This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.
Emily Alford | Longreads | November 23, 2022 | 8 minutes (2,132 words)
Midway through 1991’s The Addams Family, young Wednesday Addams attempts to supplement her family’s lost fortunes by selling poison lemonade for a nickel. Not everyone’s a willing customer. “I only like all-natural foods and beverages, organically grown with no preservatives,” a perky Girl Scout tells her, rolling her eyes in an unwitting rendition of today’s Goop-flogging wellfluencers. “I’ll buy a cup if you buy a box of my delicious Girl Scout cookies.”
“Are they made from real Girl Scouts?” Wednesday counters.
In that exchange, a hero was born.
Wednesday Addams is not like other girls. She thinks of homicide when she should be thinking of boys; she guillotines her dolls and sleeps with their discombobulated parts. At summer camp, conscripted into a drowning-rescue exercise, she gladly lets her nemesis sink beneath the water. Pale and large-eyed, fond of funereal garb, she always manages to seem both amused and joyless. But the beauty of Wednesday — or at least the version portrayed by Christina Ricci in The Addams Family and Addams Family Values — is that she wasn’t a maladapted goth waif yearning to find someone who truly understands her. Instead, she brought to the screen a morbid self-acceptance that set her apart, and became a crucial blueprint for a generation of girls developing their own gallows humor.
When she first arrived on screen in 1991, Wednesday Addams was actually like quite a lot of other cinematic girls that came to define the era: goth-lite, hex-loving, homicidal. (Think the high-school coven from The Craft.) But their darkness was almost always meant to be a metaphor for supposed teen girl self-loathing and loneliness. Not Wednesday’s. She loves dark chaos for dark chaos’s sake. Her life’s ambition is to be sentenced to a fiery death by an angry mob for dancing naked in the town square — though, as her parents insist, college comes first. She’s a rebel without a cause who isn’t torn apart by that lack of cause.
Get the Longreads Top 5 Email
Kickstart your weekend by getting the week’s best reads, hand-picked and introduced by Longreads editors, delivered to your inbox every Friday morning.
Freeing adolescent girls from the yoke of self-hatred was one of the most subversive parts of the already subversive 1990s Addams family films, which anticipated coming decades of the conservative movement’s culture-war obsession with the (straight, white, Christian) nuclear family. According to screenwriter Paul Rudnick, the title of sequel Addams Family Values was a direct jab at those ideals. “In Republican terms, ‘family values’ is always code for censorship and exclusion, and Republicans still refuse to respect or even acknowledge, for example, LGBTQ families,” Rudnick told The Hollywood Reporter in a 2018 oral history. He called a pivotal scene from the film, in which Wednesday enacts a gory retelling of the first Thanksgiving at predominately blonde, upper-class Camp Chippewa, the “ultimate revenge, on Republicans, blondes, mean girls, and bullies.”
The fact that the film fails to punish or reward Wednesday for taking that revenge is also disruptive in its own way. For hundreds of years, morality tales have either punished girls who stepped out of line or exposed them as being misunderstood and lonely. Wednesday Addams is neither. She is exactly as she appears — what Rudnick calls “something rare: a child with power.” At the end of Values, Wednesday’s would-be boyfriend delivers the kind of soliloquy that teen rom-com characters would have swooned for: “What if you met just the right man, who worshiped and adored you, who’d do anything you say, who’d be your devoted slave? Then what would you do?” Wednesday’s response? “I’d pity him.” She might want a comrade on her crusade to take down self-righteous strivers, but she doesn’t seem to need one.
Sandwiched between overwrought ’80s delicate-flower tropes and the girl-power boom of the mid-’90s, that display of blithe self-reliance became a touchstone for a generation. Nearly 30 years later, Wednesday Addams remains a perfect time capsule of Gen X’s distrust of phoniness — and proof for millennials that the very idea of “a bright side” is an illusion.
