“Not Just Pretty Words”: Rejected Value in The Addams Family Movies

Kids love opposite day. I used to declare opposite days several times a week. If my parents said “no” to something, I would jokingly reply, “but it’s opposite day, so we’re going to”. Or, if they wanted to do something I didn’t, I would say, “on opposite day we don’t”. I never believed this would work, and it didn’t, but for some baffling reason I continued to use the line. I think part of me thought it was funny because it allowed me to politely disagree with something I had little control over. I eventually dropped it, like most children do when they learn about consent and have a tad more control in their lives, yet I continue to see playful opposite logic in film. I want to make it clear; I am not talking about ‘yes means no’, as that is a serious real-world issue, particularly in the Me-Too movement. I am also not talking about stupidity, like people who genuinely believe they are smarter than doctors or scientists. I am talking about how opposite logic functions as a playful rejection of the establishment. Opposite logic is never an outright rejection, and it never really goes anywhere. My parents didn’t agree that it was opposite day, and neither do these establishments. The insistence on opposite logic just makes things a bit more difficult, so it’s more of an infuriating, senseless, and/or funny disregard for institutional logic. Like someone cheating at a board game simply because they know the other person is taking the game far too seriously.

Fiction offers a unique opportunity to quietly critique conventional values and fashion by creating worlds where what should make sense doesn’t, or what should be grim isn’t. I often think of these worlds using Alice logic, from Alice in Wonderland. Everything in Wonderland looks somewhat familiar, they even have proper tea parties and a Queen. However, the way these figures are represented and how they behave is distorted. These distortions function as a commentary on the original or ‘real’ figure, as however strange Wonderland characters act, they are still like objects or figures in Alice’s real world. As such, whatever weirdness appears in Wonderland reflects reality. The Queen in Alice’s world, Queen Victoria, is in someway related to this violent Queen of Hearts, meaning that the Queen of Hearts is a satirical and valid criticism of that figure and the ideological/institutional structures she represents. Opposite logic is thus political, it’s a way to critique something real without directly addressing that real. It circumvents the actual discussion with a slightly distanced version of that discussion. I didn’t realize at the time, but my insistence on opposite day as child was a version of that political language. At 6, you have no control over anything that happens in your life, and there is a degree of that for adult creators who study massive ideological forces which surround and govern us. Using opposite logic gives this false sense of control, a way to reconfigure these figures or conversations, at least momentarily. But as my subject for today demonstrates, opposite logic can have real world consequences by inspiring some much-needed discussion.

“I’m Just Like Any Modern Woman Trying to Have it All…I Just Wish I Had More Time To Seek Out the Dark Forces and Join Their Hellish Crusade.”

The Addams Family began as a single panel comic for the New Yorker, and eventually transformed into a popular 60s TV show and later an influential film series in the 1990s. The creator, Charles Addams, used the comic as a satirical glance at conventional America, a contrary example of morals and sensibility. The family dwells in macabre ideas, but more importantly, they find joy in those ideas. Darkness refuses to depress them, and so they have the opposite reaction to dark subjects. It goes beyond surface level differences like fashion, they have an entirely separate emotional response to things. For instance, Morticia wants thorns rather than roses, so she cuts off the flower and leaves the thorns. She does the opposite of what everyone else does, but more importantly, she values the thing other people don’t. Morticia isn’t interested in what is conventionally celebrated, she finds value in the painful and discarded parts of the flower. That tells you everything about the Addams, they dwell in what society casts aside or doesn’t want to talk about. They give that banished thing value, but rather than restoring it to what it was before, they adore it’s discarded state. Everything from junk people have thrown away to ideas conventional society has tried to suppress to appear clean and proper.

What is especially unique about the Addams in the 1991 and 1993 films is that they don’t reject people just for being different than them. Sure, they discard the tops of roses, and judge people for being too optimistic, but they aren’t cruel without cause. Gomez is quite cheerful towards people who don’t share the Addams’s sensibility, like his lawyer in the 1991 film. He and Morticia are also good parents who care about their children’s education, even when they don’t understand it. In the second film, their son Pubert turns into a perfectly normal and lovely baby, complete with a bright coloured room and happy toys. The family is horrified, but they still make the effort to accept him. There is a fantastic scene where a bewildered Morticia reads The Cat in the Hat to her son, not understanding why the characters are still alive at the end but going along with it for her baby. As the quintessential opposite family, the Addams refuse to reject things the way that conventional society does.

