We Need More Mary Sues

On the subway last night, I saw a woman giving her son a new Avengers cup. It was pretty awesome. All the important Avengers were on it. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk.

In fact, the only characters missing were Hawkeye and Black Widow. And although it sucks that the only female Avenger was missing from the merchandise, I can see the designer’s point. Hawkeye and Black Widow are kind of the lamest of the group. They don’t have superpowers. They’re not super-rich with super-suits. They aren’t gods or the result of government experiments. They don’t even have cool shields or iconic outfits. They’re just normal people who happen to be exceptionally talented at what they do. And although that might make them better characters from some perspectives, “regular people with skills” rarely end up on children’s cups when superheroes are on offer. No one includes Bruce Banner in the merchandise when they can include the Hulk. And no one includes the “regular people” when there are superheroes to love.

The problem is that Hawkeye is one of five male Avengers, but Black Widow is the only female Avenger. There’s only one woman in the group, and she lacks superpowers, or even a superhero costume. She’s not the equal of the others. She’s easily forgotten or shoved to the background. And unlike the others, she has to deal with a lot of crap that makes her role far less aspirational. She gets called misogynistic slurs and has to run for her life when attacked by the Hulk.

She is, in short, not enough of a Mary Sue.

“Mary Sue” has been an insult for “unrealistic” female characters for quite a while, but “Mary Sue” is the absolute definition of a superhero. Angsty backstory? Orphaned? Super special powers? World-changing fate or destiny? More money and cool gadgets than you know what to do with? Everyone you’re even vaguely attracted to being attracted to you? On a female character, it’s ridiculous. On a male character, it’s iconic.

And this is a serious problem, because we need insanely unrealistic wish-fulfilment female characters, just as we need male ones. Young girls need to be able to dress up as female superheroes, and have those female characters represented on their lunch boxes and cups and pillowcases. Young boys need to see women and girls included in the group of capable, awesome characters to admire and idolize.

Yet there’s almost nothing to offer. Only one of the Avengers is a woman, and she’s easy to ignore, not necessarily because of her gender (although that may contribute), but because she’s not on the same tier as four out of five of the male characters. And unlike male superheroes (who get movies and reboots made about them again and again and again), there’s not much material to draw upon. How many female superheroes can the average non-comic-book-reading person name? Out of those, how many of those are original characters, and not “girl” sidekicks to more important male characters like Superman or Batman? There isn’t a rich array of popular female characters here. But creating a new one would be almost impossible. If anyone suggested that a movie could be led by a female character who was like Tony Stark, they’d be laughed out of the business. It would be unrealistic. She would be unlikeable. And of course, everyone knows that female characters can’t lead action movies. Even established characters, like Wonder Woman, aren’t trusted to lead a blockbuster. What could a newcomer to the scene possibly have to offer?

And although I’ve been talking about the Avengers, this isn’t exclusively a superhero problem. Few female characters get to be “the Chosen One” in science fiction and fantasy. Leia is as much the child of Darth Vader as Luke is, but only Luke gets to use the force, be recruited by his dad and ultimately save the day. We don’t get impossibly clever female sleuths or the sexy spies with the awesome gadgets. And on the rare occasions that we do get those characters, they’re denigrated as unrealistic Mary Sues.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about the need for a wide variety of realistic female characters, but staring at that cup yesterday, I also realized how much we need unrealistic female characters. We need women to take roles that men have had in Hollywood for decades. The iconic characters. The Chosen Ones. The superpowered, and the impossible adventurers. The characters with the fast quips, the dark backstories, who are burdened with glorious purposes and discover that with great power comes great responsibility. The heroes that kids want to dress up as on the playground and want to be (against all realism) when they grow up.

We need more Mary Sues. We need more unapologetically powerful female characters, on a wish-fulfilment level of awesome. We need them to be gods and superheroes and billionaire playboy philanthropists and science experiments gone wrong and normal kids bitten by spiders who now save the world. Why should female characters have to be realistic, while male characters have all the fun? Why shouldn’t a female hero appear alongside Iron Man and Thor, in a way where she can truly hold her own?

