This piece was originally published at Ordinary Times Magazine.
The topic of “Mary Sue” came up on Twitter the other day. A friend of mine (we’ll call him “Rod Shelley”) mentioned that he thought that people calling characters Mary Sue was sexist because they always seemed to apply it to female and not male characters. This spurred an interesting conversation.
So – is the expression “Mary Sue” sexist?
Rod was absolutely correct in his observation that “Mary Sue” is a term that is used to exclusively describe female characters. But this is because from its inception, Mary Sue is a term that depicts a certain type of always-female character. Mary Sue is not applied to dudes because it’s not a descriptor that is applicable to male characters. It’s like the term “buxom” – it’s pretty much exclusively used to describe females but it’s not because it’s a sexist term per se, it’s because it’s a word that describes a quality present in females and not males. Buxom, like Mary Sue, can certainly be used in sexist ways, but it isn’t inherently sexist and it certainly isn’t sexist to apply it exclusively to women, because it describes a quality some women have. “Mary Sue”, the expression, isn’t anti-woman any more than the word “priapic” is anti-male.
Even though it’s become ubiquitous of late, the origins of Mary Sue are humble. It’s from A Trekkie’s Tale, a very funny, very short parody story about a certain type of writing that was…and still is…common in fan fiction. In 1974, when A Trekkie’s Tale was first published, fan fiction was just starting to become an Official Thing (in those dark pre-Internet days, fanfic spread at conventions and not online). Paula Smith, the author of A Trekkie’s Tale, realized that most bad fan fiction – particularly that written by women authors (then again, most who write fan fic are female so it goes to follow that most bad fan fic would therefore be written by women)- fell into a peculiar and oddly specific category, which we now refer to as Mary Sue. In Smith’s words (and may I just say I adore how spectacularly startrekian this is), “I simply named a bug, I found a new fern. I identified a piece of humanity and put a name to it, but that’s all I did.”
*A female character who is pretty obviously meant to be a stand in for the author (particularly in fan fic) or the author’s perceived audience (fan service).
*She’s an original, non-canon character who comes in from seemingly out of nowhere, with little explanation. If she has a back story at all, it’s fascinating and/or heart wrenching and/or incredibly impressive – in the case of the original Mary Sue, “the youngest lieutenant in Starfleet at only 15 and a half years old”.
*She’s incredibly gorgeous (often possessing rare and unusual beauty – IMO green or violet eyes and wildly curly hair in an unusual shade are dead giveaways), is unbelievably smart, witty, charming, sweet, and is often but not always a badass.
*The regularly occurring canon characters are bizarrely, even inexplicably smitten with her. If canon characters are female, Mary Sue becomes protegé/daughter/best friend/love interest, if the canon characters are male, Mary Sue becomes apprentice/daughter/kid sister/love interest. What’s more, the regular characters want to protect and defend Mary Sue, not just coexist alongside her. An intimate relationship of some sort begins immediately, no getting-to-know-you grace period, regardless of the canon character’s personality. Even if the main character is generally taciturn, unfriendly, or standoffish, they aren’t any of those things when it comes to Mary Sue. She is embraced by virtually all the regular characters, and if there’s a recurring character who doesn’t fall head over heels in like with Mary Sue, they’re typically portrayed as bitter or jealous of her greatness.
*Mary Sue possesses an impossibly wide array of talents that surpass the skills of all the canon characters. She’s even good at things that the regular characters do that she’s never tried before. She can hack computers, set broken bones, fight demons, bake cupcakes, and play the lute. She’s well read, well dressed, well heeled, well connected, and well rested. There is nothing Mary Sue cannot do when she sets her mind to it. She puts all the everyday characters to shame with her wonderfulness, but she doesn’t rub it in their faces, though, because she’s also totally nice. Most of these characteristics aren’t relevant to the plot, they’re just there to make Mary Sue the awesomest.
*There never seems to be any price to Mary Sue’s skillset, either in acquisition or execution. She never (well, rarely) spent years in a university learning stuff, she never spent years slaving away in a workplace to get where she is today, she’s just inherently, naturally born amazing and the world has recognized this by giving her responsibilities far beyond her years. She never has to juggle priorities or limit herself in any way, she has an endless supply of time and money and energy to be great at however many things the plot needs her to be great at, plus all the things the writer happens to think are cool. She only ever has to pay a fee in terms of physical limitations or personal sacrifices when her fragility and spirit of self-sacrifice makes her more sympathetic and endearing to the canon characters.
