Fester Addams From The Closet
Lawrence Harding reflects on the queerness of Fester Addams.
If you were to ask most people about gender and queerness in The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, most people would surely think of Gomez and Morticia. And why wouldn’t they? Suave, sophisticated, kinky, and proud, they embody a wholesome and liberated inversion of the norms of cishet society. When I started grappling with my own transness, I realized that I didn’t so much want to be Gomez (as I often had when I considered myself a cis man) or Morticia (as I often had without acknowledging it, in hindsight). I wanted to be both.
On a recent rewatch of the 1991 classic, however, I realized that it wasn’t so much the liberated and flamboyant heads of the family that spoke to my experiences. It was Uncle Fester.
In some ways, Uncle Fester is the opposite of his brother and sister-in-law. He is ugly, lumpy, misshapen. His clothes are drab and shapeless, his behavior iffy and his mannerisms unusual at best. He isn’t necessarily the person one would expect to identify with, but here we are.
The plots of the two films I’m discussing—The Addams Family and Addams Family Values—focus on Fester. More than that, they grow out of him, specifically his wobbles in identity. In The Addams Family, the amnesiac Fester infiltrates the family at the behest of his adoptive mother Abigail, with the intention of scamming them before realizing that he is, in fact, one of them. Much of the conflict arises from his own resistance to this and his being torn between his old and new identities. Likewise, in Addams Family Values it is Fester’s romantic and sexual awakening, when he is ensnared by the “black widow” Debbie Jellinsky, that leads to the conflict. In both cases, it is ultimately the love and support of an unconventional family that helps him win.
There are two main aspects I want to focus on. First, the idea of Fester as the “unacceptable queer” (to the cishetnormative view) who is accepted into and supported by a new community. Second, Fester’s own wrestling with his identity as an Addams is analogous to the experience of coming out—both to oneself and to others—as LGBTQIA+.
The unacceptable queer
As I’ve already mentioned, Fester Addams is nothing like his debonaire brother and sister-in-law. He is far from conventionally attractive, and is generally regarded as grotesque. Despite this, Gomez is convinced that Fester is charming, attractive and dashing, perhaps even more so than himself. While this is a source of humor in the films, it also says a lot about how Gomez views the ‘negative’ aspects of Fester. Gomez accepts and loves Fester as he is, even admires him, honestly and completely.
This idea of grotesquerie and queerness is easily expanded to the Addams clan as a whole. When we see the extended family gathered together, all kinds of body shapes and aesthetics are on display. At Fester’s party, for example, we see all manner of people that wider society would consider disfigured, others who are not but present themselves in unusual ways, and beings who may or may not be human. What unites them is their zest for life. They are all there to enjoy luxury, to express their sensuality and sexuality, to have fun, and to celebrate both themselves and each other.
The Addamses are universally coded as “odd” to normal society, and are united in their Addams-ness. In many ways, we can see the Addams clan as a stand-in for an ideal queer community. Gomez and Morticia are the most palatable to outside society, but resist assimilating, instead reveling in their own eccentricities.
The main source of humor in the Addams Family is the dark inversion of traditionally wholesome American tropes concerning family and social mores. Gomez and Morticia, as our main points of contact with the clan, are murderous, debauched, deeply morally ambiguous, and openly kinky and sexually active—all unacceptable to “traditional” values, but also ultimately making their relationship healthier and more positive than those of the “normal” people around them. More widely, the Addamses are open to basically anyone to join their ranks, so long as they are willing to be at odds with the mores of ordinary, “straight” society. Morticia’s tour of the graveyard declaring her ancestors as “psychopaths, fiends, mad-dog killers, brutes, Fester… pioneers” is evidence enough of this. It is here where the strange, awkward, and unattractive Fester can find a home that accepts him for who he is. He is, inescapably, an Addams.
Fester’s gender euphoria
Fester’s realizations concerning his identity come through exposure to the Addamses. It’s not unlike getting the “vocabulary” for one’s own gender or sexual identity. How many of us in the United Kingdom who grew up during and in the years directly following Section 28, which banned the promotion of LGBTQ lifestyles in education, reached adulthood without even having an awareness of being non-binary, gender-fluid, trans, let alone gay or bisexual, as options of being that were actually open to them? I myself only became aware of my own queerness slowly, in my late twenties, as the concepts and words for who I actually am were revealed to me.