Wednesday wasn’t always this way. In Charles Addams’ original New Yorker cartoons that spawned the family, the then-unnamed child was usually silent — an oval-faced, miniature version of her vibrantly morbid mother. It was the 1960s television version of The Addams Family that began to bring Wednesday to life: morose beyond her years, yet still adorable enough for wholesome prime time. But while Wednesday remained mostly seen rather than heard, society at large was busy clutching its pearls over the fates of teenagers. Movies like Rebel Without a Cause introduced overblown fears about middle-class, suburban kids, raising the dreaded specter of “juvenile delinquency.” The ensuing moral panic characterized wayward teens as eschewing tea parties and chastity for alcohol and sex, and even a fascination with death and murder.
That midcentury paranoia spawned a cottage industry of exploitation movies about sullen, out-of-control teenage girls — the Ed Wood-penned The Violent Years chief among them — which in turn became fodder for late 1980s and early 1990s social parody. Heathers, The Craft, and Beetlejuice all featured young female protagonists who were anything but innocent, preferring to resolve their “teenage angst bullshit” with a “body count,” as Heathers’ Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) so eloquently puts it.
Like all films in which Ed Wood had a hand, The Violent Years is terrible. Overblown, sensationalist, and hilarious, the film was released just one year after Rebel Without a Cause. This time, the delinquents were well-heeled teenage girls. Discontent with pretty dresses and suburban respectability, the girls use the freedom of their gifted automobiles to drink, carouse, and murder to tragic consequences. In 1989, Heathers took up this theme to intentionally comedic effect. Dark-haired, large-eyed protagonist Veronica Sawyer would use her own upper-middle-class privilege for revenge against the social injustices of high school — after falling under the spell of her juvenile delinquent boyfriend (Christian Slater), of course.
It wasn’t Ryder’s first such performance. The year previous, Ed Wood devotee Tim Burton had cast her in Beetlejuice as Lydia Deetz, a goth, death-obsessed teenager who writes suicide notes for fun in her wealthy parents’ newly renovated farmhouse. “I am alone,” Lydia writes in one, before revising it for maximum angst: “I am utterly alone.”
But just as the punishment for failing to appreciate suburban values in The Violent Years had been death, the cure for what ailed both Sawyer and Deetz was normalcy. Sawyer eventually vanquished the bad boyfriend and used her killing spree to champion harmony in her suburban high school; Deetz got a nuclear 1950s sitcom family in the form of the ghost parents who haunt her farmhouse. It wasn’t until 1991’s The Addams Family, co-written by Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson (who had worked with Tim Burton on Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, respectively), that the murderous goth girl’s macabre worldview was treated as a feature rather than a bug.
Ricci’s Wednesday was devious, quietly furious, and most importantly, content to be so. “She’s fiendishly smart and never worries about other people liking her,” Rudnick said about his vision for the character. That may sound similar to other late ’80s and early ’90s alternative heroines, but the character’s inner confidence proved a fundamental difference.
In the masterful sequel, Wednesday seemingly exists expressly to discomfit rich white people. The script recognizes Ricci’s acting chops and deadpan delivery by giving Wednesday and her brother Pugsley their own plotline: cut off from their family at mostly-white Camp Chippewa, Wednesday unleashes vengeance upon her oppressively sunny counselors and campmates for no reason other than that she doesn’t want to smile.
When writing stories about teenage girls, there seems to be a shared temptation among screenwriters to tie any rebellious character trait to hormones. Addams Family Values resists this temptation at every turn. Values never ascribes Wednesday’s outlook to cop-outs like loneliness (as with Lydia Deetz) or lust (Veronica Sawyer); her appetite for chaos needs no excuse. “She’s at that age when a girl has one thing on her mind,” Morticia Addams tells the mother of Amanda Buckman (the Girl Scout from the previous movie, still played perfectly by Mercedes McNab).
“Boys?” Mrs. Buckman asks with a condescending smile.
“Homicide,” Wednesday answers.
For an audience of geriatric millennial girls, that exchange — along with Wednesday’s steadfast refusal to seek the belonging, boyfriends, or social status even Beetlejuice and Heathers told us we should want — was a revelation. Later in the film, Wednesday answers her camp counselor’s racist retelling of the first Thanksgiving with arrows, fire, and violence. Wednesday is not looking for acceptance. She is simply amusing herself by confronting a horde of smiling, blonde Disney enthusiasts with a taste of what it would be like to actually be held accountable for the misery upon which their comfortable lives are based.
