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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