In the new Netflix show Wednesday, the character of Wednesday Addams has been reinvented for a modern audience, but her strangeness remains faithfully intact. Expertly portrayed by Jenna Ortega, this Wednesday finds herself sent to a boarding school for literal outcasts. The students of Nevermore Academy are mythically diverse, encompassing everything from werewolves to sirens to vampires, and though they intermingle with regular society, their unique powers and abilities mark them as different among what they refer to as the “normies.” At first glance, it seems as if Wednesday is going to be right at home among what some might deem the monsters of society; however, the brilliance of Wednesday is that even among the outcasts, Wednesday is still strange, a point that’s made dramatically clear through her outfits on the show. Out of all the students at Nevermore, Wednesday is the only one who wears a variant of the school uniform. While everyone else sports royal blue and black stripes, it’s all black for Wednesday. She is the ultimate outcast, then, forever resisting categorization no matter what social circle she finds herself in.
One of the most striking things about Wednesday is that Ortega—who is of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent—is the first iteration of the character to truly touch on Wednesday’s Latina roots. There has been speculation that the Addams family has Latinx origins originating with Gomez, but Wednesday is the first depiction that truly leans into this idea. Because her mother, Morticia, is typically portrayed as white—Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Morticia in the show, is of Welsh and Irish Catholic descent—Wednesday can be seen as a mixed-race individual. Her knack for always being the outcast even among outcasts suddenly makes sense.
Though I have a Japanese American mother and a German father, my face looks wholly Asian even though 50 percent of it is dominated by whiteness. This means that I rarely have the benefit of blending in among other Asian faces, but when I am in a crowd of white people, there is also no way for me to hide the fact that I am mixed-race. Like Wednesday, my jet-black hair and olive skin tone give me away the minute I walk into certain rooms, but also like Wednesday, I have learned to embrace this part of myself, choosing to lean into my inherent ambiguity rather than shy away from it. However, growing up, this wasn’t always the case.
As a middle schooler interacting with my peers at school, my whiteness went largely unnoticed, and my role among my friends always tilted more toward the outcast sidekick than the main character. At the time, I needed a way to parse through the difficult and often-racist encounters with my peers—I was sometimes asked to impersonate the Welch’s Grape Juice girl simply because we were both Asian. I needed to find something or someone that both vindicated me and helped me find a release for the low-level anger I quietly felt every time a boy I liked ended up dating one of my white friends instead. However, my lexicon of female role models was sorely lacking back then, with Wednesday Addams and her canonical wit going largely undiscovered by me.
To be clear, it is not that I was never chosen as the desirable girl that irritated me but rather that there was even a type of societally appropriate desirable girl in the first place. If I had known there was a weird-girl alternative to the makeup and the Abercrombie & Fitch jeans and that the idea of teenage girls that I was being sold through magazines and cleverly targeted advertisements was nothing more than a bankrupt, white-centric idea of womanhood designed solely for the pleasures of men, well, maybe I would have gotten angry a lot sooner.
In the recent show, Wednesday has been given two distinct love interests. While the Addams family is not averse to romance—Morticia and Gomez can famously hardly keep their hands off of each other, and Wednesday has a crush on the asthmatic camper, Joel Glicker, in Addams Family Values—it is strange to see her caught in the middle of a love triangle here. However, by the end of the season, Wednesday remains single, and though she does briefly date one of the boys interested in her, a boyfriend is never really the main thing on her mind.
A lot can be said about this choice to make teenage romance a part of the new show, but perhaps the most important thing to glean from it all is that even if Wednesday inverts the trope of the desirable popular girl to become the desirable weird girl, she ultimately doesn’t need one of them to feel complete. When it comes to romance, her instinct to stay true to herself vastly outweighs everything else. Desirability doesn’t get in the way of her feminism because for Wednesday, it’s not about being desired.
Instead of focusing on relationships and desirability, throughout her evolution we’ve seen that Wednesday has often been an advocate for those she views as being societally oppressed. In the very first episode of the ’60s TV show, a distraught Wednesday comes home from school crying because her teacher read a story to them in which a dragon was slayed by a knight. She sobs on her bed over the thought of someone killing the misunderstood creature while Morticia and Gomez console her.
