Monday, January 08, 2007

Some Thoughts on Mary Sue

I think there needs to be a temporary moratorium on using the term "Mary Sue."


Because it is, in the end, a sexist concept.

I get why it came about, and I don't really see sexism as the motive for the original idea, and I don't doubt that teen girls writing fanfic are more guilty of writing Mary Sues than teen boys.

But using it to refer to popular media as often as people have been lately is just stupid. And annoying.

Yes, Joss Whedon's female leads, Anita Blake, and probably even Vivian from Blood and Chocolate and all of Tamora Pierce's heroines all deserve the title of Mary Sue in some way or another.

But you know what? If they do, so do half (or more) of the male leads in popular culture.

My pet theory for why girls are more likely to write Mary Sue fanfic? A) they are more likely to write fanfic and B) They need it more because fewer of the female characters out there fulfill the same function for girls and women that Rocky, Eragon, Batman, Luke Skywalker, James Bond etc. fulfill for boys and men.

So, yeah, any female equivalent of Rocky is going to have aspects of Mary Sue-ness - because Rocky has aspects of Mary Sue-ness.

But we only call River a Mary Sue, not James Bond. And seriously, which is more deserving of the title of Mary Sue - James Bond or River?

So, please, unless you are willing to deride Harry Potter for being a Mary Sue, please refrain from talking about Buffy's - or anyone else's - Mary Sue-ness.

That goes double for not being happy with the direction of a series because the writer did something you don't like to the characters you do like in order to do something he or she likes with his or her favorite character.

Feel free to not be happy about it. Feel free to deride their writing, choice of favorite character, not so secret fantasies, whatever. But complaining that Whedon's Astonishing X-Men has turned into a Mary Sue story about Kitty Pride just seems a bit silly when there's an entire X-Men series devoted to Wolverine. The way in which he has done so may be worth complaining about. Aside from personal taste, the fact that he has done so isn't.


Anonymous said...

I am seriously in agreement with this. But then again, I tend not to apply the term Mary Sue to anything original -- stories (especially genre ones) almost have to be about exceptional people. And when it comes to original things, my very favorite character archetype is Spunky Young Girl (needless to say, I grew up on plenty of Mercedes Lackey...). She smacks of Mary Sue, but that's because Mary Sue has somehow become a way of putting down exceptional females (sigh).

As a writer, too, I think the "Mary Sue stage" is a really good and important one to go through. You're learning to create characters at that point, and yes, if you go to far then you need to learn to reign it in. But that's part of learning to write well, not a problem with the character... Not to mention that if you're writing fic, it can also be fulfilling a *need* for that kind of exceptional female character, because she's so rarely there in canon.

Mickle said...

"As a writer, too, I think the "Mary Sue stage" is a really good and important one to go through"


And I can't help but wonder how Eragon would have been perceived if the title character and author had been female.

If there was ever a published book that deserved the term "Mary Sue".....

Shiamirei said...

Actually, I've heard many people refer to the hero of Eragon as a Mary Sue (or a "Marty Stu"). In my experience, I haven't seen too much of a gender distinction made when it comes to calling out a ridiculously idealized self insert, whether they're male or female. Most of the fandom circles I've moved in, though, have been predominantly female (anime and video game fanfic), and I don't have much experience in US comics or TV show fandoms.

Mickle said...

Well, ok, I was cheating a bit with Eragon. That one is just so damn obvious one has to have blinders on to miss it.

But while I have heard people refer to, say Ender Wiggin, as a Mary Sue, I rarely see it used to put down, oh, say Indiana Jones or James Bond. And even Ender Wiggin usually only gets it if the initial topic is Mary Sue, versus the original topic being Ender's Game.

Although, like "fan service" I think the problem is lesser or greater depending on the audience. And I'd guess that my audience - and the audience for When Fangirls Attack - is less likely to be guilty of it than the general public.

Reb said...

D'oh - I didn't realize i was anonymous above. I'm so smrt.

Incidentally, I'd really like to link this and the fanservice follow up in the next Feminist Scifi/Fantasy carnival. May I please?

Ragnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ragnell said...

Okay, one of my big rules is: There is no original fiction Mary Sue. Because the definition of the character is a self-insertion into ANOTHER person's story. If the "Mary Sue" refers to an originl creation, the proper term is "Bad Character."

("Canon Sue" is a term best reserved for a fanfiction character that the fanfic author lives vicariously through.)

That said, the Ultimate Mary Sue is, and always will be, Galahad, with Lancelot a close second. (Later Arthurian Legends are essentially fanfiction, and Gal) So my suggestion is to replace the term "Mary Sue" with "Galahad."

Now, Galahad is only for the extreme cases. If the character has "Flaws" such as "too selfless," and "low self-esteem" and "Angsty" as are commonly given to the shameless self-insertion character, but the character is still a spotlight leech, I suggest the term "Lancelot" to at least reward the effort to make the character not perfect.

amalekite said...

James Bond isn't much of an example of a Mary Sue character if we're going by the novels here. Not unless the male reader's secret desires are to be tortured by the KGB and kill various people in cold blood on the orders of his government. So I assume you're only referring to the Bond of the cinema.

Seraph said...

Sure, I'll call Harry Potter a Gary (Harry?) Stu. The boy is abused in standard Cinderella fashion until the age of 11, suddenly comes into enormous fame, wealth, and easy-to-lash-out-with personal power. He finds that he has spectacular natural ability in the wizarding world's most popular sport. What's more, the entirely wizarding world alternates betweeen kissing his ass and condemning him - even people he's rescued personally.

And yet, in spite of all this, he remains an essentially good kid. Friendly, doesn't consider himself to be anything special, maybe a bit less respect for the rules than he should have. He doesn't have to crawl into a closet at Hogwart's to be able to sleep, he isn't hitting the firewhiskey at every opportunity, he isn't banging groupies, he isn't blasting people who give him shit. In short, he's not showing any of the symptoms that a real kid in his place almost certainly would.

Djiril said...

I agree that female characters are more likely to be labled "Mary Sues" than male characters, simply because people are less used to seeing strong and capable female characters than strong and capable male characters.

I disagree, however, with the assertion that Sues exist only in fan fiction. I tend to see it as a shorthand term for bad characterization the way it is often used.

Just yesterday I was reading through the archives of a blog about how to write good fantasy and I came across what I thought an interesting insight on the subject:

Of course you can have characters with absolute morals and absolute stands on certain things. But I continue to believe that a character whose perceptions are 100% correct and in accordance with objective reality is a canon Mary Sue. That’s the definition that means more, to me, than all the super-powers, super-beauty, and love interests in the world. A character can have all those and still be flawed and, thus, interesting (though it gets harder as you pile them on; ask Elizabeth Haydon or Laurell K. Hamilton). But make her intuitively right about all events and all persons, and she’s an omniscient plot device, not a real person.

On the other hand, a really good writer might be able to write a story about a character like this and still make it a good story that draws people in and keeps them interested.

Mickle said...

see - this is why I need to keep up with my ow blog....

ragnell - I like both suggestions (rules?)

amalekite - yes, I meant movie James Bond.

seraph - you go do that. Meanwhile: see my earlier comment about Ender Wiggen.

djiril - I tend to lean towards ragnell's views on the matter, if for no other reason than because pushing people towards more gender neutral terms like "bad character" or "archetype" makes it just a tiny bit harder to not see the sexism in the way the term is usually used.

Now, get the majority of people to change "Mary Sue" to "Lancelot" and I'll be willing to negotiate, but otherwise.....

Anonymous said...

As as been stated above, there is a male term for Mary Sue - Gary Stu, or sometimes Marty Stu. The reason Mary Sue is used more often to cover both sexes is because the original parody that coined the term was a female, called Mary Sue (obviously). If the character had been a male called Gary Stu, that would've been the term that stuck.

I honestly don't know why sexism has to brought in here - a bad character is a bad character, and as most Sues are female that's what you'll see more often.

