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An Introduction to Mary Sue and Her Critical Uses and Abuses (text)

Here is the text of my Mary Sue talk! [ETA: for people coming here through outside links, this was given at a quasi-academic conference with a fifteen-minute limit.] It is mostly as I gave it except I skipped a couple of paragraphs for time. I do have slides but I'm not sure I'm going to bother, they were very text-heavy and not that interesting. (Edit: moved the links to the end of this post, since there were no comments on the links-only post and this way everything's all in one place.)

Hi, I'm Kate Nepveu, and today I'm going to talk about Mary Sue and her critical uses and abuses.

Mary Sue is a critical term that began in fanfic communities but has not stayed there. What does it mean—who is a Mary Sue? The answer to that is not simple, and I want to approach it by giving some examples.

One: she's the youngest Lieutenant in Starfleet. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all fall in love with her; she saves the day by picking a lock with a hairpin, and then she dies tragically but picturesquely, to the mourning of all.

Two: she's an American transfer student to Hogwarts. She has violet eyes and a unicorn Patronus. In the final battle at Hogwarts she reforms Voldemort with the sparkle of her eyes.

Three: she's a tall rich half-American tragically-orphaned teenager who a retired Sherlock Holmes trips over on the Sussex Downs. He recognizes her brilliance, trains her as his partner, and eventually marries her; they travel the world solving mysteries in exotic locations.

Four: she is picked by THE most special magical telepathic animal companion of all the companions who find elite servants of the Crown. Her magical abilities are so strong and so rare that no-one can train her, which leads to angst and injury and isolation but then, of course, eventually saving the kingdom, making many, many friends, and finding her destined soulmate.

Five: she's a mystery writer, appearing in a series of mystery novels, who's saved from a murder charge by the aristocrat detective. He immediately falls in love with her and waits for her for several books while they solve crimes together.

So those are my examples. Three things about those examples:

First, there's the wish-fulfillment and power-fantasy theme. Many people, when they are first introduced to Mary Sue, have a sense of recognition—rueful, excited, both. We all know stories like this, that revolve around the wonderfulness of some female character who we may or may not identify with.

Second, not all of those are from fanfic.

The youngest Starfleet lieutenant is from fanfic—that is actually where the name Mary Sue comes from, a parody of Star Trek fanfic written by a fan named Paula Smith in 1973.

And the American transfer student to Hogwarts is a very, very common fanfic character.

But the teenaged girl that Sherlock Holmes trips over? Well, depending on your definition, that might be fanfic—but she is from the award-winning, New York Times-bestselling series by Laurie R. King, which starts with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.

The girl picked by the most special telepathic animal companion is Talia from Mercedes Lackey's Arrows trilogy. Lackey has gone on to write dozens of books, is one of the most successful writers in fantasy, and broke important ground in the genre.

And the mystery writer is Harriet Vane, and the detective who saves her is Lord Peter Wimsey, in Dorothy L. Sayers' Golden Age mystery series. Those books are enduring classics that hold their own as excellent literature no matter what era or genre you compare them to.

That leads to the third thing about those opening examples: being called a Mary Sue is not necessarily a sign that the story is bad. That's because the definition of Mary Sue has expanded greatly since the term was first coined and, as I will argue here, is now effectively a reflexive way to discount and discourage women's writing, female characters, and female participation in fannish activities.

So let's talk about definitions of Mary Sue.

The narrowest and original definition is that youngest Starfleet lieutenant—the wish-fulfillment story taken to the extreme. They're usually seen as author self-insertion stories, where the entire story is about how wonderful the author's stand-in character is, in defiance of established characterizations (if fanfic), emotional logic, and just logic in general.

The next definition of Mary Sue is similar to the first but includes non-fanfic.

And then we move into other definitions:

Any female character in any story who is, or is perceived to be, improbably good at something.

Any female character in any story that a reader thinks the female author likes too much.

Some of the problems are, I'm sure, becoming apparent already. But before we get to those, let's acknowledge what's useful about Mary Sue.

As I said before, the narrow definitions, the first two where the wonderfulness takes over the entire story, do succinctly label an identifiable thing. And it's useful to be able to say, "Mary Sue," instead of describing the type of story from scratch every time.

