at once both a potentially developed teen, and a fragile child.

The movie directly addresses this dissonance early on. When Wednesday and Pugsley are dropped off at summer camp - as part of a duplicitous plot to get them out of the way - one of the other moms comes up to Morticia and asks after Wednesday. Morticia responds, "Oh, Wednesday's at that very special age a girl has just one thing on her mind."

"Boys?" asks the excited upper class white woman.


The expectation for Wednesday in this movie, at least the expectation of those around her, is that she fit into either one or the other roles of idealized femininity. Either she can be a pure and adorable child, something Wednesday is not naturally inclined towards, or she can be a teenage temptress, something she similarly has little interest in. Throughout the film the camp counselors try to turn Wednesday into a normal child, punishing her with Disney movies and singalongs, while a secondary plot tempts her with the offer of romance, albeit romance with an asthmatic, morbid fellow outcast.

It's telling then that Wednesday eschews both of these options. She flirts with Joel (David Krumholtz), but is very ambiguous about whether or not she wants his attention. While at one point she does say a tearful goodbye to him, using endearments and kissing his cheek I think, later she seems utterly uninterested in his existence, and admits that if someone loved her as much as he implies he does, she would pity him and probably murder him.

So, not so much the icon of seductive femininity. But neither is she a convincing child, because Wednesday possesses a level of awareness about the world and frankly alarming superhuman strength that make it virtually impossible to view her as someone in need of protection. Because she isn't someone in need of protection. She's not just virtually unkillable, she's also unconcerned with her own safety. She's not afraid, and weirdly that's much more terrifying.

Wednesday isn't scared of what might happen to her, she's only afraid of being forced to submit to cultural standards she doesn't agree with. She's perfectly willing to risk life and limb (hers and other people's), but she's terrified of Disney movies. I would say that if she fears anything, it's becoming normal.

And that's a powerful message. The idea that the biggest thing we have to fear is not abnormality but the loss of what makes us distinct. It's especially poignant coming from Wednesday, because what makes her distinct is so, well, distinctive. As Joel says when Wednesday asks if he'll ever forget her, "How could I? You're too weird."

But let's bring all of this back around again: how is Wednesday Addams a smasher of the patriarchy? Because she uses this discomfort around her, the fact that adults and her peers have absolutely no way to categorize her and her place in society, to sabotage them. She uses her place as a "child" to speak truth to power, and as a "woman" to make them uncomfortable. I mean, the best example of this, and my favorite moment of the movie, is when Wednesday destroys the camp's end of summer play.

The play is horrible, a mawkish retelling of the first Thanksgiving that somehow manages to be more offensive than usual. The main character is Sarah Miller, played by Wednesday's blonde camper nemesis, Amanda, and Sarah Miller goes on long speeches about how superior Western culture is, before admitting Pocohontas, played by Wednesday, and her tribe - played by all of the other camp outcasts. 

Wednesday plays along with the script for a few lines, and then takes it on a rapid detour:
"Wait, we can not break bread with you. You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans, and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the road sides, and you will play golf. My people will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stick shifts. The gods of my tribe have spoken. They said do not trust the pilgrims. And especially do not trust Sarah Miller. For all these reasons I have decided to scalp you and burn your village to the ground." 
Which they then proceed to do.

Now, this speech is wonderful because it so directly confronts all of the assumptions made earlier in the play, and because it speaks up on behalf of those who are being misrepresented, even though they are not there to defend themselves.* But it's also wonderful because it's the kind of thing that only a child could say. Specifically a little girl. I mean, if a boy said that, can't you imagine the camp directors just picking him up and dragging him off the stage? If a teenage girl were to say it, she would be ruining something for children. If an adult said it, well they wouldn't be given the opportunity would they?

Wednesday is the only character in the film who can make that speech, and it's all the more powerful for how it subverts their expectations of her. It's also worth noting that this speech is followed by a strong reversal. Wednesday, Pugsley, Joel, and the other camp outcasts (who are notably children of color and differing abilities) overthrow the camp leadership, burn the campgrounds, and are actually seen roasting their camp directors on a spit.

The idea of course being that if you're not afraid of anything, then you can accomplish pretty much whatever you set your mind to. Wednesday isn't afraid of repercussions or bodily harm, and she has the assurance that her family will support her no matter what, so she's emboldened to act out. She smashes the patriarchy, really literally, and she can get away with it because she's a little kid. No one's expecting it. Arguably by this point in the movie they really should be, but they're not.

I'm not saying Wednesday is perfect. She isn't. She's still a very privileged white girl from an unusual but still pretty standard background. She hails from a nuclear family and has never known want or hunger (except maybe voluntarily because she's weird). 

But that's honestly okay. She's a slightly problematic representation of intersectional feminism, but at least she is a representation of intersectional feminism. And, even better, she's an unapologetically outspoken dissenter. She's sure of who she is and what the world ought to be, and she's perfectly comfortable telling everyone that. With a smirk and a sneer and a withering glance.

Hell yes, Wednesday Addams is smashing the patriarchy by not conforming to social expectations, being a creeptastic little girl, and inviting you to join her. Right on.

*Arguably one of the only big criticisms that can be made of this movie from a thematic standpoint is that this speech is given by Wednesday, an upper class white girl, rather than an actual Native American, but it would be hard to change that in the narrative without drastically changing the story, and I think it's worth having someone say it at least. Still, worth noting, the upper class white privileged girl really doesn't speak for everyone.


  1. I recently watched this movie by chance and laughed for pretty much the entire thing. I am absolutely positive somebody involved in the creation somewhere was definitely a proto-punk subversive, what with the critiques of consumerism, the white kids chanting PRIVILEGE!, and my favorite, the way Gomez addresses the stripper in the cake. In any other movie that would have devolved into a cringe-worthy joke at her expense (because who cares if strippers die?), and in this one he calls her a poor girl (never a stripper/sexualized anything) and the joke is about the Addams, and their general moribidity. Loved. It.

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  2. I read all the article! You are right in many many many things. And i have a doubt for you (or whoever wants to) to answer: Did Wednesday REALLY liked Joel? Because along the movie it appears so. But the end can have a lot of interpretations (That she intended to kill Joel because he brought the subjetc of marry, That she didn't planned anything at all but still smiles on seeing Joel screaming because she still is a sadistic bitch XD. Wether she WISHED that Joel die there or not, etc.)

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