It’s time for more Mary Sues. So far we’ve talked about what Sues are and why they’re bad. Feel free to refresh your memory of the previous two posts, but it boils down to this: Mary Sues are disgustingly perfect characters who, because of their own perfection, tend to ruin the stories around them. Most of the time you can’t really have a well-written story with believable characters if there’s a Sue involved, and it can also lead to dismissing some very serious real-life problems.
As you might have guessed, most Mary Sues are female. The character is set up to be female by default – if you want to talk about the male equivalent you have to be more specific and talk about Gary Stus instead. But from the moment the term was first used, it was set up specifically to talk about female characters. It was first used in the 1970s to parody a particular trend in fanfiction: a female (often teenage) original character falling in love with an established male character from an already published work. Paula Smith, who came up with the name, used it to talk about Star Trek self-inserts and unrealistic characters, but the fact that she chose ‘Mary Sue’ is significant. It explicitly signals that this is a problem seen with female characters. The clue is in the name.
The most notorious Mary Sues are female characters. Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, Jenna Silverblade, Atlantiana Rebekah Loren – these are all young female characters who were created to fall in love with male characters from Harry Potter, the Zelda games and Twilight respectively. A quick websearch will show you that most readers believe Mary Sues are female as well. All the artwork, fiction and writer resources relating to Mary Sues assume that the character in question is female.
But is this really fair? Perfection is hardly something that women have a monopoly on, no matter what the poets say. Part of the definition of a Mary Sue is that they are perfect, attractive, powerful and loved by all. These are not uniquely female traits and never have been. The other part is that their lack of flaws and central position in the story warp other characters’ reactions to them and, in the worst cases, the setting and plot as well. These aren’t uniquely female traits either. So why is it that Mary Sues are seen as a female phenomenon?
Let’s take a brief moment to look at Gary Stus. Gary Stu, sometimes called Marty Stu, is the male version of his character. That’s what defines him. Other Mary Sues are defined by what they do: Villain Sues, Twagic Sues, Jerk Sues are all identified by their actions, appearance and the way they treat other characters. Gary Stu is identified by his gender alone. They’re much less common but there do tend to be a few differences: Gary Stus tend to be a lot more active and less prone to getting kidnapped.
But these are surface differences. When you get right down to it, there’s no real difference between the male and female counterparts. Both Mary Sues and Gary Stus are disgustingly attractive, practically perfect in every way, and warp the plot around them just by their presence. Much like Mary Sues, the antecedents go back much longer than you might think: if Mary Sue is Cinderella, then Gary Stu is Prince Charming. We’ve seen archetypes of perfect male characters since storytelling became a thing, just as we have with women. What we haven’t seen is male characters getting called out on this.
Part of this is probably down to the differing ideals of male and female perfection. Bear with me, because I’m about to make several sweeping generalisations. Broadly speaking, the ‘ideal man’ in historical storytelling is strong, decisive and heroic. He’s a problem-solver who wins battles and can make great speeches. Contrast this with the ‘ideal woman’ in historical storytelling, who is passive, pretty and quiet. She doesn’t make speeches; you’ll be lucky if she says anything at all. In recent years women’s roles, both in fiction and in real life, have moved away from this. Unfortunately men haven’t been so lucky. In some areas we still expect the same things from masculinity as we did decades ago and as you might suspect, this can be really damaging. It could be that part of the reason we don’t see as much backlash against Gary Stus is because they still fit with predominant ideas about what a man should be.
Allow me to illustrate my point. There’s this character you’ve all heard of. She’s so unbelievably cool and always has the latest tech. She always looks good no matter what she’s doing. She speaks several languages, drives amazing cars, is trained in more weapons than you can even name and she’s a total badass who could kick the Incredible Hulk into next week. She can get with any guy she wants, and they all want her. She’s been all over the world and has saved it more than once. She knows about fine wine, poker, and always has a quip handy even if she’s just jumped out of a plane. She can talk her way into anything and fight her way back out again, never lets the bad guys get away with it, and does it all for Queen and Country.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s James Bond.
James Bond is one of the most popular characters in fiction. Millions of people turn out to see the Bond films whenever a new one is released. But when you get right down to it, Bond falls into a lot of the same characters as a Mary Sue does. He’s unrealistically cool, can have any woman he wants and doesn’t have any flaws that hold him back. He’s not an exception, either. Tarzan, Batman, Luke Skywalker and Zorro have all been described as Stus too, but on them this isn’t really a label that sticks.
So why have Mary Sues manifested themselves as a female problem? I expect that part of it is because of the rise of fanfiction, which is often written by women rather than men. Obviously it’s difficult to dig up statistics confirming this, but those we have available (which are, of course, limited by online anonymity) suggest that this is the case. According to this survey, three-quarters of all users on fanfiction.net are listed as female when their gender has been made public. The vast majority are also in the 13-17 age bracket. So if the vast majority of fanfic is written by teenage girls, we can expect to see a lot of fanfic about teenage girls. This may also account for some issues with characterisation and quality, too. I know the stuff I was writing when I was a teenager was really awful, at any rate.
But if Mary Sues aren’t a uniquely female problem, they certainly aren’t one that’s unique to fanfic either. There have been Mary Sues since storytelling began. Unrealistically perfect women have been cropping up in stories since the Dark Ages, and they don’t show many signs of stopping. Two of the most notorious Mary Sues of recent years are Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele – both of whom are characters from original fiction.
So why is this ‘a girl thing’? Is it just that more women write Mary Sues, or that more female characters tend to get called Mary Sues? I’m not sure. Getting into why people write Mary Sues is always going to be a tricky question. It could just be that more women are into reading and writing as a hobby. This has some basis in fact: most surveys agree that women read more than men, something which appears to have its roots in childhood. It could be that more women write Mary Sues because they don’t see enough characters they want to emulate in already published fiction. It could be escapism. We’ll probably never know for sure.
What we can confirm is that there does tend to be a much stronger backlash against female characters than male. Look at the Ghostbusters remake, whose stars were harassed online. Look at Rey from the new Star Wars trilogy, who’s been called a Mary Sue when she’s actually following Luke Skywalker’s role pretty closely. Look at Twilight. Bella is a Mary Sue, there’s no question of that, but the sheer amount of hate the series generated was astounding. The one thing these have in common is that they’re are all female characters at the forefront of their stories. I can’t remember the last time I saw backlash on that scale against a male character. Perhaps the reason why Mary Sues are so exclusively seen as ‘a girl thing’ is that there’s still a lot of underlying sexism in the way we talk about fiction, and what’s seen as a problem for female characters is glossed over when talking about male ones.
So is Mary Sue an explicitly gendered term? I think so. The male equivalent doesn’t receive anywhere near as much attention or backlash, and I think people’s attitudes to women definitely play a part in that. Mary Sues do cause problems, but it’s not because they’re female characters. Gary Stus cause problems too, but far less people talk about it.
But despite all the problems that Mary Sues can cause, are they really all that bad? Next time, I’ll talk about that despite all their drawbacks, Mary Sues can actually be…a good thing.