*Usually, she dies a tragic death in which she saves everyone on the ship/planet/police squad and the main characters are utterly transformed by it in ways that they were never transformed by previous characters’ deaths, even when they’d known the other characters for years.
*And finally, (and I think this is the surest tell) she deprotagonizes the other characters. Suddenly, a show that was an ensemble cast about people on a spaceship or two brothers fighting demons to give a couple random and meaningless examples I just spun out of thin air, becomes about this other person entirely for an episode or three (or in the pages of a fanfic) leaving the characters most of us show up to see sitting on the sidelines waving pom-poms for her. Even more so, the recurring characters act completely out of character on Mary Sue’s behalf – gushing and paying compliments and giving hugs – even though they don’t DO stuff like that, like, ever.
Now, what a Mary Sue is and isn’t beyond all that, is a matter of great debate. The term has been watered down and bastardized and is admittedly grossly mis- and overapplied. It’s been stretched to include lots of variations, most famously something called a Canon Sue. Canon Sue is mostly just like her big sister Mary Sue, but she’s a recurring character. All the same qualities apply, though – Sue’s just too good to be true and she’s just born awesome and all the boys fall in love with her and all the girls fall in love with her too and she saves the whole entire universe. Be they Canon Sue or Classic Mary Sue, Mary Sues are loved by everyone, protected by everyone, cherished by everyone, and they are there to help everyone through their sheer unadulterated awesomeness. Mary Sues are awesome without assistance from anybody else, right up till they swoon dramatically and die from an overdose of saving the world.
At first my friend Rod shrugged off my claims that Mary Sue has to be female by definition, because as he said, he sees plenty of male characters who are Chosen Ones, who are inexplicably awesome at something-or-the-other for no real reason. But if you take a closer look, while there are absolutely plenty of male heroes in fiction that are Chosen Ones, they aren’t Mary Sues.
Everybody in a galaxy far, far away, doesn’t magically fall in love with Luke Skywalker. Heck, he walks into a bar and a total stranger says “I don’t like you” and he has to be saved by a geezer. Han Solo is always busting his chops and the princess he comes to rescue insults his height. He requires the help of Han and ObiWan’s ghost to blow up the Death Star. Later he gets his ass kicked and his hand chopped off and he needs his dad to kill the Emporer for him.
Everybody at Hogwarts doesn’t magically fall in love with Harry Potter. He has to deal with a hostile press corps, tons of people who don’t like him for various reasons, and even those who like him, don’t always believe in him. He needs the help of dozens of people to defeat Voldemort, even Neville, even his archenemy Snape for Dobby’s sake!! Nobody protects him from anything, even several people who by all rights should be looking out for him.
Everybody in the Matrix doesn’t magically fall in love with Neo. In fact, Morpheus is hard pressed to convince anyone else that Neo is the Chosen One. Neo needs help from Morpheus, Trinity, and lots of other people (including parts of the Matrix itself) to defeat Agent Smith and save Zion.
Everybody in the Jedi Order doesn’t magically fall in love with Anakin. Mace Windu and Yoda never trusted him, the Jedi Council refuses to make him a master and even his teacher ObiWan doesn’t exactly have his back. He may fly a pod racer when he’s 9 (at Qui-Gonn’s request – not exactly protecting the little bugger, was he?) but he is very far from being universally loved or good at everything.
All the other characters have to protect and love a Mary Sue. That’s the deal with a Mary Sue. She is universally loved. She is universally nurtured. She isn’t just Chosen, she’s Cared About. She doesn’t even have to be chosen at all (the original Mary Sue isn’t a Chosen One!) she just needs to be adored. Mary Sue is a vector of wish fulfillment for people who want to be loved and taken care of by everyone around them while still being seen as a brave and daring heroine, and it makes for unrealistic fiction that a dude – no matter how awesomesauce he is – will show up anywhere and be incessantly fawned over by both men and women alike. Mary Sue is already an unrealistic character on a good day.
Try to make Gary or Larry or Marty Stu show up on an established show and make a bunch of grizzled old reserved and surly dudes like Jean Luc Picard or Dean Winchester or Han Solo suddenly start gushing about how fantabulous he is and how they want to be BFF’s and protect him at all costs to themselves. At least in any fashion that is remotely believable and doesn’t end up with you despising the smarmy little twerp and/or wanting to slap the older dudes for debasing themselves that way.
Go ahead, try it, I’ll wait.
