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What it means to be a woman in nerd culture: The Mary Sue

As a writer I come across the term ‘Mary Sue’ often enough. Hell I come across that term as a reader and yes as an unashamed, hyperactive English lit nerd. Up until recently I had no real qualms with this term, that is until I began to analyse it’s frequent usage to critique female characters far and wide with very little light being shone on their male counter parts. For those who do not know the trope of a ‘Mary Sue’, here’s my brief definition. A ‘Mary Sue’ is a character with no obvious character flaws, in that they receive no criticism for their actions, are idolised to a ridiculous degree and basically have no depth besides being in comprehensively perfect.

My first problem with this and the one which actually got me riled up, is that the term ‘Mary Sue’ is gendered. I hate gendered terms. It perpetuates the gender binary and comes armed with an arsenal of bullshit geared to support false stereotypes. There is no male equivalent to this term and it’s this which bothers me most. It’s the women who are held up to criticism for being too ‘perfect’. Don’t get me wrong I’m not against the discussion of badly portrayed characters, but using this term is the wrong way to go about it. Isolated as it is to the female gender it leaves little room for actual critical discussion and rather relies on a blasé comment of ‘Mary Sue’ with no expansion.

The term first originated in the fan fiction circles of Star Trek, originally coined to describe the ‘perfect’ self insert female character. So in other words, it was created as a way to belittle the fantasies of women. Practically every male superhero is a male power fantasy, but I don’t see anyone labelling ‘Thor’ as a ‘sock in boxers’ trope.

Then there’s the perfectly valid question of ‘why is it wrong for a woman to be perfect?’.  Sometimes I really enjoy a character with little or no flaws in terms of their awesomeness. If I go back and read some of my favourite books from my childhood I will no doubt find Mary Sue’s and rightly so. As women we are so often told that we are not perfect and here is a list of the things you should dedicate your time to attain ‘perfection’: straighten your hair, wear makeup, lose weight; and the list goes on. It’s important girls have Mary Sues and I would argue vitally so, in a culture which repeatedly belittles women Mary Sues offer a chance for women to accomplish anything.

Furthermore, fan fiction is amazing. It’s often bad or weird and sometimes just downright disturbing (trust me, I know), but it’s also dominated by women and it’s usually their first foray into writing. It’s the first leap into fiction and the unlimited possibilities of stories. So what if a girl wants to fight against a corrupt organisation with her favourite characters? So what if she creates a romance or makes impossible feats possible with some vague plot hole? Fan fiction is a way to improve, to grow and to have fun. It’s available for free and it’s often a labour of love, so I can’t understand the criticism of these often young girls. The fault isn’t with the Mary sue, but rather with the arsehole who ripped apart someone’s first attempt at writing.

Now I’m not saying female characters are exempt from criticism, I’m usually the one screaming about how women aren’t solely interested in heterosexual sex and having babies (the unfortunate prevailing theme of many, many books). However the trope of the ‘Mary sue’ isn’t a trope, it isn’t a valid criticism, there isn’t even an agreed upon definition for it. It’s a lazy phrase that is thrown about when people can’t pin point their criticism.

For example, the reason why Twilight is such an awful piece of literature isn’t because of Bella Swan. It’s because sex outside of marriage is portrayed as wrong and glorifies the idea of purity whilst robbing Bella of her sexual agency. Abortion is shown to be worse than literally letting the foetus inside of you break your body and kill you. Let’s not forget the creepy ‘imprinting’ of grown men on babies and that an abusive relationship is perpetuated as romantic and desirable, along with a bunch of other creepy plot points. Yet all we ever hear about is Bella Swan this, Bella Swan that, Mary Sue, Mary Sue, blah blah blah. (Plus sparkly vampires? Please).

So next time you go to use the term ‘Mary Sue’ I’d ask you to think long and hard about what you’re criticising. Mary Sue’s aren’t the greatest evil of literature, despite what the internet would have you believe. I think over used clichés and the lack of gender fluid, queer, ethnically diverse, fictional characters are a much bigger problem.

But y’know what, I think I’m going to spend my time campaigning for those women to stop thinking they can do anything, even in fiction.

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floatingmanatee

floatingmanatee

Floatingmanatee also known as Alice, is a certified Zoologist living in Britain and has an unhealthy love of weird creatures. She's bisexual, a lover of books, TV, film and anything else that tells a story. Generally she's either angry or sad or both about the state of the world, but watching youtube videos of cute animals makes her feel better.

