Photo Credit:Vlad Cioplea/Netflix
The way Wednesday sets up its Black characters has led to discussions around Tim Burton’s complicated history of mishandling Black characters.
Starring the immensely talented Jenna Ortega, Netflix‘s new series Wednesday is a binge-worthy supernatural treat worth losing a few hours of sleep for. But if you’ve been following the show, you know that it’s not without its critics, most notably those who’ve argued that the series engages in racial subtext and portrays its Black characters as bullies.
The series follows a teenage Wednesday Addams attending Nevermore Academy, a school for social outcasts and teenagers with paranormal powers. While coming to terms with the fact that she’s a psychic, Wednesday is simultaneously trying to stop a monster murder spree that is terrorizing her new school, and solving a mystery that has impacted her family for decades.
If you’re a fan of the iconic Addams family, you’re probably familiar with their dark humor and love of all things morbid. But Tim Burton’s take on the story is fresh and new, and arguably darker and more comedic. (Burton serves as an executive producer on the series and directs its first four episodes.)
There’s a lot of nostalgia attached as fans get to see the beloved Gomez and Morticia Addams (played by Luis Guzman and Catherine Zeta-Jones, respectively) in all their well-known public displays of affection. Even Christina Ricci, who played Wednesday in the 1991 Addams Family movie, gets her own role in the Netflix series.
But Jenna holds her own as the fictional goth icon, offering a refreshing take on Wednesday’s cold demeanor. All of this makes Wednesday quite enjoyable, and yet it’s become more and more apparent to some viewers that the show’s portrayal of characters of color, specifically those who were Black, could be considered as mere supplements to ensure the development of the lead character.
The racist narrative is mostly fed by the fact that actress Joy Sunday, who plays Bianca Barclay, is shown to be a mean girl, while Iman Marson, who plays Lucas Wilson, is introduced as a bully whose family owns a pro-pilgrim theme park.
With Wednesday being such a morally grey protagonist, these characters — while technically antagonists — shouldn’t be seen as villains. Bianca may seem mean at first glance, but she just doesn’t like other people getting in her way. When she first meets Wednesday while fencing, Wednesday makes it her goal to beat Bianca, even taking it as far as wanting to draw first blood. Bianca wins, and we see that the usually better-than-everyone Wednesday may have finally met her match.
Before Wednesday’s arrival, it’s clear Bianca has established herself not just as Nevermore’s Queen Bee, but as one of its most gifted and talented students. She’s not a villain for understandably not wanting to be best friends with the girl who makes it her mission in the first 24 hours to show her up. Was she the mean girl or just competitive, much like Wednesday?
There’s much more merit to the poor portrayal of Lucas, who spends most of the show bullying Wednesday, even being involved in physical fights with her. While he starts out as a typical bully, he eventually learns to be more compassionate. When he’s alone, Lucas starts to have a conscious that shows he’s not a mean kid. But once he’s around his friends, peer pressure by the teens who hate the outcasts of Nevermore always gets the best of him.
The unwillingness to give the benefit of the doubt toward Netflix or Burton’s portrayal of Black characters could come from a lack of trust, considering this is not the first time either has dealt with viewers pointing out their issues with diversity in their work. In the past, Netflix has been involved in several instances of people claiming a show or movie is racist, because it features Black characters who are bullies or villains. Most notably, prior complaints were made about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and its treatment of Prudence Blackwood.
While Tim Burton has been called out as a filmmaker that frequently employs the same actors (most of them being White), in a 2016 interview with Bustle he pretended the calls for diversity were a novelty, and tried to use ‘70s genre blaxploitation — a genre meant as a defiant commentary on racism and Black empowerment (though many films were criticized for perpetuating stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans) as a comparison. Speaking further on the topic of diversity, he also said that casting Black people simply for that is more offensive than his all-white casting choices.
Along with this, Burton has been criticized for Black characters or characters voiced by Black actors (Ken Page as Oogie Boogey in A Nightmare Before Christmas) in his prior projects. Ahead of Wednesday‘s release, Alyssa Shotwell wrote an article for The Mary Sue titled “Tim Burton’s Racist Comments Loom Over Otherwise Great Casting For Netflix’s Wednesday” in July, where she noted how actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Page played villains in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and A Nightmare Before Christmas, respectively, as well as how he dismissed concerns surrounding the latter character from the film’s screenwriter, Caroline Thompson, who referred to Oogie Boogey as racist and “insensitive.” Per Shotwell’s piece:
Screenwriter Caroline Thomspon told Insider in 2020 that she recognized the issues with Page’s character at the time, but Burton dismissed her as being “oversensitive.” (Something he echoed in that interview over 20 years later when he said “politically correct.”)
This has left some people divided with numerous comments also pointing out that Burton did not write Wednesday, and thus was not necessarily the source for some characters.
Not everyone was as sure that having Black antagonists in a show makes it racist, and both characters were developed throughout the show to become much more than bullies. The show also still featured white characters as its primary villains.
Both Lucas and Bianca end up helping Wednesday by the end of the show, with the latter even helping her take down the final villain (and arguably is why Wednesday is still standing by the series’ end).
It could be argued that the conversation is more nuanced than Black characters simply being written as antagonists, and more so not being fleshed out enough. The writers’ choice not to give these characters more depth or complexity could be due to their desire to avoid overshadowing Wednesday.
If Wednesday gets another season these issues need to be addressed, not just because it’s good storytelling but because the actors portraying these characters deserve better than these conversations around the racial subtext of the script they were given surrounding their performances. They’re not just playing simple caricatures of good and bad people. They deserve more than that, and the next season should give them more to work with, the responsibility of that lying not just on Burton but the writers and other directors overseeing Wednesday, too.
Ashley K. Smalls is a Ph.D. student who studies and writes about race, media, and digital fandom. You can talk pop culture with her on Twitter and TikTok at: @ashleyksmalls