51 Replies to “We Need More Mary Sues”

  1. Let me start by saying I agree 100% with the main points of this essay. However, I have to take exception with anyone who implies that Black Widow is somehow a lesser superhero than the other Avengers just because she doesn’t have powers and is shown running away from the Hulk. Loki may have called her a “mewling quim,” but hey, she let that slide in order to beat him, the god of trickery at his own game. While the other guys on her team were engaged in locker-room disputes about who gets to call the shots, she was the one to kept her eyes on the big picture. She beat the crap out of Hawkeye and successfully freed him from Loki’s clutches. During the Chitauri invasion of New York, she took on a lot of monsters around the size of the Hulk and was the one who figured out how to shut down the portal sending these creatures in Earth’s way. Getting out of the Hulk’s way during his Helicarrier rampage made a lot of sense because she couldn’t outwit or overpower him, but she never lost her professionalism even though she was obviously rattled, so that scene, far from diminishing her in my eyes, actually made me admire her even more. Although yeah, Joss Whedon could’ve done more in showcasing female badassery in the Avengers, for me Natasha Romanoff is already an uber-BAMF who shrewdly manipulates her enemies’ condescending opinions about her and what she could do in order to get the better of them. That so far, Marvel hasn’t commissioned a three-movie series about her exploits and her intriguing backstory is a freaking travesty.

    1. Oh, I agree completely that Natasha Romanoff is a complete badass, and I would LOVE to see a series about her. But I think there is a definite ranking in the world of the Avengers, in terms of merchandise and marketing and considered “importance,” and she doesn’t rank as high as most of the male characters, because she’s not a “superhero” in the “fancy suit, from another world, has superhuman powers” sort of way. She’s an awesome character who holds her own, but she lacks the out-and-out fantastical nature of most of the men… and I would really like to see female characters who get to be as ridiculous and superpowered as they are. If there’s only going to be one female Avenger, I’d like her to be one that’s on an equal footing with the others.

      1. Yeah, I think some people might take this as a criticism of Black Widow, but the problem with her is that the choice to keep the sole female Avenger a relatively normal person, albeit really kickass, wasn’t made by the execs to show, hey, normal people and women can be awesome but more that they just didn’t care.

        1. Umm, the “problem” it’s that the most interesting avengers are the ones that don’t “punch” as hard but the ones who pull the strings and that’s difficult to show. I mean, for me, Black widow is more baddass and interesting that Captain marvel, even if the former it’s more powerfull. I guess they could put Scarlet witch there. She’s interesting and powerfull, but difficult to balance and not very well treated by some writers. As with Phoenix/Jean Gray, they seem to think that “too much power would make her crazy”.

          Storm would be a great choice, but the one from the 80,s and 90,s. In fact when she lost her powers, she was better written and more baddass.

          Hulka would be great, but with the hulk there, it would be more of the same.

          Moondragon or Photon are good but not well known. Tigra it’s another controversial character…

          What I’m trying to say it’s that it’s not an easy choice. Everyone has their own favorites, of course, I would have liked Wande there, but I can understand why pick Black widow.

          And yes, she deserves her own movie.

          1. Stella Omega says:

            You seem to figure that it’s acceptable to have just the one female in the first place. Why should it be a choice in the first place? Why should there be only one (1) woman, so that there have to be choices made about her? Why not have ohhhh… I dunno… THREE female Avengers, one of whom is ‘normal’ and one is a rich gal with a supersuit, and one has superpowers? You could put a woman in the Ironman suit, and let Robert Downey Junior make another Sherlock Holmes film instead.
            It’s just a thought.