What women want to see are normal, well-rounded girls who can take care of themselves and aren't inserted into a story to be the love interest or token female character, not sparkly, perfect do-alls (exceptional females as a commenter wrote above). Writers who are uncomfortable writing 'modern' or 'independent' women tend to accessorise them in place of character development - making them spunky, domineering hot-heads with a range of impressive but rarely seen abilities while at the same time writing them into the same mysogynist roles they were trying to avoid.

Ginny Weasley from Harry Potter, for instance - athletic, hot-headed, supposedly powerful with a 'bat-bogey hex' that is feared far and wide but never seen by the readers, shouts down a guy who innocently tries to help her through the Gryffindor entrance hole (supposedly feminist but really just obnoxious,) and people left right and center constantly praise her abilities to let the reader know that she is wonderful and 'worthy' of being Harry's 'ideal girl'. Her role in the story? Absolutely none. She plays no useful part and in the end is made to sit out of the big fight. She becomes the hero's trophy wife and has his kids, fulfilling the duties of a typical 1940's housewife. Is she an 'exceptional female', because she has a good hex, is good at Quidditch and hot-headed? Personally, I find her existance insulting, not empowering.

The sexism, in my opinion, is not created by using the term Mary Sue; the Mary Sue character itself is often spawned from a shallow, misguided attempt at feminism, or a 'modern' female.

Instead of trying to paint the term 'Mary Sue' into the new 'slut', perhaps it would be more profitable to ask why so many female characters are 'sueifyed' instead of realistically written.

Mickle said...

"The reason Mary Sue is used more often to cover both sexes is because the original parody that coined the term was a female, called Mary Sue (obviously)."

Which, of course, was made in a complete vacuum, and not at all in reference to the fact that (at least at the time) most of the really juvenile fan fiction (which is what the parody was about) featured female leads that were obviously stand-ins for the author.

" most Sues are female that's what you'll see more often."

And why are most Sues female again?

"Instead of trying to paint the term 'Mary Sue' into the new 'slut', perhaps it would be more profitable to ask why so many female characters are 'sueifyed' instead of realistically written."

1) "the new slut"? wtf is that part of the sentence even supposed to mean?

2) I kinda did already ask this. And I came up with an answer. You apparently disagree with it (without giving an alternate reason why or an argument to the contrary).

btw, Ginny isn't a Mary Sue, even ignoring Ragnell's rule. Mary Sues are the stars; the whole point of the parody is that the world always revolves around them, even though in cannon they don't even exist. Secondary characters in original works can't be Mary Sues by definition, so Ginny is no more a Mary Sue than Ce'Nedra is.

(Now, Garion, otoh, that's another story.)

Which goes back to my complaint, that people tend to just be using the term to mean "female characters that I don't like/find annoying" which, again, is really sexist because we don't have a special name for male character we don't like. They are just "bad characters."

(And for gods sake people, stop saying "but, but..Gary Stu!" as if people applied it with the same consistency and range as they do "Mary Sue." Hell, we can't even agree if it's Gary, Larry, or Marty.)

Jessica said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post. After being accused of writing a Mary Sue, even though it isn't and was shortly denied by another reviewer, I was offended. The reviewer also writes about a sexually abused main character, almost always through that male character's point of view. However, my main character's short intro was quickly dismissed as a Mary Sue without reference to the specific drop the story presumably took. T_T
Sorry for the rant. :)

Anonymous said...

The term "Mary Sue" comes a satirical Star Trek fanfic (which was the real origin of fanfiction) where the writer poked fun at all the perfect characters with her character Mary Sue who everyone fell in love with etc etc.

So its origins aren't that sexist and there are Gary/ Marty Stus acknowledged too, though I agree not quite as much. James Bond is pure wish fufillment but unlike Twilight it is entertaining (and not offensive, stupid and starting a crazy cult).

I do disagree with Harry Potter being a Gary Stu though. In the first few books when Harrys still a kid his flaws are presented but because he has less free will he doesn't have much room to make massive mistakes. By the time the third book comes around his flaws really start causing him problems and his godfather dies in the fifth due to his own rashness.