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4 Comments

  1. April 20, 2014 at 2:23 pm —

    < There is no male equivalent to this term
    Well there is "Gary Stue", but i have never seen the term used outside of tvtropes, and even they use Sue as a base for derivations (Suetopia etc.)
    Personally, i never understood why S(t)ues are supposed to be inherently bad, at least if they are likeable and they fit into the tone of the story.. The 1632- and the Honor Harrington-series are full of them of both genders (The treecats are even a full species of them). and it works for them. (At least imho).

  2. April 20, 2014 at 3:06 pm —

    I’ve done fan fiction and spoken in fan fiction circles, there IS a term for the male version. It’s Gary Stu.

    ~ Now, that is basically just a distaff version of Mary Sue, and there are some issues with that.
    However, in all the fan fiction/literature circles I’ve been, there has been attention paid to the male variant of this trope.

    The history of the term comes from a specific form of female self-insert fantasy, yes. Specifically, a parody of the common trope. It has a lot to do with how the female self-insert would have Kirk and Spock instantly fall in love with them, as well as solving every problem effortlessly.

    I won’t disagree that there’s an issue with the primary term (Mary Sue) having a gendered association, but there is awareness among literature types I know with the Gary Stu, and avoiding the same effect in male characters.

  3. April 20, 2014 at 5:11 pm —

    Thirding the “Gary Stu” bit; it’s definitely a thing.

    That said, though, I agree that the Mary Sue concept is more problematic than its (less frequently referenced) male-coded counterpart (pedantic quibble here: not distaff – distaff doesn’t mean opposite-gender, but female-coded specifically). I think a lot of the issues with Mary Sues are bound up in the misinterpretation of the call for strong female characters – this is often misunderstood as a call for flawless, or at least necessarily physically strong female characters (then often interpreted as Mary Sues), whereas it’s really meant more often as a call for female characters strongly written – that is, with strong characterization, which often includes flaws and weaknesses.

    I don’t think Mary Sues (especially as in their origin as a self-insert fantasy fulfillment) are inherently bad, but I do bristle at having them fobbed off on me as supposedly “strong” female characters, which they are decidedly not.

    I’m also sick of female characters being held to much higher standards for strong characterization than male characters, though; it seems to take a lot more and a lot stronger words to successfully convince an audience of a character’s heroic nature when that character is female than when they’re male – and I think this is part of what contributes to the mass of female character seen as Mary Sues: if they’re not over-the-top perfect, they’re too “weak” to be a hero, and if they’re not tragically flawed, they’re too much of a Mary Sue. It’s an awful Catch-22.

  4. April 21, 2014 at 9:14 am —

    I am aware of the term “Gary Stu” or “Marty Stu” and it’s a fault in my part that I didn’t really expand on that, but as someone who’s heavily involved in fandom circles etc. I’ve never heard those terms being used, but rather male characters still being labelled “Mary Sue”, which is still problematic in the sense that it places poor character development at the feet of a term which refers to women specifically (so at least in my opinion the term is still gendered). Plus in English lit circles, I’ve never seen “Mary Sue” used as criticism, simply because of it’s vagueness and lack of actual critical value. So I overlooked those terms, just because their use is so rare that most people don’t even know of their existence, but I should definitely have expanded upon that.

    Also whilst there is discussion of weak male character development it’s usually less frequently talked about than their female counterparts, who undergo ruthless criticism. This article is pretty good at pointing this out and is somewhat more detailed than mine- http://adventuresofcomicbookgirl.tumblr.com/post/13913540194/mary-sue-what-are-you-or-why-the-concept-of-sue-is

    It’s definitely a Catch-22 situation and rather than saying “Mary Sues” are strongly developed characters, I think they’re important for young female writers and/or readers. There’s something to be said for presenting women as capable of any feat even if she is 2 dimensional in terms of development. I totally agree that female characters have to jump through a lot of hoops to be considered “strongly developed”, but there’s the real flaw with the term “Mary Sue”. What does it actually mean?

    I think my main point is, that “Mary Sue” is an empty term. It really doesn’t shed much critical light on how to improve a character seen as weakly developed, but is more of a flippant insult to an author (usually a young woman in fan fiction circles). I mean there isn’t even an agreed upon definition for the term, which makes it a weird hybrid umbrella term to criticise mainly female characters. I think if you’re going to criticise a female character, it’s much better to outline your criticism and explain the areas where their development is weak, which is what usually happens when male characters are criticised.

    In general there are plenty of female characters labelled “Mary Sue” which are perfectly fine in terms of their development. Like Kyrosion said, female characters have to prove themselves in order to escape scathing criticism and more often than not they fail. Sorry, I’m blathering on a little, I just think “Mary Sue” is a useless term with a lot of stigma attached to primarily the female gender.

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