Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mary Sue, what are you? Or why the term Mary Sue is sexist.

Reblogged 5000 times on tumblr, so it should prolly be archived here.

Seriously how do you html I don't have to do everything by hand do I? That sucks.

Looks like this essay was needed, so I went ahead and did it. Not sure I said everything I wanted to say, but I tried.

So, there’s this girl. She’s tragically orphaned and richer than anyone on the planet. Every guy she meets falls in love with her, but in between torrid romances she rejects them all because she dedicated to what is Pure and Good. She has genius level intellect, Olympic-athelete level athletic ability and incredible good looks. She is consumed by terrible angst, but this only makes guys want her more. She has no superhuman abilities, yet she is more competent than her superhuman friends and defeats superhumans with ease. She has unshakably loyal friends and allies, despite the fact she treats them pretty badly. They fear and respect her, and defer to her orders. Everyone is obsessed with her, even her enemies are attracted to her. She can plan ahead for anything and she’s generally right with any conclusion she makes. People who defy her are inevitably wrong.

God, what a Mary Sue.

I just described Batman.

Wish fulfillment characters have been around since the beginning of time. The good guys tend to win, get the girl and have everything fall into place for them. It’s only when women started doing it that it became a problem.

TV Tropes on the origin of Mary Sue:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment.

Notice the strange emphasis on female here. TV Tropes goes on to say that is took a long time for the male counterpart “Marty Stu” to be used. “Most fanfic writers are girls” is given as the reason. So when women dominate a genre, that means people are on close watch, ready to scorn any wish fulfillment they may engage in. This term could only originate if the default was female.

In fact, one of the CONTROVERSIES listed on the TV Tropes page is if a male sue is even possible. That’s right, it’s impossible to have an idealizied male character. Men are already the ideal.

In our culture, male tends to be the default. Women take on the distaff parts. “Him” and “mankind” are what humanity are, “her” and “womankind” are secondary. Yet this isn’t true for Mary Sue as a term. That name was created first. It was a Star Trek fic that coined it and the female desigination was likely a big reason it caught on. This female is name the default to use when describing idealized characters. Marty Stu and Gary Stu are only to be used if you’re discussing men specifically. Heck, there isn’t even an agreed upon term for them. So the only time female can be default is when discussing a badly written character, someone who is more powerful or important or liked than they should be allowed to be, someone the plot focuses on more than you would like, someone you don’t want to read about. Hmmm.

What’s really wrong with a thirteen year old girl having a power fantasy, even if it’s badly written? Who is it hurting? Men have baldly admitted to writing power fantasies and self inserts since the beginning of time. How many nerdy, schlubby guys suddenly become badasses and have hot girls chasing after them in fiction? See: Spiderman- blatant everyman who happens to stumble across amazing powers and catch the eye of a supermodel. Mary Sue is considered the worst insult to throw at a character as it renders them worthless. But since when are idealized characters automatically worthless? Aren’t all heroes idealized in some way? Don’t all heroes represent the author in some way? Aren’t these characters supposed to be people we look up to, people who represent human potential, the goodness that we strive for? Fantasy by nature is idealized, even the tragic ones.

If you look at the TV Tropes page for Mary Sue, it’s ridiculous. You can be a sue for having too many flaws, or not enough, for fixing things or messing things up, for being a hero or a villain. And of course, this is specifically pointed out as a trope related to the Princess and Magical Girl genres- genres aimed towards women are naturally full of Mary Sues. Magical girls are powerful and heroic and actually flaunt femininity as a good thing. They are a power fantasy designed for girls. So of course, a girl using traditionally feminine traits to dominate and triumph means she’s a sickeningly pure Mary Sue who makes everything go their way. Feminine traits are disdained and look down on, so when the positive feminine traits are prominent, the reader has an aversive reaction. How can a character be so feminine and triumph? She must be unrealistic, she must be badly written, because everyone knows it is impossible to be feminine and powerful.

Let’s look at what kinds of Mary Sues people will point to. People will claim a female character is a Mary Sue if she is a love interest. Put a female character within a foot of a male character, and people will scream “Mary Sue!” Why does someone falling in love with her make her a Mary Sue? Well, she hasn’t “earned” this awesome dude character’s love. What has she done to show she’s worthy of him? Fans miss the irony that this line of logic makes the male character seem more like the Sue in Question, as he’s apparently so perfect one has work for his coveted love and praise.

The idea that woman has to “earn” any power, praise, love, or plot prominence is central to Mary Sue. Men do not have to do this, they are naturally assumed to be powerful, central and loveable. That’s why it’s the first thing thrown at a female character- what has she done to be given the same consideration as a male character? Why is she suddenly usurping a male role? “Mary Sue” is the easiest way to dismiss a character. It sounds bad to say “I don’t like this female character. I don’t like that this woman is powerful. I don’t like it when the plot focuses on her. I don’t like that a character I like has affections for her.” But “Mary Sue” is a way to say these things without really saying them. It gives you legitimacy.

