Finding a Hero in Wednesday Addams as a Closed, Neurodivergent Tween ‹ Literary Hub

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“Have you ever been told you were different, strange or just out of place? In a world full of norms, do you feel like an outcast? So says Principal Larissa Weems (Gwendoline Cristie) as she presents Nevermore Academy in the next Netflix series Wednesday. In Tim Burton’s adaptation of the classic Charles Addams cartoon, which premieres Nov. 23, Nevermore Academy receives Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) after his eighth expulsion from public school, this time for castrating the jock resident and school bully. This school for the “gifted” becomes the setting for mischief, murder and mayhem in a series centered on one of cinema’s most iconic goth girls.

Amid all the live action and animated iterations of Wednesday over the past 60 years, my closed, teenage, autistic heart still clings to Cristina Ricci’s wonderfully deadpan performance in Addams Family Values. I was nine years old in 1993, just old enough to see the PG movie at the cinema. None of the animated Disney offerings I’ve seen so far –The little Mermaid, Aladdin, The beauty and the Beast– prepared me for the thrill of live action from Addams Family Values. From the moment Wednesday appeared on screen, sawing posts off his staircase and speculating about whether to kill one of his siblings, I was captivated.

Growing up in an atheist and “broken” home in an Ireland still beholden to the Catholic Church, I felt an immediate kinship with the Addams family and their disjunction from the world around them. We may not have looked like the Addams – for starters, we lived in a cut-out cardboard bungalow in a nowhere suburb, rather than a spooky mansion in the middle of a treeless wasteland – but my family felt out of place too. in Ireland the Addams must have felt safe at Camp Chippewa, where they arrived en masse to drop off Wednesday and his brother Pugsley. In particular, it was Wednesday that captured how deeply alienated I felt from everyone around me.

At Camp Chippewa, Wednesday is confronted with the world of teenage girls from which she has apparently been sheltered in the cocoon of the Addams Clan. They are perky and cheerful, with “hair the color of the sun” and “skin like fresh milk”. Mercredi refuses the imposition of an acceptable femininity all around her, remaining true to her pale solemnity and shapeless black blouses.

At nine, I already suspected that I wasn’t quite like the other girls, or at least not the image they projected. I didn’t see the point of dolls and I hated dresses. I preferred to read or play alone rather than play with girls, whose activities could be incredibly stressful because I rarely understood what was going on or what was expected of me. Wednesday’s denial of social norms was a balm for my own sense of alienation from the world around me. But beneath my hero worship, something deeper throbbed.

Like so many gay kids trying to figure out their sexuality with little to no exposure to homosexuality (at least in a positive light), it was hard to tell if I wanted be Wednesday or kiss it. It took years before I could admit it could be a bit of both.

Wednesday’s troubles at camp begin when his rebellious streak brings him into a direct confrontation with camp leaders Gary and Becky. Her refusal to play the role of Pocahontas—not for reasons of appropriation, but because the play is “puerile and undramatized”, devoid of “any sense of Aristotelian structure, character, or units”—makes her send her, Pugsley, and fellow outcast Joel to the Harmony cabin. Subjected to hours of behavior modification therapy (of the Disneyfied kind), they are supposed to learn that no matter “how weird or pale or chubby they are”, they can still have a “really good time, let them like it or not. Wednesday emerges seemingly transformed, declaring, “I’m not perky, but I want to be. I want to smile, sing, dance and be Pocahontas in Gary’s vision. She ends the speech with her first smile in the entire movie, much to the horror of the assembled campers.

In Tim Burton’s hands, Wednesday’s “outcast” status becomes the lifeblood of the entire series.

Wednesday’s pressure to change, to conform, to behave like a “normal” teenager comes directly from the norms. Within her family’s protective bubble, Wednesday is cherished for her precocity and murderous tendencies. In my case, the pressure to behave like a “normal girl” came from both inside and outside my family. While my eccentric taste in fashion was tolerated, my “clever mouth” was not. I was repeatedly informed that my face was fake, my voice was fake, my body was fake.

I was sent to group therapy for children of separated parents, then later for counseling. None of these measures were intended to understand me, but to fix me. When the interventions inevitably failed, I was simply punished, deprived of privileges, and excluded from family activities. No one, let alone me, knew or suspected that an undiagnosed neurodivergence could explain the seizures and my inability to conform to gendered and neurotypical expectations.

The lack of knowledge and understanding of autism – and how it presents to anyone who is not a young white male, especially in the 1990s – has meant that many girls like me have no never been identified as autistic. I was finally diagnosed less than a year ago, I had just turned 37. Perhaps I was lucky to have flown under the radar, because as painful as some of these experiences were, I was spared the “Harmony Hut” style intervention of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). Rather than embracing neurodivergence, ABA has been forced upon generations of autistic children so they learn to act “normal” – engaging in socially and age-appropriate conversations, establishing contact visual and smiling.

The unsuspecting viewer of Addams Family Values could be fooled into thinking that Wednesday, in learning to smile, turned away from the dark side and towards respectability. We quickly realize that this is nothing but excitement. Wednesday plays the long game, appeasing Gary and Becky and tricking other campers while preparing for his outcast rebellion – an iconic showdown between his troop of Chippewa outcasts against WASPish Pilgrims, guided by Wednesday’s glorious determination to burn the white supremacist ahistorical, and ground ableist summer camp.

(It should be noted here, as Elissa Washuta pointed out to Electrical literature, this Wednesday and his aristocratic family, with their inherited wealth of unknown origin, are still settlers on Turtle Island. Additionally, none of her band of Chippewas are native, and while her rhetoric against injustice is compelling, Wednesday, in brownface, speaks on behalf of peoples with whom she likely has little or no connection. .)

Over the past three decades, the Addams Clan has become both weirder and queer. Tim Burton’s imagination of a teenage Wednesday goes one step further in accepting his outsider status, and while not overtly neurodivergent, his character and school are coded in language and characteristics. familiar to neurodivergent communities. Autistic people don’t have many on-screen characters that we can celebrate. Shows like the The Big Bang Theory, Atypicaland the new canceled As we see have been criticized by the autism community to reinforce stereotypes of the socially awkward white male math whiz, or to dwell on autistic behavior as a deficit and nuisances for those around us.

As someone who went undiagnosed for most of my life, I turned to on-screen outcasts like Wednesday who helped me feel less alone in a confusing and often hostile world. The things we love most about Wednesday — her “resting bitch face” and monotonous voice, for starters — are common autistic traits. As the Wednesday series creators said, she’s a socially awkward outcast, a classic outsider, who sees things mostly in black and white and “says the things the rest of us wish we could say”. In Tim Burton’s hands, Wednesday’s “outcast” status becomes the lifeblood of the entire series.

Autistic people are pathologized for their outspokenness, honesty and way of speaking, “strange” tastes and “strange” behaviors. Ricci and Ortega Wednesdays aren’t just celebrated for those traits, they steal the show. As an aging, autistic, queer goth girl, I’m excited to see if 2022’s reimagining of Wednesday Addams can push the canon a step further toward a celebration of powerful and compelling neurodivergent characters.

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