In his infiltration of the Addamses in pursuit of their wealth, Fester begins by “pretending” a “gender” (i.e. being an Addams). But instead of achieving his initial goals, he ends up with an internal conflict because he finds being an Addams more appealing and “right” to him than he ever expected. He is initially disturbed by the family, from their being given some still-moving food and being told to “start with the eyes”, to Gomez’s childhood reminiscences, which seem bizarre and often disturbing by conventional standards. They are unlike what he is used to dealing with, and contrary to what he has been taught is acceptable in society. This does not last long.
Fester’s first moment of realization comes when he witnesses Wednesday and Pugsley sword fighting. He mutters “bloodshed” excitedly and rushes down to teach them how to slaughter properly. This is something he can relate to (having presumably done violent deeds as a loan shark on behalf of his adoptive mother), a shared ground that he can build upon in the ensuing sequence, in which he educates his nephew and niece in the fine arts of explosives, poisons, and scabs. He enjoys this so much that it distracts him from the duties expected by his mother. He is actively upset at not being allowed to go to the children’s play and transgresses to attend it.
The ultimate expression of Fester’s opening up to himself can be seen in the aftermath of his farewell party, after the dancing of the Mamushka. Watching Fester dancing into his bedroom, still singing, with a look of rapturous joy on his face, I immediately identified. What Fester was experiencing was analogous to the first time I put on a blouse, or tried some lipstick, or put on a padded bra: gender euphoria. Fester seems happier in himself than he has ever been, as I was in myself.
Fester’s journey is not linear, or simple. He does not move smoothly from a state of denying himself to embracing his identity. Instead, he goes through episodes of resistance, either brought about from his own feelings or those of others. The source of this, in the first film at least, seems to be a fear of being “found out” as not a proper Addams; a feeling familiar to me, as worrying about not presenting whatever gender I feel comfortable in correctly, or that I’m overthinking things.
The larger crisis points, however, come from external influences. Fester’s adoptive mother’s emotionally abusive hold over him in The Addams Family leads to him casting his family from their home, and in Addams Family Values Debbie has him enthralled by romantic and sexual feelings that, though abusive and used to manipulate him, are forms of affection that Fester’s family cannot offer him. Both also involve unhealthy relationships – parental and romantic – which try to closet Fester and return him to the normal world, albeit a return to a world that will forever mark him out as repulsive.
This manifests in two ways. In The Addams Family, Fester’s mother uses him as a weapon, and harnesses his strangeness as an enforcer in her loan-sharking business. She controls him because she sees him not as a person but as a tool. In contrast, Debbie tries to hide Fester from the world. Finding herself unable to kill her uncannily resilient husband, she forces him to dress in clothes she chooses, to have a hair transplant, and to barely speak to anyone, all to spare her own blushes.
The source of abuse in both relationships is an insistence that Fester be who they want him to be, for their own comfort and coincidence. Neither situation, unfortunately, is unknown to the queer community. There is a certain irony here, as well. Both Abigail and Debbie would probably fit in quite happily with the twisted moral compass of the Addams Family (something that Morticia observes in both films), if only they didn’t reject them out of hand for being too unusual; too queer.
Fester is not like Gomez or Morticia. He is rough around the edges, to say the least; the wrong size, the wrong shape, emotionally volatile, and lacking in dress sense. He is nonetheless accepted by his community and is no less adored for lacking the poise and charisma of Gomez and Morticia. Fester is a vital part of the community, even if he is less appealing to the external view. The main acceptance that he has to gain, however, is his own. He must come to terms that he is not what others in his life want him to be and embrace the queerness of Addams-ness. Only through rejection of those who are invested in the idea of him, and the embracing of his true self, does Fester find a place in the world that loves and accepts him as him.
Speaking (at the time of writing) largely from the closet, his narrative is a comfort and a source of hope.