Is Thanksgiving Pop Culture's Most Subversive Holiday?

Is Thanksgiving pop culture's most subversive holiday?

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It's a movie that usually airs during Halloween, but "Addams Family Values" shows how full circle pop culture has come on Thanksgiving. In it, Wednesday Addams wreaks havoc on her summer camp Thanksgiving pageant by launching into a revisionist history of the holiday in which the Native Americans avenge the Pilgrims for all their and their European brethren's future crimes against the indigenous people.

 

One could argue the issues with having the pale white Wednesday lead a Native American rebellion, or one could simply just laugh at the absurdity of the snobby Amanda Buckman being tied up to a stake. Either way, Thanksgiving is a holiday pop culture rarely wants to play straight, rather exploiting its traditions for its own comedic or dramatic ends.

"We don't often get the sort of sincere Thanksgiving middle school pageant portrayal," says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University. "That's limited to centerpieces on tables, cutouts for your window and napkins with Pilgrims and turkeys on them."

Thanksgiving lends itself to two lines of cultural legacy: the lore born of the historical story, and what Thanksgiving has come to mean in American today – a time for family to gather and break bread.

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Thanksgiving-themed movies and TV shows have gotten so good at subverting the latter that it has become its own cliche: the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving, in which long-held tensions boil over into dinnertime arguments and even food fights. Films like "What's Cooking?" "Pieces of April," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," and "Home for the Holidays," all turn on the family Thanksgiving gone horribly awry.

 

This tradition extends back to the days of radio, with a 1943 installment of "Abbott and Costello" featuring the comedians arguing over dinner plans.

"Thanksgiving – because the whole holiday is so much based on families getting together – people have been able to feel much more leeway in showing those presentations in more challenging and problematic ways," Thompson says.

Of course, such a motif can be found in Christmas films like "The Family Stone" and "Christmas Vacation," however not at the level they dominate films set during Thanksgiving.

"Christmas is a lot harder to mess with. It's so sacred, [and] not in the religious sense," Thompson says, but in its elevated place in the American psyche. The seminal Christmas films – "A Christmas Carol," "It's a Wonderful Life," and even "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," all perpetuate traditional narratives of Christmas. It's difficult to name an equivalent Thanksgiving film that exudes their sincere, warm and fuzzy charm.

Conversely Thanksgiving programming will also remove the gathering of family altogether, as is often the case on TV. Sitcoms about groups of friends commonly re-appropriate the dysfunctional family formula onto the dynamics of their non-biologically related casts. Shows like "Friends" and "How I Met Your Mother" boast a canon of Friendsgiving-themed episodes, with the absence of a traditional family celebration only sometimes even nominally explained.

 

The dysfunctional or even family-less Thanksgiving has become a trope of its own on television, but within this motif, other forms of subversion have arisen. As Buzzfeed pointed out, an episode of the Nickelodeon children's cartoon "Hey Arnold," used its Thanksgiving episode to hint that a side character – Arnold's math teacher – was a closeted gay man. Likewise, the Thanksgiving-themed "Roseanne" episode "Home Is Where the Afghan Is" features Bev inadvertently revealing her own lesbian inclinations after ranting against two gay friends adopting a child.

 

When it comes to incorporating the elements of the historical Thanksgiving, pop culture's relationship with the holiday has had its own ups and downs. William Bradford, the author of the original Thanksgiving proclamation, incorporates the darker side of the Pilgrims' settling of North America – even describing their violent massacres of Native American populations – in his 17th century history of Plymouth Plantation. But when tapping into the historical Thanksgiving, TV once had a tendency to ignore this and other harsh realities of the original Pilgrim story. Shows like "Happy Days," Mr. Ed" and "Bewitched" insert their characters into the 17th century Pilgrim communities, but often focusing on the lighter, more upbeat side to how a contemporary America imagines Pilgrim life.