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The Curiously Queer History of Wednesday Addams




Addams Family Values is an exquisitely campy film, and the perfect film for Thanksgiving, when many queer people have to hide parts of themselves to return home to see family. And with a cast of gay icons like Christina Ricci, Angelica Houston, Christine Baranski, and Joan Cusack, do the gays need more reason to love this film? How about queer screenwriter Paul Rudnick (Jeffrey, Sister Act), who took the film's title from once-Vice President Dan Quayle's treatise on declining American values? Or how about the complex, intriguing, and very queer history of Wednesday Addams' creation: a parody of a parody of a parody of America's Sweetheart:


"America's Sweetheart" Shirley Temple was a Depression-era creation, whose pluck and determination in the face of hardship served as an emblem for the period. With films like Heidi, Curly Top, and Dimples, Shirley Temple was already a toyetic property herself, and easily translated into a collectable commodity by Ideal Toy Corporation in 1936. Not everyone was so enthralled by Temple's "living doll" aesthetic, including Salvador Dali, who painted her with the body of Sphinx and dubbed her "Shirley Temple, The Youngest, Most Sacred Monster of the Cinema in Her Time."


Shirley Temple's sweet image was subverted in 1956's domestic thriller The Bad Seed, in which 8-year old Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) commits murders but hides her crimes by perfectly performing innocence. Promotional stills mimicked Temple's "doll with a doll" publicity shots, and just to drive the parody home, Rhoda kills a young boy with her tap shoes! Besides being a camp classic, The Bad Seed is notable as being written by novelist William March, whom we now know to be a deeply closeted young writer who saw Rhoda as a cypher for himself, with her inherent psychopathology a representation of the self-loathing that March felt towards his own queerness.


The 1964 television program The Addams Family (adapted from Charles Addams's comics) was one of the most counter-culture programs of the 1960s! The show itself was a thin metaphor for the experience of minorities (particularly African Americans) in planned suburban communities like Levittown, PA. Residents of the town would continually scheme to evict the family, but the Addams' home would fight back, as carnivorous plants, living bearskin rugs, pet octopi and piranhas would threaten to consume them. The Addams family was the freakshow that fought back. And Wednesday Addams is a clever parody of Rhoda Penmark, except her doll Marie has lost her head!


Which brings us to the cinema's Wednesday Addams, played pitch-perfectly by Christina Ricci and evidencing all of the heteronormativity-hating black magic that we all hope to possess. She strikes terror in the Shirley Temple-like princesses of Camp Chippewa, she laughs at the "purile and unrefined" talents of her suburban counselors, and she sees through Debbie's overworked performance of hetero-femininity. In Rudnick's hands, she becomes the avatar of queer postcolonial rage, forming a progressive coalition of disenfranchised, multiracial, and handicapped subjects to tear down the false narratives of American history. "Do not trust the Pilgrims," says Wednesday. "Especially Sarah Miller." Lest we forget, the Pilgrims were a religious sect that imagined themselves persecuted for their faith, all the while using their faith to persecute others. Finally, we're teaching some real family values!




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