          2. Wrong, I don’t think it’s aceptable to have just one, but I’m also a pessimistic person. I would like to see films like some comics where destiny and Raven have a reallly loving relationship and doesn’t feel forced. I would like to see again the Storm that was a much better leader than Ciclops and all the interesting women like psylocke (before body change, that really doesn’t make lot of sense), or Rogue (the real one, not the one in the movies) or Dazzler. As I said, there’s lots of interesting female avengers that I would like to see. And more than one in the same film. Problem is, the producers are… closeminded and Blackwidow is the only avenger withough her own film. By the way, in comics they already gave Pipper her own suit. Also there’s many cool female characters like Valeria Richards that show that being a genius doesn’t mean to blow things up, but sometimes fix the things others broke (like his father XD). Also, there’s Photon, who can change into a pure light being. She was powerful, interesting and a good character. I shouldn’t have to said it, but she also is a Woman of color* (not sure if this is the polite way to mention it, not my language). Point is, I was talking about the choice if forced by producers to choose just one. If you want you could aply that to chosing a full team of women and still would be the same logic. Not easy to decide wich avengers put in a movie. And the ones I like the most usually aren’t the ones that hit harder, but the ones that think with a clear mind or do interesting things… Captain marvel still falls short if I compare her with Black Widow, Photon, Moondragon or even Tigra…

          3. One small problem is that there aren’t enough “cool” super heroines in the comic book industry. You named a few, but really, once you get past Storm, Rogue, Scarlet Witch and Jean Grey , nobody really knows them. Growing up, I wasn’t a fan of the Black Widow – I never bought a comic just because she was in it. I like…love the character as brought to life by Scarlett Johansson, and I might rent a movie with her as a lead, but I wouldn’t fork out $9 to go to the theater.

            Another problem is that in the comic books, the majority are male characters. It wouldn’t make sense to have an equal number or majority number of female characters in an Avenger movie.

            Not that I think anyone has, but I hope no one is blaming Joss Whedon. With his track record of BA girls: Buffy, Willow, Fred/Illyria, River Tam, Echo and more, he has done more for the female hero character than any other Hollywood type ever. If he could find a way to make a successful launch of a female superhero, he would.

            He greatly inspired me to make the main character of my novel (The Heart of Seras: Journey to Seras) a female. And, I can only hope that does a little more to help the idea mentioned in this post – though, I’m still jot sure why it is called a Mary Sue?

          4. Joe, I disagree with you. That you or others don’t know a cool character, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in the same way that we don’t know an animal especies doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I named a lot more, like Tigra, Photon, Moondragon, Crystal, Wasp, Mantis, Echo… There are many cool characters of both sexes that are better than the popular ones. But marketing usually plays “safe” and invest money in the more known titles. That doesn’t mean that you would get the best stories, that mean yoo would atract certain number of readers/movie goers.

            On the other hand, the less known a character is, the more freedom the writter have to do something interesting. So, even if there is less female avengers, that doesn’t mean that they can use them or put more in a movie, to change the unbalance for a more balance cast. It’s a choice, like the one every writter faces when a new story is written.

            So you never bought a comic because black widow was in it, well, I know people that did. And marvel even plan on doing an Antman movie, who as you know it’s less known than Scarlet witch. But somehow, the argument to use a less know character it’s made with him and not with female characters. They would invest money in that movie and market that less known character, and then he would become popular even if now it’s less popular than Black widow. Again, that’s a choice they are making.

            No, I don’t blame Wedon, I think he did well given the choices he was force to take by producers. BUT I blame producers. Because even if you can’t change the past and wich characters were popular, you sure can influence present and decide the future. Right now they are choosing male a serious unbalace but trying to pass it as “it’s not my fault”.

            Sorry but No. They reboot DC’s 52 to do exactly the same. Few female characters put there for titilation with skimpy costumes (wich weren’t even cool). They made Spiderman make a deal with Mefisto so he was single again after the radioactive semen fiasco (and I’m not even kidding, it was literal, they tried to give MJ cancer because spidey semen was radioactive. Stupid as it sounds, with marvel “logic” she could also get powers because of that), but they wanted to “fridge” her so spiderman character remain the same. And that’s recent. They change the war the punisher fight in so the character remain, and they slowly change stories origins to adapt to the times.