The ’90s films have perhaps the most memorable display of social resistance in Wednesday’s now-iconic takedown of Thanksgiving during her summer camp’s end-of-season play meant to celebrate the holiday. Forced to dress in a culturally insensitive Native American costume, she goes off script, telling the pilgrims. “We cannot break bread with you. You have taken the land which is rightfully ours.”
Desirability doesn’t get in the way of her feminism because for Wednesday, it’s not about being desired.
In Wednesday, this socially conscious streak continues as we see Wednesday first get expelled from her school for standing up to her brother’s bullies by performing a stint that ultimately causes one of the popular water polo players to lose a testicle to ravenous piranhas. She then embarks on an episodes-long crusade against the headmaster of Nevermore (who she views as untrustworthy) and the local sheriff (who wrongfully accuses Wednesday’s father of killing a man years ago) as she attempts to solve a series of mysterious and violent murders that have been occurring in town. The students she befriends are typically the outcasts among the outcasts—her roommate Enid is a werewolf who has yet to actually make the first transition—and she makes a conscious decision to reject joining secret societies. In fact, much of her quest to uncover the rogue murderer revolves around Wednesday receiving messages from her ancestor, Goody Addams, a Latina psychic from the Puritan era who witnessed her mother and the other people in her village get burned alive by an evil white male forefather, intent on ridding the village of everyone he deemed to be an outcast.
What’s enticing about Wednesday is that just like me, she straddles the line between whiteness and another ethnicity, but her mixed-race roots are not the defining trait of her character. Instead, it is her no-bullshit approach to the world that dominates her personality as it creates space for even the most outsider-y of outsiders to find solace. She becomes a multiracial feminist icon without allowing the multiracial and feminist aspects to solely define her. In short, she is a whole person instead of just a social symbol. This is freeing to me as someone who has grown up deeply aware of my dual ethnicities and female body. Wednesday offers up an alternative to the self-conscious tension that always seems to be at the forefront of every single one of my interactions; however, growing up, I did not have the privilege of being introduced to Wednesday Addams until the ’90s had passed me by. Instead, I spent that decade largely enmeshed with other decidedly feminist heroines like Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet M. Welsch and Sammy Keyes from Wendelin Van Draanen’s book series of the same name. However, while both of these ladies had edge, I’d be lying if I said a part of me didn’t long for a role model who was even darker and more dangerous.
Often, when people ask me what my ethnicity is, what they are really looking for is a way to define me that makes sense to them. Because I am mixed-race, I resist categorization, and this puzzles people. Perhaps it makes them uncomfortable, the not knowing, and for that reason alone I mourn the fact that I only came to Wednesday later in life. Her darkness exudes mystery, and those around her are always unable to place her into specific boxes, but Wednesday never seems troubled by this. Instead, she almost seems pleased. In Wednesday, she even goes so far as to say, “I act as if I don’t care if people don’t like me. But deep down . . . I secretly enjoy it.” Her differences bring her delight.
In many ways, Wednesday, in all her various iterations, has always represented a rejection of the status quo, but that outsider mentality is thrown front and center in the new show. For starters, the decision to create a series that revolves solely around the character of Wednesday Addams and in which the rest of her spooky-ooky family exist solely in the background is a great way to commit to the singular peculiarity of her character. Because even within her own family unit, Wednesday is the strangest of them all. She’s the dark nucleus of the Addams family, seemingly void of emotion and intent on seeking revenge. As a main character, then, she becomes the perfect example of unconventionality and, through an ironic twist of fate, is able to highlight for us all the ways in which we can learn to embrace our own inner outcasts. “I like being an island,” she tells her therapist on the show. Maybe, just maybe, if we’re lucky enough—and strange enough—she’ll let us join her on the beaches of her own eccentricity, where we can either choose to live out our days or work toward a more freeing and accepting future.
Miyako Pleines is a Japanese and German American writer living in the suburbs of Chicago. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University, and her work has appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, the Ploughshares blog, and others. She writes a column about birds and books for the Chicago Audubon Society, and you can follow her on Instagram @literary_miyako. Links to her work can be found on her website, miyakowrites.com.