During my research for this post, I saw several groups suggest that Morticia and Gomez’s good parenting is another demonstration of opposite logic. Their healthy approach to relationships and family is in opposition to the warped ideals in normative culture. They don’t try to control their children, they simply guide and help them, making little suggestions along the way. The fact their entire identity and lives come from this opposite logic implies that there is something very wrong with our conventional ideals around family and love. If the Addams’ healthy approach to these things is opposite to what conventional society does, then what does that say about us?  The Addams are happy the way they are, and whatever way they become, but they are also willing to highlight what is wrong about our society, specifically, the things we haven’t rejected and what is still very much ingrained in Western culture.

When the Addams Family first aired, TV was largely interested in sweet family, or in non-confrontational comedies about housewives and their domestic sphere. Shows that featured families always came with a specific logic, where something would go wrong, nothing too serious, and be tided or dealt with by the end of the episode. One modern criticism is that these shows refuse to address the broader political issues that were happening in that era, and when they did, they had to use a specific and somewhat dismissive tone. The wife could say or do something slightly feminist, but it had to be in a joke or about something which wouldn’t be addressed in a later episode. These shows were an extension of the predominate ideological convention, they were essentially a tool to instruct people what is good and bad, and how they should behave at home. I will say, certain shows tried to reform what was ‘good’ into a more progressive definition, but they still had to be careful about the way they did so. Enter The Addams Family, a show whose very structure is innately dismissible, and thus a telling commentary. It’s a comedy about an oddball family, the kind of people who keep a lion for a pet instead of a cat. At first glance, it seems like this family is just odd for odds sake, but as I have previously suggested, that is what makes it so noteworthy. The Addams’ manor is a distorted version of the proper home, one which is familiar enough to reflect that home and its values, like with Wonderland. For something to be opposite it must be compared to something which is not, and therefore you can never fully distinguish the opposite from its opposition, just as you can never truly distance trash from the people who call it trash and throw it away. No matter how far you throw it, it’s still connected to you in some way.

“Wednesday’s At That Very Special Age When a Girl Has Only One Thing on Her Mind.”

The opposite logic in the original Addams show is exclusively played for laughs, and although it remains a heartfelt, sweet, and funny show, it approaches this sweetness through a dark lens. For example, Wednesday carries a headless doll named Marie Antoinette, like the historic figure. In doll form, it’s a funny reference to Antoinette’s beheading, but when you think about it for a moment longer, there is a lot going on here. Wednesday, a child, not only knows who Antoinette is, and how she died, but has some level of appreciation for that figure. At least enough to name a beloved doll after her. Antoinette was notoriously ousted by her own citizens during the French Revolution, so although the Addams might enjoy the violence and darkness which arrived from the revolution, there is some recognition of what Antoinette, her death, and the way she was ousted represents. Wednesday calls the doll Marie Antoinette because it’s missing a head, not because it looks like Antoinette or is even dressed in period clothing. Her death is conditional to her identity and value in the Addams’ household, as like everything else the Addams appreciate, she was cast aside quite violently. Wednesday carrying around a doll named after a dead woman is funny in the show, but it’s also indicative of something else. Just like Morticia with the thorns or Gomez’s obsession with crashing train models. The show presents these jokes by first showing the item with value, and then having the characters destroy that value. Morticia cuts the roses herself, they don’t just appear without flowers. Gomez sets up his trains before smashing them. Wednesday probably cut her doll’s head off, as although we don’t see that moment in the show, she never complains that her doll is broken, because its broken state is the only reason she like it. She has taken a normal toy and broken it on purpose to give it meaning, and thus suggests that it represents more disregarded than complete. With a head, it would just be a boring doll. Wednesday has likewise taken a valued figure, the Queen of France, and only appreciates the moment she died, when her value as the Queen of France disappeared.

The later films also follow this rejected value model, and it’s both comedic and telling. For example, in the first film, when the family arrives at the children’s school, their teacher asks to speak with Morticia about Wednesday’s behaviour. She takes Morticia to a long wall of children’s drawings, and gestures to Wednesday’s grisly depiction of a woman being burned at a stake. The assignment was to choose an influential hero, and Wednesday picked Calpurnia Addams, her great-aunt, who was murdered because she danced “naked in the town square and enslaved a minister”. Morticia is more concerned about girls who chose the President and Jane Pauley as their heroes, as Wednesday’s drawing shows that she has a firm grasp of the politics surrounding her Aunt’s death, and why her Aunt was both controversial and admirable. Unlike this other girl who picked a Jane Pauley, Wednesday understands the process of rejection and murder, the reasons why a person or object was destroyed and why it is important to recognize that rejection. Morticia goes on to mention that she and Gomez have told Wednesday, “college first”, suggesting that Wednesday must educate herself more before fully rejecting conventional norms as her Aunt did. I find it especially funny that because the Addams operate through opposite logic, the suggestion that Wednesday will go to college is also opposite, suggesting that girls in normative homes are not encouraged enough to seek higher education and critical thought.

“Do Not Trust the Pilgrims, Especially Sarah Miller.”

I don’t want to label Wednesday under the ‘I am not like other girls’ category, because that feels quite reductive to her and women in general, and it’s also dismissive of what Wednesday actually represents. Wednesday is a child in the original show and comic, which means that she is still learning about the world and developing her style away from her parents. The cinematic Wednesday is notably older, in her young teens, and is even given a romantic interest in the second film. She knows more about this world and is independent and political in her own way. More so, Wednesday inspires others in the second film, and so she completely disregards this ‘not like other girls’ connotation, because other people do become more like her.

During her time at Camp Chippewa, Wednesday inspires a group of misfits to revolt against their oppressors, and the ideals they hold, during the thanksgiving play. There are a few layers happening in this scene, two different versions of rejection. First, before the play, Wednesday and a few other campers have been actively rejected and teased by the popular girls, and so they are rejected figures. Second, the play itself is regressive as it presents a truly ignorant view on American history and genocide, and so it rejects real world trauma. As suggested prior, Wednesday educates herself and pays attention to the darker/more accurate side of history, specifically the people, events, and objects that conventional white society either outright reject or suppress in some way. That suppression may be reworking those aspects, so they are less inconvenient, or just never talking about them. That includes the ongoing systemic and violent racism in America, particularly against Indigenous people. The camp counselors’ play is an example of that suppression, as they have ‘adjusted’ colonial violence to fit a white saviour model. They also cast Wednesday, the palest person in existence, as Pocahontas, which is also extremely racist. I should say, Wednesday’s speech, where she highlights how this narrative is wrong and damaging, and then rebels against the camp, is a sort of uncomfortable white saviour moment, as no indigenous people get to speak for themselves in the film. The implication is that at least Wednesday is calling out this behaviour and trying to be an ally. The scene also went on to be quite famous, and I still see people sharing it every Thanksgiving as a reminder of where this holiday comes from and why it’s important to call out these idealized and just blatantly racist narratives. That said, I don’t know how to respond to this scene. I have heard people critique and praise it for different reasons. The play is racist, and the film wants us to recognize that, but the scene itself also falls into cultural appropriation and stereotype while trying to critique that appropriation.

“Family Values”

The Thanksgiving play scene also demonstrates that Wednesday has already begun drawing attention to what normative white society doesn’t want to talk about, just as her witchy Aunt did. And she hasn’t even gotten to college yet, like her mother wants, where she may learn more critical thinking or even dismantle some regressive academic ideologies. Tim Burton’s upcoming Netflix series supposedly takes place at college or high school and focuses on a young adult Wednesday. Perhaps they can spend more time focusing on what it means to study rejection, death, and the ‘so-called’ ideal which suppress and dominate. Although now that I say that, Burton’s films feature almost entirely white casts and white male production crew, so there is a good chance they will just walk away from that characterization rather than expanding or diversifying it. I’m going to withhold judgement until I see the show (I am writing this in July of 2021) as I am sure it will be at least entertaining and have some fun moments. Maybe it will feature a diverse cast and further this Wednesday discussion in really interesting ways. The thing I’ve realized about the various Addams’ projects is that although each of them are political, they are never outright about those politics. I think the only exception to that is the second film, Addams Family Values, which is inherently political. Take the title, which was a direct response to real world events. The then Vice-Presidential Candidate had made ridiculous claims that the 1992 Los Angeles riots were caused by the breakdown of family values, rather than broad systemic racism and inequality, and so the term ‘family values’ came with a political criticism. According to Anjelica Huston, who plays Morticia, the film is fully intended to be read politically, noting:

 “It was definitely a political commentary. ‘Family Values’ was a phrase that was used by the Republicans to describe what should be normal, or…right in America. Which is, of course, preposterous”.

Screenwriter Paul Rudnick likewise notes:

“I did also want the movie’s name to be a response to the Republican Party’s constant harping on ‘family values’, as if only conservatives could define a loving family. 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. I like to believe that the Addams family is far more loving and accepting than their enemies.”

I mention these quotes because I believe it’s crucial to understand what is happening inside Addams Family projects, as it’s not just a matter of them doing unconventional or opposite things. They don’t choose to be opposite, but it’s also not just the way they are. They educate themselves and their children, and that critical thought is why they behave in such a way. They know what they represent, what other people think of them, and they do it anyway. They are also comfortable and confident about themselves because they are not modelling after some idealized and ultimately impossible norm. They are honest while also being ridiculous.

Take Morticia and Gomez’s relationship, which is often heralded as an extremely healthy representation of family and sex. The original show marks one of the first times television suggested that active sexuality exists, as it’s abundantly clear that Morticia and Gomez have sex, even though its never fully addressed in the show. That representation contrasts the very sexless characters appearing in this classic sitcom era, where couples had separate beds and women became pregnant, but rarely visibly, and then had children without any discussion. The Addams have that discussion in their second film, in a scene which feels like a reference to that censored era.

Wednesday and Pugsley sit in the hospital waiting room with a little girl, who is busy telling them about how her parents went to a cabbage patch and came back with a baby. Pugsley nods, not entirely unsympathetic, and notes, “our parents are having a baby too”, to which Wednesday adds, “they had sex”. The film cuts away after this comment, so we don’t see the little girl’s reaction, but she’s probably quite shocked. Her parents lied and tried to create this impossible pastel reality where storks deliver babies, which like the later Thanksgiving scene, Wednesday has no patience for. Her parents are very straightforward about most things in life, and although they protect their kids, they don’t lie to them. They clearly talk to them about things and then let them make up their own minds about it. We again get this sad implication that what is a healthy approach to parenting and sex life is in opposition to conventional society, which would rather just ignore these aspects than talk about them.

The Addams films are satirical comedies, but even in their extreme opposite logic, they remain relevant. These issues are not a joke, rather, the discomfort people have to these issues, and the bizarre ways they try to suppress or redefine these issues, is the joke. Like Wednesday’s teacher assigning an inspirational hero task, and then having no idea how to handle an actual discussion about heroism, femininity, violence, and legacy, the very reasons that inspirational women must act in the first place.

The 1991 film mentions that the Addams family motto is, “Sic Gorgiamus Allos Subjectatos Nunc” or “We Gladly Feast on Those Who Would Subdue Us”, which is a rather perfect demonstration of the Addams’ opposite politics. Specifically, the term “subdue”. While the Addams are interested in suppressed or subdued material, they refuse to be subdued themselves. They are active figures who miraculously avoid death, no matter how many times Wednesday electrocutes her brother or tries to kill another with a bowling ball. They are not even dismayed by the concept of death, as their descendants will continue to séance and engage with them. They live on, they feast on those who reject them, like a worm on a corpse who doesn’t know they are decomposing. The Addams also resurrect information, merely by speaking Latin, a dead language. And as Morticia notes after declaring this motto, these are “not just pretty words”, they mean something and will not be discarded. The Addams are not just contrary, they know who, or what, would try to subdue them, and they are not afraid. Conventional people act in a certain way to avoid being rejected. But those who are already rejected have nothing to fear, they are fear, and thus political.  

Want to read more? Check out my post on the original Addams’ TV show.

Works Cited

Abrams, Simon. “The Hidden Message of ‘Addams Family Values’”. The Hollywood Reporter, 2018.

“Addams Family Values.” Production Notes, Wikipedia.