Generational Cycles – Wednesday Addams
Kobus Cilliers | On 22, Mar 2020
Twenty-six years after their last big-screen outing, the Addams Family is back in theatres this month. And yes, still creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky (now also digitally animated). The family, created by the cartoonist Charles Addams, has been featured across magazines, films, television and a stage musical over the last 80 years. The Addams’ have had a profound influence on American comics, cinema and television, and has been seen as an inspiration for the goth subculture and its fashion. According to some social commentators, the family “are one of the most iconic families in American history, up there with the Kennedys”. Similarly, Time has compared “the relevance and the cultural reach” of the family with those of the Kennedys and Roosevelts, “so much a part of the American landscape that it’s difficult to discuss the country’s history […] without mentioning them”. The Addamses are a satirical (Principle 13) inversion of the ideal 20th-century American family: an odd wealthy aristocratic clan who delight in the macabre and are seemingly unaware, or do not care, that other people find them bizarre or frightening. As such, they tell us something important about the world we live in that is only possible in fiction.
Over the course of their 80-year history, much of the Addams’ raison d’etre has remained constant and free from any apparent generational bias or effect. Much but not all. In that it would also be fair to say that one character in particular has very definitely shifted over the flow of generational years. And that is the daughter, Wednesday — who was seen as a cherubic little girl in the 1960s to a stern and frightening adolescent in the 1990s to a lovesick teenager in the 2010s.
Here’s a closer look at how Wednesday has been depicted in many variations by those writing, drawing and playing her:
The New Yorker (1938-1988)
In Charles Addams’ drawings, Wednesday wore a conservative collared dress and had an oval-shaped head with dark hair framing the side of her face. While other Addams Family members had white circles with black pupils for eyes, Wednesday had small black ovals, which gave the character a more melancholy appearance. Many of her popular interests were first introduced in the pages of The New Yorker, including her fondness for beheading dolls, her interest in octopi and her antagonistic relationship with her brother, Pugsley. Addams, by the way, didn’t name any of the Addams Family characters until they were developed for television in the 1960s. He named Wednesday after the nursery rhyme “Monday’s Child,” which includes the line “Wednesday’s child is full of woe.”
‘The Addams Family’ Series (1964-1966)
In 1964, ABC introduced the first live-action Addams Family television series, which debuted a week before another spooky family sitcom, “The Munsters.” In the pilot episode, Wednesday (Lisa Loring) is the first member of the family to appear onscreen, and she welcomes a visitor to her family’s not-so-humble abode. While the show hints at the character having a darker edge, Wednesday, as played by the 6-year-old Loring, is mostly just adorable. Even when she talks about chopping off her doll’s head or feeding her pet spider, there’s an inherent sweetness to her. The television series primarily focused on the matters of Wednesday’s parents, Gomez and Morticia (John Astin and Carolyn Jones), so Loring’s screen time was rather limited throughout the two-season run. In one memorable highlight, Wednesday shows off some truly unexpected moves when she teaches the family’s butler, Lurch, to dance.
‘The Addams Family’ Animated Series (1973)
NBC resurrected the Addams Family for a brief stint with this children’s series, produced by Hanna-Barbera. The show took great liberties with the characters: Instead of staying cooped up, the Addamses traveled around the country in an RV that looks like their house, all while having various supernatural adventures. The Wednesday of this series resembled Addams’s drawings in appearance, but instead of her classic dark get-up, she was costumed in bright pink. Additionally, she was given a much sunnier disposition.
‘The Addams Family’ (1991) and ‘Addams Family Values’ (1993)
For the first Addams Family feature film, Wednesday received a reinvention that hewed much closer to the dark sense of humor in Charles Addams’s cartoons. As played by Christina Ricci, then 10 years old, Wednesday is a sadistic preteen exhibiting dry, deadpan wit and a taste for torture. With her pale skin, wide forehead and sullen demeanor, Ricci looks like an Addams drawing come to life. She is easily the movie’s breakout character, voicing whatever thoughts come to her mind and not caring what anyone else thinks. In both the 1991 film and its sequel, “Addams Family Values,” Wednesday engages in activities far more unsettling than either of her previous incarnations: She electrocutes Pugsley; drops her baby brother, Pubert, from the roof; buries a cat alive; and takes down the cultural insensitivity of Thanksgiving in a way that ends with a summer camp in flames. The role effectively launched Ricci’s career, and this Wednesday would prove to be influential for an entire generation of sullen teenage girls.
‘The Addams Family’ on Broadway (2010)
The Adams’ next biggest cultural moment was the debut of a musical on Broadway in 2010. Now portrayed as an 18-year-old, Wednesday has fallen in love with a “normal” guy, and the plot involves her bringing him home to meet the family. Krysta Rodriguez originated the role on Broadway, and in perhaps the greatest stylistic departure of all the Wednesdays, her hair was cut into a short bob rather than maintaining her trademark braids. The lovestruck teenager take on the character would likely have made Ricci’s Wednesday scoff — her big solo in the musical even shares that she’s developing a growing interest in Disney World and Chia Pets.
‘The Addams Family’ (2019)
In the new film, Wednesday (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz) is designed closer to Charles Addams’s cartoons, with some notable flourishes: Her trademark black braids now end in nooses, which were a recurring item in many of Addams’s drawings, and her dress is embroidered with tiny skulls on the hemline. She still maintains her interests in shooting crossbows and setting things on fire, but she also develops a desire to experience the outside world, which causes some friction with her mother. Whereas other teenage girls would cut their hair and start wearing black, rebellion for this Wednesday is wearing pink and donning a unicorn barrette.
And here’s what the Wednesday Addams story looks like when plotted onto a Generations Map:
For me, one of the first conclusions to be drawn from this picture is how the periodic re-invention of Wednesday Addams fits so well with the shifting generations when we consider the primary age-group the character was designed to appeal to.
Secondly, if we look at the primary characteristics of the different generations of audience it is almost uncanny how well the relevant Wednesday appeals to those characteristics:
Suffocated Artists: in the original cartoons, Wednesday is largely invisible; in the 2019 animation she’s somewhat more visible, but her ‘rebellion’ is against Morticia rather than life at large.
Indulged Prophets: Wednesday is cute as a button… just like all Boomer infants.
Abandoned Nomads: by far the most radical representation of Wednesday: Christina Ricci pretty much steals the film – she gets all the best lines and is about as full of ‘inevitable’ doom and gloom as it is possible to be.
Protected Heroes: making the stage Wednesday older was an attempt to appeal to the emerging ‘Heroic’ traits of the Millennial generation. The writers seemed to have concluded that there was nothing ‘heroic’ about doom and gloom, and therefore turned Wednesday into a much more conventional positive role model hero.
I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s almost like Hollywood uses the Generation cycles model.