Everybody on the internet knows the term Mary-Sue.
The problem is that what the term means to individuals varies wildly. Taken from this this very awesome post from Zoe-Trope on the subject of Mary-Sue, here’s a list of some things that seem to trigger reviewers dubbing characters a Mary-Sue:
1) A female character who is too perfect
2) A female character who kicks too much butt
3) A female character who gets her way too easily
4) A female character who is too powerful
5) A female character who has too many flaws
6) A female character who has the wrong flaws
7) A female character who has no flaws
8) A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9) A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10) A female character who is too passive or boring
…Yeah, it’s a pretty diverse list. And it obviously contradicts itself in multiple places. So what’s true? Who is Mary-Sue?
Going back to its earliest origins, Mary-Sue is a fan character, often a self insert or close to a self insert, having a number of traits the fic author wishes they had. Mary-Sue was coined in the Star Trek fandom back when Spock and Kirk were the biggest ship around, which makes it pretty impressive that it’s stuck around so long.
But it did so with good reason. Because Mary-Sue is ubiquitous. Everyone’s run into her and most of us have written her. And if we didn’t write her, we still had a version of her in the back of our heads when we were gawky, awkward teens, saying what we wanted to say and making friends with all the right people and being everything we couldn’t be. Because ultimately, that’s who Mary-Sue is. She’s a teenage ideal, the emblem of everything we wanted. Or thought we wanted.
Because the fact is? Teenagers don’t know shit about what they want. They’re still learning who they are and striving to figure out who they will become. And it’s an age where they’re inundated with messages about who that should be. Teachers, parents, media, other kids, they’re all pushing teenage you to become something. And maybe that’s something you want to be or something you think you want to be. But through the process of being a teenager and growing up, you learn if that is someone you can possibly become, let alone someone you actually want to be.
And when you get closer to figuring out what you actually want and being who you are, looking back at that teenage ideal, that Mary-Sue in the back of your head, it’s so embarrassing. It’s like looking at old photos, the ones where you had the braces and the bad hair cut that was so in vogue at the time and the overly tight leggings you definitely can’t wear now and probably shouldn’t have been wearing then, but now you’re a little jealous because wow your thighs will never be that tiny again and how can you be jealous of this gawky, awkward shameful person that you were?
All of those feelings get wrapped up around Mary-Sue, which is why it’s no wonder that, outside of the person who made her, she is universally reviled. Not only is her presence in a story invasive, destroying good plot and characterizations in favor of how awesome she is, she reminds us of our own fumbling youth, the best and the worst of us.
And that’s why she’s not only stayed, but fulfilled her destiny and invaded everything. She’s not just in fanfic anymore, she’s in common parlance. She’s a descriptor and a label that gets slammed on all kinds of female characters, used the same way we might call someone we don’t like a slut or a bitch. And this isn’t fair and it flat out isn’t useful. It’s not fair to the teenager we used to be, turning the thing we thought we wanted to be into a dirty swear, as if our teenage self didn’t have enough problems. It isn’t fair to any number of perfectly valid and interesting female characters, who get dismissed and tossed aside under the label. And it isn’t useful because if everything is Mary-Sue, the term loses all meaning and relevance.
As is pointed out by Zoe-Trope, the only uniting factor of the list is that Mary-Sue applies to FEMALE characters. There is a male equivalent to Mary-Sue, which is Gary-Stu. And you hardly ever run into it on the internet. Why? Because women are more prone to writing Mary-Sues than guys?
No. Men are just as prone as women to scribing their teenage fantasies on the world, in RP and fanfic and as over powered, over perfect protagonists in fiction. But it’s Mary-Sue who gets the bad wrap because, as a society, we are more critical of women than we are of men. If a woman does not fit the narrow scope of what the viewer thinks she should be, the blame is placed not on the viewer for having a narrow view, but on the woman for not jamming herself into that tiny crevice of an ideal. Whereas for men, the window is already considerably larger, and if a guy doesn’t fit, it’s cool, he’s just breaking the mold.
And so Gary-Stu fades into obscurity and Mary-Sue becomes a slur slapped on every woman who dares appear in fiction. It’s time to stop this. Readers, please think twice before slapping the title of Mary-Sue on a character. And as for me, next week I’ll continue to discuss Mary-Sue, defining and narrowing what exactly we mean by this term, so it can still be useful without being a pointless slur.