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Mind in the Media: What's So Appealing About Oddball Wednesday Addams?

image with illustrative film border of Wednesday Adams, played by Jenna Ortega

Verywell / Courtesy of Netflix


Mind in the Media
 is an ongoing series discussing mental health and psychological topics in popular movies and television

Spoiler alert! This article contains major spoilers for the first season of the series Wednesday, now streaming on Netflix.

Netflix's Addams Family adaptation Wednesday, which focuses on the moody pig-tailed character Wednesday Addams during her teenage years, has become a major hit.

The story centers on Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) as she enrolls in Nevermore Academy, a school for so-called “outcasts,” whose student body includes werewolves, vampires, sirens, psychics, gorgons, and all kinds of other teens with strange attributes and abilities.

While it’s the kind of school that Wednesday should fit into perfectly—and is even where her parents Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luiz Guzman) met—when she first matriculates, Wednesday is determined to be an outcast among the outcasts.

Yet, as time goes on, and as she becomes embroiled in a mystery involving a deadly monster stalking the woods near the school, Wednesday begins to form alliances and even *gasp* make friends.

Despite her preference for solitude and her lack of concern about fitting in, Wednesday has racked up plenty of fans in the real world. But why does Wednesday stand out even from her fellow outcasts, and what is it about her that’s so engaging to so many viewers?

This article will examine potential psychological explanations for what makes Wednesday different before turning its attention to why her weirdness also makes her appealing, and even admirable.

Wednesday's Child Is Full of Woe: What Makes Wednesday Addams Different?

In the first episode of the series, Wednesday is introduced as she walks through the halls of the high school she attended before Nevermore. Students stare and move out of the way as she passes, and it’s clear that she doesn't have any friends and is unlikely to make any.

So when she finds her little brother Pugsley (Isaac Ordonez) stuffed into a locker, she decides to teach the boys who bullied him a lesson—by throwing piranhas in the pool during their swim team's practice.

It's an extreme act, even for a member of the Addams family, a pop culture mainstay we’ve come to associate with all things macabre. Between the deed itself and Wednesday’s lack of remorse for it, it would be easy to diagnose her with various personality disorders, and as a fictional character, much about Wednesday is heightened.

However, as the show goes on and the picture of Wednesday deepens, it provides enough insight into her to suggest several possible explanations for her preferences and seemingly sociopathic actions.

Introversion

Wednesday’s preference for solitude and her comfort with being alone all point to her being an introvert. As clinical psychologist David Tzall, PsyD, explains, “an introvert is someone who gets their energy from being away from people.” That said, everyone wants to be around people and connect with others once in a while. Even Wednesday periodically appears to enjoy other’s company, even if she’s quick to hide it.

As Tzall notes, people’s tolerance for social interaction falls at some point on a spectrum. “That means you're going to find people on either end of the spectrum,” Tzall observes. “Some people [will] prefer not to be around people as much or prefer to be alone and… there's nothing wrong with that if they at least have people in their life that they reach out to or it's not disruptive to them. [If] it doesn't impair their life or their functioning, then that's perfectly healthy and appropriate.”

Wednesday, with her headstrong independence and enjoyment of activities like playing the cello and writing, could be seen as an introvert who simply prefers to be alone most of the time.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Yet, Wednesday’s rejection of others goes beyond an introvert’s preference for alone time. Psychiatrist Sam Zand, DO, says she seems to be suffering from unresolved post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that stems from her experiences with being bullied by her peers.

The series makes it clear that while Wednesday comes from a loving family, she was bullied by other children from an early age. In one especially upsetting scene, Wednesday recalls a childhood incident in which a group of boys restrained her as they ran over her beloved pet scorpion with their bicycles.

While Wednesday brings the story up to explain why she no longer cries, it points to a formative trauma that would contribute to the teenage Wednesday’s PTSD. It's an “exaggerated example, a Tim Burton example, of what kids go through,” Zand explains. “That bullying very vividly taught Wednesday she can’t trust society and that the world is a bad place.”

Tzall concurs, sharing, “…having developmental trauma or having social trauma, being hurt consistently, really limits the world and your options. So we start to have a narrower and narrower approach to who we contact, who we trust.”

As Tzall points out, when we meet Wednesday at the beginning of the series, she seems to feel: “I have no use for people because they've hurt me or they want nothing to do with me.... So I'm going to distance myself from everybody.” As a result, her “approach is to constantly put up a wall” that will prevent her from being hurt further.

David Tzall, PsyD

…having developmental trauma or having social trauma, being hurt consistently, really limits the world and your options. So we start to have a narrower and narrower approach to who we contact, who we trust.

— David Tzall, PsyD

As the show continues, Wednesday gradually starts to come out of her shell, but Tzall notes that given her PTSD, even that is a struggle for her. “She's not with people [at Nevermore Academy] who think that she's weird, if you will, because she's like them…,” Tzall says, “and now that she's in a group that she belongs to, she doesn't know what to do with that, and she still rejects it because it feels unsafe.”

