We have to stop debating Mary Sues
Let’s talk about Mary Sues. Again.
As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, Star Wars has got people talking once again about Mary Sues, after people criticized Rey for being too capable to be believable. This “Mary Sue” label has been critiqued to death, with many, many people pointing out its sexist connotations.
But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the term “Mary Sue” isn’t just annoying, but actively harmful to younger viewers. The label “Mary Sue” suggests that a character is poorly written, and that only undiscerning and uncultured people could like them. This probably doesn’t change our opinions on characters when we’re older, but it definitely influenced me as a teenager, and I doubt I’m the only one. By allowing the term “Mary Sue” to masquerade as literary criticism, even by discussing how “Mary Sue-ish” or un-“Mary Sue-ish” a character might be, we reinforce this idea that a female protagonist can be too powerful, and end up taking empowering narratives away from readers and viewers.
My first experience with the term “Mary Sue,” outside of fanfiction, was with Tamora Pierce’s fantastic Tortall books. I’m definitely not the only person who was first exposed to female protagonists in fantasy novels through Alanna and her badass knightly adventures, and who fell in love with Pierce’s characters and world. But as soon as I logged onto the internet, I discovered that, actually, I wasn’t supposed to like Alanna, because she was a “Mary Sue.”
At the time, I had no defense against that criticism. Because yes, Alanna is special. She has purple eyes and a magic cat and almost no-one notices that she’s a girl in eight years of training to be a knight, and both the prince and the king of thieves fall desperately in love with her. But so what? These are kids’ books, aimed at twelve year olds, and the Special Chosen One is a common fantasy trope. Who at twelve doesn’t want to read about a tiny redhead who beats much larger and stronger enemies with her ingenuity and defeats evil with her short temper and super special cat? It’s awesome. But when nerdy girls like me went online to read more about this series we loved, we were told by general consensus that this fantastic character was unrealistic and poorly written, and that we had bad taste for liking it.
Again, that’s not something that would bother many adults. But it’s a tough thing to handle in the “not like other girls” climate of younger teenager years, when girls have learned that “girls like stupid things” and can find it difficult to establish the legitimacy of their tastes. For my part, I kept reading Tamora Pierce, but I insisted Daine, the protagonist of the second series, was my favorite — a character who’s just as Special, but received less attention online, and so was safe to like.
And the term has power, in that landscape of wanting to like the right things, because it pretends to be indisputable literary criticism. It suggests a problem in the craft of a story, rather than an issue of personal taste, and so seems to carry a lot of weight. It also carries a great deal of embarrassment with it. A Mary Sue isn’t just bad writing, she’s inherently mockable, a foolish, unrealistic fantasy that nobody should admit to liking. If your favorite character is a Mary Sue, then you are foolish and mockable too. Or so it implies.
Of course, “Mary Sue” is hardly a serious literary term. But by engaging in discussion about the “Mary Sue-ness” of characters, we are still validating it as literary criticism, giving it more and more weight. And it comes from a really disparaging place. Even the original meaning is insulting, making self-insert characters in fanfiction into the Worst Thing In The World, rather than just a common element in young writers’ stories. When the term was first used to describe protagonists in published fiction (or at least, the way it was used ten to fifteen years ago), it suggested that the protagonist must be the female author’s self-insert fantasy, or else the male writer’s magical girlfriend fantasy. Now it’s turned into a catch-all critical term for “I don’t think it’s realistic for this female character to act this way,” but the element of mockable female fantasy remains.
And the term digs deep. It’s not just female perfection that’s unrealistic, but specialness, talent, strength, uniqueness, awesomeness… whenever it’s used to describe a compelling and capable female character, it suggests that female characters need to be diminished to be realistic, and so also implies that girls in general need to be diminished to be realistic. At the very least, it sets up the idea that a girl needs to be smaller to be liked.
And this has a real world effect. It affects the stories that girls feel it’s OK to enjoy, and it affects what stories they might create themselves. Compelling female characters like Rey can’t inspire their target demographic if they’re told that they have bad taste if they like her, and we’ll miss out on inspiring female protagonists altogether if aspiring young writers constantly hear that they have to make their female characters lesser to write well. Sexism masquerading as literary criticism is annoying to those of us who have seen it all before, but when we’re too young to catch on to the “sexism” part, it can have a serious effect on our tastes and on the things we believe we’re allowed to like. Worst, it can have a serious effect on how we think about ourselves and about what women are supposed to be.
So we need to stop debating whether characters are Mary Sues, as though the term actually has merit. We have to stop acknowledging this idea that strength is a female character flaw. And we have to stop policing potentially powerful role models for young female readers, purple eyes and magic cats and all.