Mary Sue is a woman for the same reason a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a woman – it’s a close enough approximation of a type of person and/or scenario that exists in real life. It’s just plain more realistic that a winsome and talented chick shows up out of the blue and wins a bunch of people over without having to try very hard. That scenario is much more plausible than having a winsome and talented guy show up and everyone gloms onto him trying to be his mommy or daddy or buddy or pal or long-lost uncle or hoping to seduce him. Even more, it is much more realistic that people will behave protectively, solicitously, towards a female character than a male one. It may not be fair, it may not be right, but it be. Writing Mary Sue as a man just doesn’t ring true, and Mary Sue doesn’t ring too true to start out with. And trying to make Mary Sue a Gary Stu (kinda sorta) yielded one of the most hated characters in all of history…Wesley Crusher.
But maybe you’re still not convinced. Rod wasn’t. And that’s because the writing of a Mary Sue is only half the equation. There is also the reading (or the watching) of a Mary Sue. Because the audience is just as important to the existence of Mary Sue as the writer is.
The thing about Mary Sue that makes her interesting despite her triteness (to me anyway) is also what makes her 100% for sure not sexist. A Mary Sue is a female conception of an ideal female character. If you’re a man reading this and you’re confused or disgusted or annoyed by the ubiquity of Mary Sueism, it’s ok, Mary Sue isn’t intended for you anyway. Believe it or not, there are things in this world that women do for ourselves and each other and not for men, and one of them is Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is what women ourselves think the ideal woman should be. How can something that is made by women, for women, be sexist?? We Internetters have fun sometimes joking about men writing ridiculously idealized female characters but Mary Sue is women writing what women secretly want to be, down deep inside ourselves where we think no one is looking.
Women writing idealized female characters is as psychologically telling and as tragically hilarious as men writing idealized female characters. Men may write women as one-dimensional (and I hope it isn’t because men think the ideal woman IS one-dimensional) but women think the ideal woman ought to be so multidimensional that she’s positively interdimensional. Women have it drummed into us since the moment we emerge from the womb that we need to be successful in every arena and if they invent a new arena we better be good in that one too even though we never practiced before. Is it really any surprise that when we concoct an ideal woman, it’s one who is effortlessly successful at everything she ever tries?
A female friend of mine pointed out, and I fully, fully concur with her brilliance, that when it comes to Mary Sue, if our lives were a narrative, we would want to be the character who is good at everything, adored by all, protected and nurtured, and so desirable that love interests are actually fighting over us. She said, “We don’t get that in the real world and so we have to invent it.” This is very very much a similar sentiment to the sentiment of “unearned specialness” I explored in my recent piece about Twilight – and Bella Swan, the main character of Twilight, is widely considered to be one of the most well-known Canon Sues.
Men like wish fulfillment just like women do, but their wish fulfillment avatars tend to be more of the Everyman variety – guys who are nothing special, even damaged goods, but circumstances thrust them into situations where they have the opportunity to excel, to succeed, without really changing much or having to work too awfully hard at it. Everymen may be Chosen Ones, but they’re really only Chosen in one arena. Neo doesn’t also become a concert pianist and a New York Times Bestselling Author in addition to being The One. Luke becomes a Jedi, but he doesn’t even get the girl. This isn’t hard for me to understand – after all, I can see that would be a wonderful fantasy – to be average, to be flawed, to not succeed at most things, and still find some way to shine.
But honestly, that doesn’t do it for me.
I need to feel deserving of success. I need to feel like I earned it. I need to feel like the people around me – my parents and bosses and friends and love interests – look at me and see some version of perfection. Even my flaws are the flaws that they would have picked out if they could have ordered me from a catalog. And unfortunately for me, I find I need that even in my fictional escapades. I’m sure that this is in no small part because I’ve never felt good enough, or right enough, or fixed enough to be worthy of success or even worthy of love. It’s like a chronic case of Imposter Syndrome and most of us women are afflicted. Deep down inside, I don’t feel I’ll ever be good enough until I am perfect, and so in order to enjoy a fantasy – even just a FANTASY – I need to incorporate that desire to be seen as perfect through someone’s eyes, since that’s the only way I feel worthy.
Hence Mary Sue.
Mary Sue is not sexist. The term has been misused, grossly at times, with sexist undertones, for sure. But it isn’t a sexist term itself. The character “Mary Sue” is something that’s made for women, by women, and it endures because there’s something about Mary Sue that speaks to women both as creators and as readers.