And those narrow definitions of Mary Sue are also descriptions of poor writing. So it's potentially useful to have a body of criticism and advice focused on Mary Sues for authors to turn to. And there is a great deal of it out there. Litmus tests are the most prominent, but there are also essays and even character development critique groups.

Those are two uses for Mary Sue. What about abuses?

The easiest is that Mary Sue's become so overbroad as to be nearly meaningless. It no longer designates a level of quality or a particular kind of character.

The next abuse is that it can discourage new writers, particularly, though not exclusively, fanfic writers. This is actually the flip side of one of Mary Sue's uses, that extensive body of criticism and writing advice. Some of that is helpful, but much of it has had a documented chilling effect on new writers, beginning with Star Trek fandom and continuing since—though with heightened fervor since the explosion of fanfic on the Internet.

Basically: the impulses behind Mary Sue stories are incredibly common, from kids playing make-believe to adult daydreams about what we'd do if we won the lottery. And experienced writers often say that it's necessary to write a whole lot of lousy stories—a million words, some writers say—before you start to write good ones. So some of those million words are likely to be unquestionable Mary Sues.

But non-fanfic writers are generally fortunate enough to get their million words out to a very small audience—their friends and whoever rejects their manuscripts at a literary agent or a publisher. (Or their college instructors.) Fanfic writers, on the other hand, are usually immediately posting their first stories for all the Internet to read. And criticisms of Mary Sues can be very intense.

So new writers might see their own stories harshly criticized, or they might see that the stories they want to write could subject them to mocking. Even things meant to be helpful can be intimidating. Going back to the Mary Sue tests: the one that comes up first on a Google search has a daunting 94 questions, many with multiple subparts, in just its opening section.

And some of those new writers might have talent and might have developed their talent. But regardless, discouraging people from their hobbies is cruel and unnecessary. I like to cross-stitch. I'll never win awards for it, but it's really not anyone else's place to tell me that I shouldn't do it just because I'm not good enough.

Another problem is that Mary Sue contributes to the relative lack of female characters in stories. Of course the larger cause is the idea that female characters aren't interesting or aren't able to do interesting things, either intrinsically or because of society's constraints. (In the next talk, Professor Dittman will be discussing the way that women in comics are often relegated to being the tragic murder victim whose death motivates the superhero, which is a particularly limited view of the roles female characters can play.)

But the excessively broad definition of Mary Sue means that it's easy for people to reflexively dismiss female characters and people who appreciate those characters, without having to consider whether their gut reaction is based on unacknowledged sexism. They can simply make the automatic leap from "female character I don't like" to "Mary Sue" and then stop there.

There are certainly efforts to write more female characters in fanfic. (Later in this panel, Ms. Mendoza is going to be describing one recent trend in fanfic, changing canonical characters' gender.) But the reflexive distrust of female characters as Mary Sues makes this more difficult—over the decades fanfic writers have specifically said that they do not include original female characters in their stories for fear of creating a Mary Sue or being accused of having done so. And the same dynamic is at work in non-fanfic stories, especially where the creators hear ongoing fan feedback.

The next problem is that Mary Sue discourages particular kinds of stories, those involving self-insertions, wish-fulfillment, or power fantasies.

You might wonder, what's wrong with that? I did say that the narrowest forms of Mary Sue are bad writing. Well, that's true. But so what? Bad writing alone isn't harmful. And the most flimsy and cardboard Mary Sue stories are probably something that writers and readers will grow out of in time.

Even if they don't, however, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with wish-fulfillment fantasies, power fantasies, or self-insertion. These are all things that are perfectly well accepted in other contexts.

For instance, Mary Sues are often particularly derided for being author self-insertion stories. But that's exactly why things like Choose Your Own Adventure books and roleplaying games are fun. Or look at YA literature: these stories often have fairly flat viewpoint characters, like Will Stanton in the Dark Is Rising books or even Harry Potter, because that flatness allows younger readers, especially, to more easily put themselves into the action. This is a feature, not a bug: it allows younger readers, especially adolescents, to explore their changing roles and increasing power in the world. Not just with regard to romance and sex, either; consider the vast number of fantasy novels about teenaged farmboys discovering their Destiny is to save the world.