            If you read silver age comics you would see lots of changes. So the argument “Another problem is that in the comic books, the majority are male characters. It wouldn’t make sense to have an equal number or majority number of female characters in an Avenger movie.” it’s not valid, because they create new characters all the time (Runaways), they change stablished characters all the time when it suits them.

            So if they wanted a full women cast, they’ll choose a “femme fatale” movie, like they did for heroes for hire. They just don’t want, and tey don’t because for them, as for you, there’s no need (or want). They are happy with they way things were in the past and can’t understand why we aren’t and why a secondary character isn’t enough. In his minds they already have “compromised” by including one. But they really didn’t, they just put Black widow in because Whedon was firm.

            Makes perfect sense to have more female avengers in a movie if the story you want to tell it’s one were what matters it’s that anyone can be a hero. Or even one were you show that avengers can be really different and have their fights, but that when things get serious, they put that differences aside to fight together. The message would have been stronger with a diverse cast (not only actors, but characters too). I guess from your point of view, we already have that, but from mine, it reads more on “so captain america and Iron man have big egos and figh to decide who’s the leader”, same old, same old.

            So I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. Make perfect sense to make half of the characters be female in a world were half the population is female, even if you have to create new ones (not that you would really need it). It doesn’t if you focus on a past were half the population was ignored.

          5. I don’t like the term to agree to disagree, but I think you make some valid arguments, and I still disagree. While there may be in your opinion other cool female characters (Tigra, Photon, Moondragon, etc), would people shell out $9+ to see them on the big screen? I, for one, would not, much in the way that I would not pay that kind of money to see a movie based on Antman. I thought he was lame to begin with.

            Movie makers are obsessed with making money, why make a movie about a little known character if it doesn’t promise a big payoff? It would take a writer/director maybe better than, Whedon, to bring a relatively unknown female superhero to the forefront. Even some of the “cool” male characters haven’t panned out on the big screen, I thought The Punisher movie was terrible, I thought the Green Lantern movie was terrible, and I have hated every single attempt at The Hulk. In fact, I refuse to go to the theater to see any Hulk movies, because, 1) I am not a fan, 2) they have not done a very good job with the story. I thought Whedon’s attempt was the best, The Hulk is a secondary character, in my mind, at best, he cannot carry a movie by himself. I hope they learned that lesson. But they will keep trying, because he is so dang popular. In my 5th grade classes (I’m a teacher), he is tied with Spiderman for 3rd place in popularity – Batman is 1st and Ironman is 2nd.

            And, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t picked up a comic book in twenty years. I don’t know what they have done since my sons stopped reading them. I only pay attention to the people I enjoyed reading in the 70s and 80s as I was growing up, and in the early 90s when my sons were into them. But, I think that is why the “powers-that-be” are producing movies like Wolverine, Thor, Captain America, Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Ironman, they were the heroes who were popular during their time and are the iconic characters of the comics. Can a female break in to that group? I don’t know. Can Wonder Woman or Scarlet Witch prove that a strong/popular female character can carry a movie? I hope so. I don’t think Black Widow can, look at poor Elektra, and Jennifer Garner was near the height of her popularity with “Alias.”

            My argument, “Another problem is that in the comic books, the majority are male characters. It wouldn’t make sense to have an equal number or majority number of female characters in an Avenger movie,” is still valid, because the established characters (big money makers are male superheroes). Comic books have less to lose if a character, much less a female character falls flat. They can introduce them as secondary character in a book, if the fans like her, they will string it out until they let her “fly” on her own, if she falls, they end the story line. Movie producers can’t take that chance. They have a multi-million dollar budget; they want established sellers…for good or bad.

