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.