And as for wish-fulfillment and power fantasies—well, if I could only read stories about the ordinary things I did every day, I wouldn't bother at all, and I actually like my life.

I should say that it's true that some Mary Sue stories have problematic elements, like appropriating other cultures because they're "exotic" or rotten treatments of disability. And those are in fact harmful. But those elements aren't created by the Mary Sue, they're created from broader cultural attitudes.

There's a further wrinkle to this problem of discouraging stories, though. Let me give an example, adapted from adventuresofcomicbookgirl on tumblr.

So, this girl: she's tragically orphaned, incredibly rich, stunningly attractive, a genius, and an Olympic-level athlete. She has no superhuman abilities, yet she defeats superhumans with ease.

People who defy her are inevitably wrong. She has unshakably loyal friends and allies, and every guy she meets falls in love with her—even though she is consumed by angst, tends to treat people pretty badly, and never stays in any romantic relationship because she is dedicated to what is Pure and Good.

What a Mary Sue, right?

I just described . . . Batman.

Mary Sue not only discourages wish-fulfillment stories, it specifically and disproportionately discourages such stories about female characters or that female fans enjoy.

As the Batman example shows, male characters, especially in SFF, are supposed to be extra-competent, larger than life, attractive and active and the focus of dramatic happenings. Female characters, on the other hand, have to justify their very existence, let alone being "special" in any way—even if it would seem that they should be just as extraordinary as the other, male, characters around them. And that is flat-out sexist, no two ways about it.

It's telling, in this regard, that there is no commonly accepted term for a male character who plays the same role as Mary Sue; people use both Gary Stu and Marty Stu. In fact, TV Tropes literally lists as a controversy, "Can you have a male Sue?", James Bond and Jack Ryan notwithstanding.

Not only are powerful female characters devalued, but female readers or viewers who enjoy wish-fulfillment or power fantasies have to justify their interest or participation. Comics shops often actively discourage women from them giving money, because they do not perceive women to be legitimate readers of superhero comics. Women who cosplay, dress up as characters at conventions, get derided as fake fans who are just doing it for the attention. And the lack of respect given to stereotypically female stories like the genre of romance, or to non-romance novels with romantic or sexual elements (a.k.a. "girl cooties"), is well-known.

So, to sum up: a narrow definition of Mary Sue can be useful in describing and evaluating writing; but the broader definitions are sexist and reinforce the idea that the default is male and that anything female has to justify its existence.

I suggest that the remedy is being thoughtful and precise. If a character is called a Mary Sue, ask yourself or the other person why, precisely, the character is objectionable. Critique the lack of plot, or the changes in other characters' behavior in reaction to the character, or the failure to provide convincing supporting detail about the character's virtues and charms—those are all valid things to criticize. But don't use Mary Sue as a quick dismissal, because even if you don't intend to, that is likely to contribute to suppressing women's writing, discouraging the creation of more diverse works of fiction, and discouraging women's participation in fannish activities.

Thank you.

Links

Interview: A Conversation with Paula Smith, Transformative Works and Cultures (includes “A Trekkie’s Tale,” which coined “Mary Sue”)

The Universal Mary Sue test

Fanlore

TV Tropes

Example from adventuresofcomicbookgirl on tumblr

“150 Years of Mary Sue,” by Pat Pflieger (I think I revised everything from this out for time, but it has a lot of interesting descriptions)

You know, the panel before this ended early, and while the last panel looked interesting, my neck and shoulders are screaming at me from spending most of the day bending over my netbook, and if I leave now, I can eat a leisurely dinner and then go see Iron Man 3 instead of bolting my food and fretting the whole way. So despite my guilt, I'm playing hooky.

If you were at the conference, say hi! I do have notes about my co-panelists' talks, which I will post, but maybe they'll put their slides or notes up somewhere. Stay tuned. Just not until tomorrow, probably. comment count unavailable comment(s) | add comment (how-to) | link


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