NOPE! NOT LISTENING!
I’M 22 AND IN COLLEGE. YOU EITHER BELIEVE EVERYTHING I BELIEVE WITHOUT QUESTION, EVEN IF I JUST LEARNED IT LAST WEEK, OR YOU’RE DEAD TO ME.
DON’T YOU THINK IT WOULD BE BETTER TO WAIT UNTIL YOU’VE HAD A CHANCE TO APPLY THE THINGS YOU’RE LEARNING AND VIEW THEM THROUGH THE LENS OF LIVED EXPERIENCE BEFORE YOU ASSIGN THEM UNILATERALLY TO THE ENTIRE POPULACE? KIND OF LIKE HOW THEY DON’T RELEASE A DRUG WITHOUT CLINICAL TRIALS? THE WORLD IS QUITE COMPLEX, AND ALMOST EVERYONE’S BELIEFS CHANGE OR ADAPT GIVEN TIME AND EXPOSURE. WHILE BIGGER AND BETTER THAN HIGH SCHOOL, COLLEGE IS STILL A BUBBLE, AND ACTUAL SOCIALIZATION IS AS IMPORTANT AS CRITICAL THEORY WHEN IT COMES TO UNDERSTANDING, FUNCTIONING IN, AND CHANGING MODERN SOCIETY.
UGH! STOP TALKING TO ME LIKE I’M 18 AND FUCK OFF ALREADY!
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:
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.
I still maintain that what makes a character a “Mary Sue” or “Gary Stu” relates to what the character has, what they want to have, and what they’ll risk to get it. Any character has the potential to be written very well or very poorly depending on what muck the writers are willing to drag them through. If a character has almost everything they could ever want to begin with, obtains whatever they want with no struggle, never appears to work for anything, and only has very superficial negligible problems, that character is poorly written.
Many characters are very much susceptible to falling into this trap, people want to write about the exceptional lives of exceptional characters, and if they’re too in love with their babies to allow bad things to happen to them it will be a problem. Characters like Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, etc certainly have the potential to be written poorly, certainly HAVE been written poorly by a selection of authors who have been responsible for penning them in the past, but are not inherently poorly written. I’ve heard it said that a hero is only as good as their foil, and I have never found that to be false, whether it’s how the character’s own positive and negative traits stack up or how well outfitted their enemy is against them.
Using Tony Stark as an example (he’s a favourite of mine, the first two Iron Man films made a fantastic case study), he fits the Mary Sue bill even better than Bruce Wayne. Tony Stark is the richest, smartest, most popular and handsome kid on the block who gets any woman he wants. He has none of the character struggles like social isolation or poor interpersonal skills that often plague remarkably intelligent or wealthy people in real life and without the alcoholism that dogs his comic equivalent, at face value he’s pretty much the picture perfect example of a Sue. However, the first film manages to stay interesting by first putting his life in immediate pressing danger (arguably as a result of his own Hubris), putting him in a personal situation that can’t be solved with flippancy, having him betrayed and later matched in mortal combat against his more worldly and experienced father figure, and as a cherry on the top has him lightheartedly rejected by the one woman he has expressed honest feeling for (as a result of his own earlier negligent behaviour towards her). He perseveres all of this and comes out on top, perhaps not far from where he started but at least with a renewed respect for human life and new objectives for the future.
The second film, however, plays him straight as “the awesomest dude”. Anyone who stands against him is a strawman, the “impending death” he faces isn’t serious enough to distract from his illustrious jet-setting lifestyle and he’s freely handed a cure for it before it can impede him in any significant way. No matter how poorly he treats his friends and loved ones, they’re the ones played out as “in the wrong” who apologize and come back to him, and their attempt at touching on his alcoholism doesn’t get worse than the superhero equivalent of your friend taking away your car keys at a raucous party. Where Obadiah was a trusted friend and shrewd businessman, Hammer was an incompetent buffoon. Where the Iron Monger Armour is better harder faster stronger than Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit, Whiplash’s ultimate form poses Tony less of a threat than when the character caught him off guard at the beginning of the film. Ivan is a Russian peasant who seems like the sympathetic underdog compared to Tony’s limitless wealth and resources. Tony walks through the movie as an untouchable power fantasy and effectively becomes Action Movie Bella Swan.
While I agree that people have become too hair trigger with their accusations of Sue/Stu-ism, I have seen no evidence to suggest the trope isn’t still thriving in juvenile (and flat out poor) writers. Without gendering the trope, the general template seems to be “fan character insert into existing IP, often missing parents but living a remarkably wealthy lifestyle in spite (or possibly because) of this. They are often inherently more skilled at a particularly respected discipline in the property’s universe without appearing to have actually trained for those skills, and effortlessly fall into relationships with the leading characters in the series they’ve been planted in regardless of how those characters have canonically been shown to behave in romantic situations. The author may profess that the character is a loner or visually unappealing somehow only to contradict that by showing that they make friends quite easily and are considered desirable by many of the other characters in the story.” But of course, that is not accounting for context.
While this sort of story may be run of the mill wish fulfillment and it may be a natural phase every writer goes through, it is also bad writing and should be recognized as such so we don’t encourage these young writers to go off into the world believing that flat, conflict-free story arcs constitute good writing.
It is true that the term is overused to the point that people are starting to apply it to any character who is somehow exceptional, and it is true that people tend to be more venemous towards powerful women (especially, it seems, young girls who are jealous to see someone staking claim to their fictional character crush), but this does not negate the fact that the trope is a very real pitfall that young authors should be encouraged to avoid. I wrote a whole thing on this relating to the pyramid of human need and interpreting characters in the context of their peers a while back over yonder.