If a character is badly written, there’s generally something much more problematic than idealization going on. The plot will be dull and the character will perpetuate harmful stereotypes while other characters act oddly. For instance, Bella Swan is one of the only characters I’d even begin to classify as a Mary Sue, yet it’s not really her supposed Mary Sue traits that bother me. I don’t mind that she gets what she wants and everyone loves her, that she’s Meyer’s power fantasy. What I actually mind is that Stephenie Meyer has her perpetuate harmful anti-woman stereotypes- women need to be protected, women are shallow, women’s worth rests in desirability. That’s what’s actually harmful about her and worth discussing. I would criticize that rather than even get to the fact Bella got to be “too perfect and powerful”- that’s just a tiny, insignificant thing not worth mentioning in a huge pile of problems.

And that’s why I don’t call characters Mary Sue anymore. There’s really nothing bad about a power fantasy or wish fulfillment. It’s what’s fiction’s about. If one of my characters is called a Sue, I’ll proudly say “yep”, because that must mean that she broke out of that box a female character is supposed to be in. So I’ll go and say it: I love me some Mary Sues.

Post script:

I’ll just say that the fact there’s not an agreed upon consensus for Mary Sue is sort of the point of the article and why it basically means “female character” at this point.

Yes there is such a thing as perfect characters that overtake the plot.

My point wasn’t that there’s no such thing, but that it only bothers people when they’re female and the term started because it bothers people when they’re female and VERY QUICKLY came to mean “any female character”.

I pointed to Bella Swan as an example. The point is, if a genuine “Sue” does exist, there’s generally waaaay more problematic things going on than a female character being powerful. You’ll have lookism and stereotypes up the wazoo. Focus on that shit. It’s more difficult than crying “Sue!” but ultimately more worthwhile.

I do think characters need to earn their happy ending, need to run the gauntlet absolutely. But guys are allowed to have skills right off the bat that girls will be “sued” for.

My example: Winry Rockbell vs. Edward Elric- since that’s what started this whole thing.

Winry is called a Sue for being a skilled mechanic. What did she do to earn her genius level abilities, huh?

Edward Elric is NOT a sue for the same genius level skill in alchemy right off the bat.

Winry is a Sue for being helpful to the plot and “not earning” Ed’s love. No one cares about Ed being helpful to the plot and he does not need to earn Winry’s love.

That’s how the Mary Sue double standard works.

Hahahaha I knew people would be pissed at the Batman thing. Yep, there’s no single Batman either. But the overall concept is a thing, and it’s complete wish fulfillment- and it’s why Batman can be insufferable and problematic in some versions.


  1. I loved your essay and shared it on a social media site, it got this response from a female acquaintance of mine:

    " It's counterintuitive to link powerful female characters with the Mary Sue condition. It's entirely possible for females to be powerful without being Mary Sues, so let's please not mix the two. The author also seems to be mixing up power fantasies and wish fulfillment, and the difference between angst and whining. Some of it is pretty valid, but I'd take it with a grain of salt."

    I was wondering what you think about this.

    (I love both your essays on here by the way, and I can't wait to read more! Among my group of friends I'm the only feminist manga fan, so your point of view is refreshing!)

  2. Double standards are galore. For some unknown reason, humans tend to have the very human trait of making the distinctions "me" against "the rest" and "us" against "them". They also tend to pick any label they don't wholly understand and paste it wherever they please.

    From what I've read about how these "Mary Sues", "Marty Stus", "Gary Stus", or simply self-praise, originated, it makes me think that the person who coined the term (or who gave the meaning to the already coined term that was the name of the character) intended it to describe a character in a story that both 1) is very clearly the author's avatar (in these cases, there tends to be some kind of relation with either the name of the character and the name/handle of the author or the character's appearance and the author's self-image) and 2) it's not like the character steals the limelight, nor that the story revolves about them, but that the plot takes a secondary relevance (if any) before the character even in cases, like I seem to remember the trope namer to be, where the character is just a secondary one, a supporter or a one-off appearance (in those cases, the story may have some plot whenever the character is not on scene).

    In short, a MS, as I picture it, is a character that's the only thing that matters, while the story is just a sorry excuse to portray it and have it doing something, even if just existing (definition that, btw, leaves out most of the alleged MS).
    An author avatar as a character may give a good reading, and many books, movies and whatever that are regarded as masterpieces make use of that resource, so that by itself is not a MS.
    A character around which a sorry excuse of a story has been told with the only intention to portray it also doesn't have to be a MS (it may very well just be that the author came up with a character they liked, but they have no gift for literature).

    The issue with MS is that people (haters) use the word as a tool for one of the oldest, least vaid, but still most used dialectic resources to prove one's point that is the ad hoc: to deny an argument by discrediting your opponent. And the worst thing is that it WORKS, when it shouldn't.