tl;dr: As of today I am going to make a conscious effort to use neither the term “Mary Sue” nor the term “Gary Stu” any longer, as after reading some very smart posts from my very smart friends and colleagues, I believe the roots of those terms to be misogynistic, misguided, and mean-spirited.
- This all got started in my brain thanks to a Facebook post from a friend of mine. I want to give him full credit for inspiring me here, and to say that the root ideas here are his; I’m only not naming him because I don’t yet have his permission to do so, and it’s the Internet.
- Trigger warnings: mention of violence, rape, racism, homophobia, transphobia.
Longer form commences. It may get a little essay-format in here. I have tried to avoid spoilers and do not mention anything about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
For a definition of the term(s), I turn to the august Web sites Wikipedia and TV Tropes.
From Wikipedia’s entry on “Mary Sue”:
A Mary Sue or, in case of a male, Gary Stu or Marty Stu is an idealized fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities…”Mary Sue” today has changed from its original meaning and now carries a generalized, although not universal, connotation of wish-fulfillment…the “Mary Sue” is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting…
From TV Tropes’ entry of the same name:
…the term “Mary Sue” is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.
Okay. That’s enough to go on.
Let me sum up my feelings: this is garbage.
I say it is garbage not because bad writing and wish-fulfillment do not exist; but because bad writing and wish-fulfillment should be allowed to exist, and shaming people for involvement in them is simple cruelty.
(Well bad writing should not be allowed to exist without criticism…I’ll follow up on that later.)
Life is hard. Life as an oppressed class of person (woman, person of color, LGBT, etc.) is especially hard. Wish-fulfillment, escapism, and fantasy are perfectly reasonable responses to how hard life is, and legitimate ways of coping with getting through the hard parts of life.
We could argue back and forth all day about how much escapism is too much escapism; we can throw around words like “addiction,” and maybe even ableist nastiness about discerning fiction from reality; but the bottom line is that basically everyone, in every culture, sees the value of living and learning vicariously through entertainment, whether that’s a win by your sports team, a painting that speaks to you, seeing a fictional character succeed in the face of adversity that looks a lot like your own, or seeing someone who looks like you be socially accepted and noticeably successful.
Let’s hang on that last line for a second. “Seeing someone who looks like you be socially accepted and noticeably successful.”
You don’t have to look far to see the kinds of venom that are spit daily at women — say, rape and death threats when they criticize any form of media in any way — or at people of color — a potential Presidential candidate calling for all “Muslims” to be banned from the country or forced to sign a registry — or at LGBT people — the entire Westboro Baptist Church. I’m not going to link to real examples, because those monsters do not deserve the attention, but they are out there and easy to Google or ask your friends about.
If you have to deal with that on a daily basis, you probably want to see a ray of light somewhere, right? Some indicator that it is possible for someone who is like you to be a badass, strong in the face of difficulties, successful in the face of insurmountable odds? Hell, you probably want to see that on your harder days, even if it does not involve being threatened with sexual violence, right?
And you acknowledge the idea of “different strokes for different folks,” yes? You recognize that your wish-fulfillment/stress relief/enjoyment/whatever does not necessarily look like the method of achieving said state that works for spouse, or your best friend, or your next-door neighbor, right? If nothing else, do you understand intellectually that when your team plays the rival team, your idea of “fun” is probably going to look a lot different than the idea of “fun” held by most fans of the other team?
So, assuming no-one is actually being hurt, and I mean actually being put in an actual negative place that lessens their actual quality of life…
Where do you get off deciding that another person’s way of having fun and feeling better about themselves is bad?
That is one of my three root issues with the term “Mary Sue.” No-one should be shamed for enjoying wish fulfillment. No-one should be shamed for wanting to have a good time, so long as that good time is not coming at the cost of the well-being of others.
I’m going to tap into that last statement in a moment, but I want to finish up my issues with “Mary Sue” first. My second issue with the term “Mary Sue” is the inherent gendering of the term. Yes, we have now come up with “Marty Stu” and “Gary Sue”; yes, people talk about how the term is not gendered; but, as TV Tropes says, “The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character,” and if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck…
The term grew out of Star Trek fanfiction (specifically, it “comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story ‘A Trekkie’s Tale'” [Wikipedia]), and it’s an accepted if not concretely observed notion that fanfic writers were, initially, largely female. It is also overwhelmingly applied to original female characters who get to be as important as canon male characters — and as it has grown into a term used in fiction at large, it has continued to be disproportionately used to describe female characters. The only male character that I hear routinely get called a Sue/Stu is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: the Next Generation; other male characters who are just as obviously given a disproportionate chunk of the spotlight (e.g., Wolverine and Cyclops from the X-Men franchise) or just as obviously get to save the day when the chips are down despite not being the only ones canonically capable of same (e.g., Batman in any DC universe fiction), either do not get slapped with the label despite qualifying, or get the label alongside so many jabs at either their “feminine” traits or their sexuality that it’s hard not to see this as being about shaming women for wanting to have rad protagonists available to them.
And that’s gross, people. Gross.
And now, my third and final issue with the term “Mary Sue”…it is generally used as a hallmark of bad writing, right? We are all agreed on this point? Well, bad writing needs to exist.
Writing bad stories is the only way you figure out what doesn’t work and get to good stories. Just like every hockey player (except maybe Wayne Gretzky) had to play some truly terrible games of hockey before they figured out how to reliably play well; just like every baker’s first-ever batch of chocolate chip cookies was likely inedible; just like if I went out today and tried to run a marathon, I would wind up calling someone to come pick me up in my new superhero disguise as the Human Cramp; every writer has to write bad stories. Most of us even keep doing it, because everyone has their off days!
Even if something is bad, it may represent the absolute best a person can do right now, not because they are in any inherently bad, but because they are still learning how to be good. Criticism is a part of helping that person to grow, but dismissive criticism may snuff out their fire while it is still just sparks. Also, not everybody is ready to be put on blast just yet; that’s why I don’t publish every rough draft I ever write on my blog, and that’s part of why fan-fiction communities exist. We need safe spaces to figure out how to be the best us we can be. Why invade and dismiss that just because you don’t think my How to Train Your Dragon/WWE crossover fic is the next Aenead?
Now, there are forms of (or elements present in) “bad art” or “bad escapism” that are truly, objectively bad. Those that uncritically glorify rape, racism, murder, or other forms of violence and hate. Those that reinforce negative and problematic social narratives, like the idea every rape victim “kinda enjoyed it” or that a person of color is “asking for trouble” by behaving in a certain way. Those that stir up hatred toward a real-world group. Those that encourage hateful and destructive urges rather than offer a catharsis that prevents the need for actualizing those urges. In short, things that actually hurt actual people, even if only by making it seem OK to hurt those people. And those do need to be taken out behind the woodshed sometimes, and called out as either “problematic” or even sometimes outright hate speech.
Don’t deride people for doing their best, just because their best isn’t the same as somebody else’s best.
Don’t deride people for liking things that aren’t hurting anybody. Liking things is cool.
And don’t ever forget that everything is problematic in some way, and that criticism and dismissal are not synonymous.
Like stuff. Make stuff.
Figure out how to be you.
Figure out what doesn’t work.
Figure out how not to hurt people.
The world will be a better place.
That, in a 1700 word nutshell, is why I will never, ever again call any character a Mary Sue.