In current internet culture, the Wednesday Addams aesthetic is stronger than ever before — a response to years of pandemic, recession, crippling student loan debt, Supreme Court decisions over the contents of our uteruses, and the radicalization of a growing number of racist extremists. My former Jezebel colleague Hazel Cills distilled the sentiment two years ago in an essay called “There Are Only 3 Moods: Lobotomy Please, Asteroid Take Me Now, I Hope I Get Abducted By Aliens”:
But truthfully, I can no longer remember a time when I wasn’t casually talking to people about how much we all wanted an asteroid to take us, now. “I want a lobotomy,” a friend will joke, and I’ll casually agree with a grin on my face, as we both settle in to read about a QAnon conspiracy theory seemingly every child on TikTok aged 13 to 19 is gobbling up like popcorn. “When are the aliens taking me?” I’ll say to nobody, scrolling through my horrible Internet feed that nobody is forcing me to looking at.
It’s a Wednesday Addams worldview: looking on the dark side for the sole reason that looking on the bright side seems like a pretty dim thing to do.
In a way, smooth-brain culture is part of a move toward earnestness in response to quite a lot of dark bullshit. (“The Great Irony-Level Collapse,” as Hanson O’Haver called it at Gawker.) When Wednesday Addams roasts her camp counselors over a spit for writing a play in which Indigenous Americans not having shampoo is a punchline, she’s funny, but she’s not joking. She’s also not lonely, not asking for social currency, and she doesn’t need to be punished for not buying into the idea that organic lemonade is the cure for what ails us. Her morbidity doesn’t stem from being a teenage girl — it stems from the fact that stuff sucks, knives are cool, and pretending that the first Thanksgiving was anything but one terrible chapter in an overall horrible story is the actual weird thing to do. Fantasizing about a lobotomy is a normal response to the last three years; believing that a $40 scented candle counts as self-care is not. That’s the lesson Wednesday Addams reinforced in a certain kind of geriatric millennial girl, and it wasn’t one we often heard.
Even though we have supposedly moved into a more enlightened age of feminist media, characters like Wednesday Addams remain outliers. A recent remake of Rebecca removed Daphne Du Maurier’s iconic villain, Mrs. Danvers, from the plot, flattening her into being simply misunderstood. A much-anticipated but largely forgotten reboot of The Craft got too tangled up in questions of witchcraft and consent to depict any memorable teenage girl characters, good or bad. A 2018 animated version of The Addams Family featured Wednesday Addams in a pink dress to make a point about either conformity or rebellion. (The point was unclear.) Save for rare exceptions like Showtime’s Yellowjackets, featuring a grown-up and still magnificent Christina Ricci, stories about death-obsessed teenage girls and women have been effectively pinkwashed, offering their characters no more nuance than the Ed Wood paranoia of old. Only now the message is that the creepy girls should be as loved and accepted as the blonde organic lemon-eaters — rather than the idea that one can simply be A Person Who Does Not Give a Shit.
A new iteration of the Addams family, Wednesday, premieres November 23 on Netflix. The series follows a “sleuthing, supernaturally infused, mystery charting Wednesday,” played by Jenna Ortega, an actor who proved in the macabre You that she could ably embody ’90s Wednesday energy if given a chance. Hopefully, the writers (as well as Tim Burton, who executive-produced the series) will remember the girls who first encountered Wednesday Addams in theaters, the girls who became goth-lite rebels without a cause. Wednesday doesn’t need the dark academic girl-power treatment so common in series like The Umbrella Academy and The Magicians. Let her remain a hero for those who aren’t lonely or self-loathing — those who simply like guillotines and funeral chic. After all, as Wednesday explains in Addams Family Values, we’re only alive because we haven’t waited long enough.
Emily Alford is a writer living in Los Angeles. A former staff writer for Jezebel, her work has also appeared at Gawker, Vox, and Buzzfeed.
Editor: Peter Rubin
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands