Tag Archives: Jenna Ortega

Is Wednesday Addams a Mary Sue?

Who cares? Not me. Maybe you? Ooh, you’re not going to get along with this article. ‘Is Wednesday Addams a Mary Sue?’ skips right on past any conversation about whether the series “Wednesday” is good or bad, and what we might like or dislike about the character. It goes straight to debating a categorization Camille Bacon-Smith once defined as “self-imposed sexism”. Yet where once it was self-imposed, these days it’s often groups of men online throwing the term at Rey, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Naru…basically any woman lead who displays competence.

Let’s start with whether the series is worth your watch. The Addams Family spinoff is most closely linked to the 90s movies directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. The role once played by Christina Ricci is assumed by Jenna Ortega, essentially without missing a beat. Disengaged with teenage life and too troublesome to handle, Wednesday is shipped off to Nevermore Academy, a high school for supernatural outcasts like herself.

“Wednesday” is good, it’s funny, and it resurrects a deadpan humor that I didn’t know I missed until the show started cracking monotone one-liners. While the broad strokes of the supernatural high school mystery are all there, Wednesday’s utter lack of interest in engaging with the most tiresome tropes is what breathes life into the series.

The characters are well realized, the music fitting and clever, and the set design is what you’d expect out of a series with Tim Burton’s involvement. Despite a cast that involves Gwendoline Christie, Christina Ricci, Riki Lindhome, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Luis Guzman, it still might be a bit too familiar to the teen supernatural subgenre if not for Jenna Ortega’s leading role – and to be fair, Victor Dorobantu’s performance as her sidekick, the severed hand named Thing.

It’s like one of those chemistry experiments where you add a bunch of interesting ingredients and nothing happens, but then you drop gothanium into it and suddenly the room’s filled with deadly interdimensional soapfoam worms coming straight at you. Ortega’s already got my performance of the year (so far) for a film with “The Fallout”, and now she has an argument in “Wednesday” for performance of the year for a series.

That Ortega’s required to elevate it all isn’t a criticism given that the series is purpose-built for Ortega to elevate it all. It’s exactly what the series sets out to do, which is a joy to see for someone who’s already one of our best actors. If macabre humor is your thing, then “Wednesday” is probably going to be your thing. Not to be confused with Thing, who’s Wednesday’s Thing.

But what about the criticism that Wednesday Addams is too capable? This is coming from both women and male critics (including Jenna Scherer at A.V. Club and Sarah Milner at Slash Film), as well as spurring the usual misogynist forums into a froth.

I understand the criticism of a Mary Sue, the basic concept being that a dude gazing at his navel has figured out a way he can fight people on the internet today. The origin of the term ‘Mary Sue’ comes from a 1970s fanfiction about original flavor Star Trek, where a woman’s satirical self-insert character is treated as beautiful, uniquely talented, honest, diplomatic, skillful, desired – you know, all the things creator Gene Roddenberry made Captain Kirk. For another example of a Mary Sue, consider Superman, who flies and fights and laser eyes and freezy breathes and x-ray sees and saves swooning damsels and everyone loves and is only ever not good at something by comparison when he’s just not quite as amazing as a god-tier villain for half-a-second before he wins anyway cause he remembers the power of friendship or family or taking a step further away from kryptonite. But doing this as a woman, which everyone agreed for decades would add a layer of unreality to the whole affair.

Truth is, we’re fine with Mary Sues. We always have been. They just have to be men. And I’d love to be making a feminist comment here and maybe I should be or maybe this is anyway, but really, I’m starting from a storytelling one. A Mary Sue is like any other character – they can be written well, or badly. There’s got to be a purpose to making someone a Mary Sue, just as there has to be a purpose to making any character an anything-at-all.

Does the term even belong? In modern usage, the requirement for the character to be a self-insert has been shorn away, though Bacon-Smith pointed out 30 years ago that this element is inherently hypocritical. It judges a woman character self-insert in Star Trek fanfiction when Star Trek wouldn’t exist without Roddenberry’s male one. This highlights that male self-inserted heroes are the norm and expected – Bacon-Smith argued that the term ‘Mary Sue’ is already sexist on the basis of criticizing women for what it assumes is normal for men. If the term’s inherently broken before it’s even applied to any material, then what value can it possibly have? Critics like Bacon-Smith and MaryAnn Johanson have argued that the term itself is self-suppressive.

Insofar as Wednesday Addams is concerned, she’s a skilled fencer, archer, rower, cellist, vocalist, detective, martial artist, escape artist, pathologist, writer, master strategist, gets straight A’s, is an expert on innumerable subjects, and speaks countless languages including ASL, English, German, Italian, and Latin. Her only weaknesses are not being weak enough and being too eager to defend the downtrodden and outcast.

You’re watching a series about an (attempted?) murderess and her faithful severed hand investigating a prophesied mystery at a school whose cliques are split into Vampires, Werewolves, Sirens, and stoners (Gorgons). There are other folk from myth and fable, too. If that’s all cool but your sense of reality is broken by Wednesday being good at stuff, I don’t know what to tell you, but that’s mainly because I’m going to avoid talking to you in the first place.

But wait! Gary Stus have a reason for being so great! For instance, Superman is excused from being a Gary Stu because he’s an aspirational concept more than he is a character. Yes, that’s the whole point, and this is where the conversation normally breaks down to dudes going, “Oi, but she’s a Mary Sue, she is!” Sit down and take a deep breath for this, my fellow dudes: women can also be aspirational characters. And just as men expect women to treat Supes and company as aspirational, as a dude, it’s fully possible to see characters like Wednesday or Rey or She-Hulk as aspirational, too. Even if those aspirations aren’t designed for us first and foremost (Superman’s are often designed for male audiences), it’s not a stretch to still see what’s admirable about those characters.

Is Wednesday a Mary Sue? If she is, she’s a well written and acted one. If she isn’t, she’s a well written and acted whatever we’re deciding she is instead. Wow, you can really see how much value the term “Mary Sue” brings to the conversation.

Since Wednesday is so good at so many things, the fun isn’t necessarily about whether she’ll make it out of a scrape all right. It’s about the mystery, the joy of the macabre, and the send-up of Wednesday constantly rejecting teen supernatural tropes because they sound like a lot of unneeded hassle.

In fact, the most fun parts of the series are seeing how ruthlessly efficient Wednesday is at getting out of talking to this or that idiot, and – oh wait, I just realized how truly aspirational a character she is for women.

In fact, the show “Wednesday” reminds me of most is another from this year: “Spy x Family”. The anime thrusts together a spy husband and assassin wife in a fake marriage each needs to deflect suspicion. Neither one knows the other one’s secret, and they take care of a telepath child he adopted days before who knows everyone’s secrets but hides her own. You’d think the comedy would come from everyone being weird with each other and hiding what’s unexpected, but the comedy arises from the exact opposite – how normal everyone is about what should seem strange. Loid isn’t surprised by his wife Yor’s strength or ability to handle dangerous situations – he’s usually surrounded by people for whom this is normal. He goes on and on about how perceptive children are, completely ignoring incidents like daughter Anya knowing someone is drowning from the opposite end of a building. Throw a dog who can see the future into the mix and you’ve got a heart-achingly sweet show about what would break any other family working perfectly for this one.

“Wednesday” isn’t sweet, it’s acidic, but the approach of being in on the joke, of seeing from the perspective of the joke itself until it becomes something serious and meaningful, and what this reveals about the people involved – that’s what makes both of these shows rare and special. Wednesday being endlessly skilled isn’t some weakness of the series, it’s the norm for it. It asks us to see from the perspective of someone who does know more but is constantly roadblocked by structures and systems that are built to safeguard power rather than protect people.

In “Addams Family Values”, Wednesday sets fire to a summer camp play about how great the pilgrims are. Pilgrims return here, and being able to see the world from Wednesday’s perspective is to wonder why people with power, charged with protecting others, are whitewashing history in a way that teaches them to ignore present danger. There’s a term that means most of the same things “Mary Sue” does, but disguises its meaning far less: power fantasy. Many power fantasies are about exerting violence, and Wednesday certainly gets to practice some of hers now and then. But through and through, “Wednesday” is a power fantasy about being so skilled and undeniable of will that both injustice and complicity aren’t allowed to hide, grow in shadows, persist, and resurrect. It’s a very timely power fantasy then.

Call her a ‘Mary Sue’ and “Oh no, we shouldn’t have characters like that, it’s unrealistic,” and we’re not even talking about the show or what it’s doing. Misogynist groups have latched onto the term because it inherently judges women for doing the same thing men do. Whether the term should be taken back and repurposed or junked altogether isn’t my call; that’s for women critics and storytellers to decide. My point is that Gary Stu never caught on for a reason. When it has to do with a man we just call them power fantasies. Call Wednesday a power fantasy and the question is, about what? Suddenly we’re talking about the show and what it does. The conversation’s about how power is presented, why it’s written in and what it’s doing.

Is Wednesday Addams a Mary Sue? I’ll answer like I started. Who cares? Is Wednesday Addams a power fantasy? A brilliant one.

You can watch “Wednesday” on Netflix.

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New Shows + Movies by Women — February 4, 2022

There are some genuinely heavy hitters this week – I expect to be talking about Megan Park’s “The Fallout” as one of the best films of 2022. Malgorzata Szumowska may be Poland’s most important filmmaker right now, and “Never Gonna Snow Again” looks like a biting satire. Hong Kong director Heiward Mak is a crucial up-and-coming voice.

There are also filmmakers like Mohawk director Tracey Deer and Kosovan director Norika Sefa each making their debuts.

Let’s start with series first:

NEW SERIES

Pam & Tommy (Hulu)
mostly directed by women

Lily James (Disney’s most recent “Cinderella”) and Sebastian Stan (the MCU’s Winter Soldier) star as Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. The series recounts their relationship from its start (they married 96 hours after meeting), and the impact of their infamous 1995 sex tape. Taylor Schilling, Nick Offerman, and Seth Rogen co-star.

The series is showrun by Robert Siegel, and “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie helms the first three episodes. After that, those last five episodes are directed by three different women. “In a World…” director (and actress/voice actress) Lake Bell directs two. “Sons of Anarchy” and “American Horror Story” director Gwyneth Horder-Payton directs another two. “A Teacher” showrunner Hannah Fidell directs one.

You can watch “Pam & Tommy” on Hulu. The first three episodes are already available, with a new one premiering every Wednesday for a total of eight.

New Gold Mountain (Sundance Now)
directed by Corrie Chen

It’s 1857, during the Australian gold rush. Tensions between Chinese and European miners come to a head when a European woman in Chinese clothing is found murdered. Yoson An plays a character loosely based on Fook Shing, the historical Chinese detective who policed the gold fields during this era.

Director Corrie Chen has directed on several Australian series.

You can watch “New Gold Mountain” on Sundance Now. All four episodes should be available immediately.

Salaryman’s Club (Crunchyroll)
directed by Aimi Yamauchi

Also known as “Ryman’s Club”, this anime follows a group of businessmen who meet up to play badminton.

Director Aimi Yamauchi has worked as an episode director and storyboard artist on “Tokyo Revengers” and “Mugen no Juunin: Immortal”.

You can watch “Salaryman’s Club” on Crunchyroll. New episodes arrive on Saturdays.

NEW MOVIES

The Fallout (HBO Max)
directed by Megan Park

I can’t think about “The Fallout” without feeling emotionally overwhelmed. It’s a brilliant film, a very early contender for best film of 2022, and it’s the best I’ve seen for engaging the issue of school shootings. My review goes into detail without spoilers.

Jenna Ortega delivers one of the most natural performances I can remember as Vada, a student who survives a gun massacre at her high school. “The Fallout” tracks her trauma in an experiential way as she desperately tries to find some place in her life where she can feel in control again.

It’s a shattering depiction of what we’ve now put three generations in a row through for no reason. It’s a very tough watch, but it’s also so human and empathetic that I’d watch it again in a heartbeat.

I missed this one in last week’s rundown. I obviously highly recommend it.

This is the first feature from writer-director Megan Park, perhaps best known for her role as Grace on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”.

You can watch “The Fallout” on HBO Max.

Never Gonna Snow Again (MUBI)
co-directed by Malgorzata Szumowska

Zhenia is a Russian immigrant in Poland. He works as a massage therapist…until his wealthy clients begin looking to him as a guru.

This was Poland’s submission as Best International Feature for the Oscars last year. Co-writer and co-director Malgorzata Szumowska directs with her oft-cinematographer Michal Englert. Szumowska gives her films an exacting sense of purpose. I found her “The Other Lamb” to be disturbingly precise in the ways it overwhelms. She’s a commanding director everyone should watch at least once.

You can watch “Never Gonna Snow Again” on MUBI.

Beans (Hulu)
directed by Tracey Deer

“Beans” focuses on the 78-day standoff that took place between the Mohawk and Canadian government in 1990. The Kanesatake band of Mohawk had a land claim rejected on a legal technicality in 1986. In 1989, the town’s golf club decided to expand into this claim. The town did not consult the Mohawk about this.

This was just the latest in whittling down Mohawk land from an original treaty agreeing to 165 square kilometers. By 1956, just six square kilometers of this remained. (Before this, the Mohawk had first been forced to leave their land in the Hudson Valley.)

“Beans” tells the story of the Oka crisis standoff through the eyes of a young Mohawk girl. If you watch “Reservation Dogs”, it co-stars Paulina Alexis and D’Pharaoh Woon-a-Tai, two of that show’s leads.

This is Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer’s first narrative feature. She’s previously written and directed several documentaries, and wrote and produced on the series “Mohawk Girls” and “Anne with an E”.

“Beans” was previously available for rental, but this is the first time it’s come to a subscription service.

You can watch “Beans” on Hulu, or see where to rent it.

Fagara (OVID TV)
directed by Heiward Mak

After her father’s death, a woman discovers two previously unknown sisters. In debt and struggling to keep the family’s restaurant alive, she reaches out and begins to forge relationships with them.

Heiward Mak has written, directed, and often edited several independent Hong Kong films.

You can watch “Fagara” on OVID TV, a service that specializes in international and independent cinema.

Looking for Venera (MUBI)
directed by Norika Sefa

In this Kosovan film, Venera is a teen aching to get away from home. She shares a small house with three generations of her family, and never has any privacy.

This is the first feature from writer-director Norika Sefa.

You can watch “Looking for Venera” on MUBI.

Stop and Go (Hulu)
co-directed by Mallory Everton

Two sisters set out on a road trip to rescue their grandmother from a nursing home where COVID has broken out.

Mallory Everton directs with Stephen Meek. This is her first feature.

“Stop and Go” was previously available for rental, but this is the first time it’s come to a subscription service.

You can watch “Stop and Go” on Hulu, or see where to rent it.

Book of Love (Amazon)
directed by Analeine Cal y Mayor

Two writers find themselves drawn to each other after they’re thrown together on a Mexican book tour: the original author and the translator who drastically rewrote his novel. Veronica Echegui and Sam Claflin star.

This is the third film from director and co-writer Analeine Cal y Mayor.

You can watch it on Amazon Prime.

The Translator (VOD)
co-directed by Rana Kazkaz

In 2011, a Syrian exile lives in Australia. When he learns his brother has been taken by the Assad regime, he travels back to Syria in an attempt to free him.

Rana Kazkaz directs with Anas Khalaf. This is her first feature film.

See where to rent “The Translator”.

What Breaks the Ice (Showtime)
directed by Rebecca Eskreis

Two girls form a friendship in 1998, as their vision of their place in the world is impacted by the country’s obsession with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. When they’re invited to a rave, things go wrong and they have to defend themselves. Will the culture they live in ever believe their side of the story?

This is the first feature from writer-director Rebecca Eskreis. She got her start in production design.

You can watch “What Breaks the Ice” on Showtime, or rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, or YouTube.

Honey Girls (Netflix)
directed by Trey Fanjoy

Ashanti stars as Fancy G, a pop star hosting a contest to find the next big solo artist. Three contestants realize working together to form their own band helps all of them, instead of just one of them.

Trey Fanjoy is a prolific music video director, most notably for Taylor Swift. She directed “Teardrops on My Guitar”, “Our Song”, “Picture to Burn”, and “White Horse”, among others. She’s also helmed numerous music videos for Reba McEntire, Miranda Lambert, and Keith Urban. This is her first feature film.

You can watch “Honey Girls” on Netflix.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Like There’s Nothing Going Wrong — “The Fallout”

The Oxford High School shooting was two months ago. Who remembers it? How much was it talked about in the week following, when the shooter’s parents went on the run and were caught days later? How little have we talked of it, thought of it, even remembered it since then? Four died, seven were injured, and hundreds were traumatized at the hands of a 15 year-old with a semi-automatic handgun.

How quickly does each new school shooting disappear in our minds? How normal has this become, that we nod our heads and move to another day? If there’s one thing “The Fallout” makes me feel, it’s a hollowing dissonance. I remember how gutted I felt when the Columbine High School massacre happened. I was a kid. It had never occurred to me something like that was possible. I remember how the last…dozen…two dozen…more…school shootings have made me feel as they roll across the news – some echo of that original feeling. The right response, but tempered, fine-tuned so I could continue with my day. What was once a national tragedy that halted the nation is now factored into the everyday cost of education.

How do the children who survive this walk back into a world that doesn’t seem to give a shit, that wants to fix it, but has successfully numbed themselves from thinking it’s possible?

Let’s back up. “The Fallout” follows Vada, a student who hides in the bathroom with Mia during a gun massacre at their high school. The story here isn’t the shooting itself. That scene is brief, but searing. It’s not carried by an action sequence or whirling cinematography, but simply by Jenna Ortega’s Vada, Maddie Ziegler’s Mia, and an unflinching use of sound effects. It’s not a scene about two people hiding. It’s a scene about two children believing they’re going to die.

Past that 10-minute mark, “The Fallout” is simply about the aftermath. It’s about Vada’s journey into a trauma that will never fully leave her. Ortega gives one of the most natural performances I can remember seeing. There’s a fusion between her performance and Megan Park’s writing and directing that carries the film through complex territory.

Movies tend not to handle code-switching very well. Vada is nothing but code-switching, driven by anxieties to make those around her – parents, friends, a therapist – feel like she’s fine even when she’s not. This is complicated by being Latina and white, having a Latina parent and a white one, by being a girl in situations where she can talk freely and situations where she has to perform a certain social role, by being a perfect student and her little sister’s hero and a good friend and someone who can’t be any of those things anymore and desperately needs to act on her own impulses. Very rarely are any of these explicitly called out, but the writing and performance are thick with conveying how Vada’s code-switching deflects concern. I’ve…maybe never seen this handled so deftly, clearly, and naturally.

Most of the film is carried by Ortega – it’s remarkable how close we stick to her – but as Mia, Ziegler excels in what may be her first role that’s centered more on acting than dance. The cast is good all the way through, and actors like Niles Fitch, Will Ropp, Lumi Pollack, John Ortiz, Julie Bowen, and Shailene Woodley all get their moments to…I’d say their moments to shine, but really it’s their moments to come across human, which is so much more important.

“The Fallout” engages in a type of code-switching, too, alternating between more natural and cinematic sequences. There’s a pace to this that can feel like the film’s desperately trying to breathe. There’s a rhythm of tension and collapse that reflects Vada’s own struggle between meeting expectations and not wanting to participate in those expectations any more. We get the sense that the closer Vada is to Mia, the more cinematic the film becomes, but it’s not about that. It’s about Vada’s sense of control over her environment.

“The Fallout” is such a human and understanding character piece that to delve too much into what happens would be to cheapen something that’s more complex than some description could manage. I’d rather delve into what makes “The Fallout” so staggeringly special. Just go with me on the initial metaphor for a minute:

The Ship of Theseus is a philosophical question that asks what happens when a ship is kept in harbor as a museum piece. Over the years, some wood becomes worn and needs to be replaced. Other old parts wear and also need to be replaced. At a certain point, every original part of the ship will have been replaced. Is this still the original ship? What if all the original, worn pieces are reassembled on their own? If the piece-by-piece reconstruction is still the original ship, then what is the new ship that’s constructed of the original parts?

I ask this because trauma can re-write pieces of people. They’re still themselves, but in a way that changes their perspective on who they can be and their place in the world around them, on what ideas like safety and trust are. Enough trauma, over time or all at once, and the perspective they once had is replaced with one they may not recognize and can’t fuse to who they once believed they were.

Trauma applied systemically to a people, a race, a gender, an orientation, a generation…it’s allowed to happen for various reasons. Usually, it’s because it’s profitable to someone – here the gun industry, a militarized policing industry that chews through public money, and politicians who block even the mildest attempts at reform. The shock of that repeated trauma – school gun massacres nearly every week – means that shock is now the norm. What was once shocking is made normal so we can get by. That requires our being given some answer, some reality, that justifies this as normal. A reality that accepts this as normal is inherently not the right one, and so we’re willing to accept in it relationships of profit and power that we otherwise would also recognize as wrong.

As Naomi Klein writes in “The Shock Doctrine”, a person trying to make sense of an ongoing, repeated trauma will more readily accept a new norm, regardless of whether they believe it’s true or even think it’s healthy for them. Having an answer to make sense of what they don’t recognize becomes more important than having the right answer. We live in a country where one party (the Republicans) practices disaster capitalism as their central tenet. They may not have directly prompted the disaster, but if the disaster becomes the new norm, that sure is a lot of capitalism to draw out of it.

Ongoing disasters create a state of fungible reality. People constantly in a state of disaster are constantly in search of an answer, regardless of whether it’s the right one. School shootings? Conditions where they’re the norm are maintained. A pandemic? Mishandle it for the first year and create doubt for real answers like masks and vaccines, while replacing them with fake answers like bleach and horse dewormer until it becomes an ongoing endemic. The Trump administration looked the other way on hate crimes, actively sabotaged and gutted the United States Postal Service, the IRS, the EPA, and made a demented joke out of the judicial branch – not because it was an incompetent administration, but because it was extremely competent at its primary goal: creating as many ongoing disasters as possible, to create a political reality where any answer would do, regardless of whether it’s right.

What does this have to do with “The Fallout”? This is a film that intrinsically understands in its writing, directing, and performances the dissonance of a generation being raised under these conditions, in the midst of ongoing disasters, in the aftermath of one particular one, in its systemic repetition, in the helplessness of a generation looking to understand reality as every child growing up does…but now housed inside a culture where that reality is a shifting, inconsistent, and unimportant fucking mess.

In “The Fallout”, Vada is a Ship of Theseus, trying to recognize all these parts of herself that have been replaced, re-written, denying what she once found solace in as she desperately tries to create some meaning that provides her an answer, regardless of whether it’s the right one.

A person, a generation, a whole culture can be made into a Ship of Theseus, too. Enough shock, enough dulling to the shock at its repetition, enough dulling to make the shock feel normal, enough normal to make the shock expected, unchanging, a part of everyday life, and school shootings go from a national shattering that lasts years to an expected cost of education forgotten the next week.

“The Fallout” is an hour and 32 minutes. That’s relatively brief. It felt more packed, relatable, and consequential than many three hour films. I wanted it to keep going because at least in the film there’s a promise of some change, some healing, some movie magic that’s ingrained in us to hope even if it’s not really that kind of movie. But it ended, and I’m in the United States. What was once ingrained in me to hope…I’m not so sure what it’s been replaced with. “The Fallout” is a great American movie.

You can watch “The Fallout” on HBO Max.

If you find articles like these important to you, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.