From this perspective, Wednesday becomes a much more sympathetic figure than she was when she was only known as the girl who tried to take out the swim team by putting piranhas in the pool. In fact, Zand feels that we tend to downplay the way trauma impacts people.

“We all want to be resilient…” Zand reflects, “so we minimize sometimes how we’ve been affected. We don’t want to call it trauma.” This is certainly something we see Wednesday doing in her description of the boys who bullied her as a child and killed her pet scorpion. Instead of confronting her trauma, she decides she’ll no longer cry because it doesn’t help, but that also means she can’t heal from her PTSD.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder

Of course, the incident with the piranhas may point to a deeper issue, such as narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. Zand notes that Wednesday shows flashes of narcissism, including feeling like she’s better than others and believing that she's the smartest person in the room. On the other hand, Wednesday doesn’t crave attention or recognition, so the diagnosis doesn’t seem to quite fit.

A better explanation for her behavior might be antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), or because people aren't officially diagnosed with ASPD until they're 18, conduct disorder, the diagnosis children are given who display the symptoms of ASPD. ASPD and conduct disorder are marked by a lack of empathy and remorse and a disregard for social norms and rules.

Wednesday’s actions in the first episode with the piranhas certainly checks those boxes, and as Zand points out, goes far beyond normal teenage rebellion and boundary-pushing. So some mental health professionals might diagnose Wednesday with conduct disorder because of this.

That said, throughout the show, Wednesday frequently tries to protect people. Even her actions with the piranhas were driven by her desire to protect her brother. Zand observes that Wednesday’s compassion for others is selective, but because she is protecting others along with herself, her actions could also be attributed to “hypervigilance and PTSD.”

On the other hand, while some people might see Wednesday's lack of social success as a sign of autism, both Zand and Tzall agree she doesn't appear to be on the spectrum.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is marked by difficulty connecting with others and trouble understanding human emotions and social situations, but Zand says, “[Wednesday] can connect, she does have a level of emotional understanding, but just a lack of desire to fill her ego through acceptance.” In other words, it’s not so much that Wednesday doesn’t understand what others are going through, it’s that she chooses not to get involved.

She’s Creepy and She’s Kooky: What Makes Wednesday Addams Appealing?

The Wednesday Addams of Wednesday certainly marches to the beat of her own drummer, and sometimes that leads her to do questionable or inappropriate things, but the response to the show indicates that audiences enjoy watching Wednesday's teenage adventures.

Part of this may be because it's entertaining to watch someone behave in strange and unusual ways that we're unlikely to encounter in real life. But many viewers may also admire the character's confidence and ease with herself.

Hollywood vs. Reality

While Wednesday’s quirks and differences are exaggerated for our entertainment, and those eccentricities are part of what makes her appealing, we can also learn from her confident way of moving through the world. As a result, Wednesday is a positive example for everyone who feels a little bit different.

Tzall observes that it’s rare to find someone who’s confident in who they are. After all, even if you feel comfortable with yourself, if other people question one of your traits or characteristics, you may start to wonder if you’re strange or abnormal because of it, causing a problem where previously there wasn’t any. Wednesday, however, seems impervious to that issue.

“Someone who's confident who's like ‘You know what? I like this and I'm going to own this,’ I think people really look up to that…,” Tzall says, “because… no one is that way all the time…. To own your thoughts and your feelings and your behaviors implicitly is something that people struggle with.”

This characterization of Wednesday as confident in who she is offers a positive message for viewers. “I think that’s one thing that people can take away from this show,” Tzall reflects. ”That it’s okay to be who are and… that it’s okay to be different.”

This is especially driven home by the fact that as the show progresses, Wednesday starts to find acceptance among her peers even though she never expected it, a demonstration that if you find your tribe, you can be accepted just for being yourself.

Cultivating Self-Confidence

Of course, cultivating self-confidence isn’t as easy as Wednesday makes it seem. However, the character does several things that likely help her feel more secure in who she is, including:

  • She doesn’t compare herself to others. Even though it’s natural to compare ourselves to other people, it often causes us to focus on our flaws. Reminding yourself to focus on your own strengths instead can help.
  • She’s kind to herself. Wednesday doesn’t berate herself for her setbacks or mistakes. Instead, she picks herself up and keeps going, a practice that can enhance self-confidence.
  • She does things she’s good at, including playing the cello. Recognizing and practicing our strengths make us feel good about ourselves and can increase our self-confidence.

While Wednesday’s quirks and differences are exaggerated for our entertainment, and those eccentricities are part of what makes her appealing, we can also learn from her confident way of moving through the world. As a result, Wednesday is a positive example for everyone who feels a little bit different.

By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.