            Is it right or fair? No. But the way to change that is for people to create believable female characters with depth that producers will find hard to ignore. And they need to be bigger than life. Black Widow is a spy, she works well as a limited secondary character. She is not one to save a city, a country or the world time and time again in the way Superman, Batman, Ironman, Spiderman and the rest of the boys’ club do, and make it splashy for the big screen. Give Whedon time, he will come up with something – I trust his history of making strong female characters. It inspired me to write my own strong female character – maybe she will make it to the big screen.

          6. Joe, I’m fine with you disagreeing with me. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a civil discussion.

            Now to topic. I write for fun, and even if I’m not a good writer I’ve learn a couple of things. As story must be judged by itself. Past doesn’t really matter when you tell a story. It’s true that for older people, the comics they’ve read were the ones where only male characters matters. Buts also true that some of that comics have been changing to adapt to new ways of thinking. People love the ultimate version of the characters and it mean major changes to them.

            In fact, they’ve made many Batman movies talling again and again the same story with minor changes. Some people like changes, others don’t. Some people like the old characters, others not so much.

            But people is influenced by marketing. James Cameron Avatar was “new” (Not true, it was pocahontas, but with aliens and worse, but you get my point). Katniss and the hunger games, also a new story. So, yes, there’s market for new characters. And many times, in comics we see a mix of well known characters and new ones. Wolverine was created long after Cyclops and now is a popular character.

            Black widow popularity surely have increased after avengers film. So, the choice the film producers make, affects people perception. And the money people are willing to spend depends on the way you sell the product. If they focus on male characters, they would sell well. And if they decide to focus on female characters, they would also sell well, there’s examples.

            As I pointed out, somehow producers are willing to take risk with antman (who by the way it’s a character who used to be married with the Wasp, but got divorced because he abused her and beat her. Now it’s supposed to be sorry, not proud and want to redeem himself, but to be honest it seems they focus the story on “his” drama). I imagine, that they would use the other man who wear the antman costume, but still… The thing is, do you want me to believe that a Black Widow movie is riskier than an Antman movie? No, it’s not. They took the risk in the same way any investor took risk, because the riskier investment also are the ones that can produce a higher profit per dollar. And they choose with which character take the risk.

            Elektra movie was bad not because the character or her popularity. Actually, Elektra it’s a really popular anti hero or even a villain. No, the reason it failed, it’s because Daredevil movie was a bad movie to begin with and people wasn’t attracted to a spin off of a bad movie. And lets be honest, that’s the way Elektra was selled. Also, people who write the scripts, didn’t understand the character at all. I suggest you read Elektra Assassin and compare that to the movie. It has nothing to do. But of course, Elektra Assassin was a critic to the cold war and to give too much power to one person (the president), so it was too controversial. Same happens to Catwoman. Poor writing with a “this a female spin off from X male character” obviously would fall short. And also a supervillain, not a hero.

            You said that they can’t take a chance with female characters, then why suddenly they can take a higher risk with male character as Antman? In fact, there was a time when Wasp was more popular. There are some essays in Hathor legacy that explain why a failed Green latern movie won’t mean that producers won’t take more chances with male superheroes. Also, there’s a recount of films revenue and it happens that Sandra Bullock films are highly profitable. And the hunger games too. So, if they were to make decisions only based on budged and estimated income, then a Black Widow movie would be a safe bet. You said yourself, you aren’t interested in antman but you would go to see a Black widow movie…

            They already are good female characters, believable and interesting.

            “Black Widow is a spy, she works well as a limited secondary character. She is not one to save a city, a country or the world time and time again in the way Superman, Batman, Ironman, Spiderman and the rest of the boys’ club do, and make it splashy for the big screen.”

            Think again, James Bond it’s a spy and have a whole franchise around him doing exactly that. Storm was far more powerfull than wolverine and they have to change her personality and weaken her so she didn’t overshadow wolverine. They do that ALL the time.

            The problem it’s not in the female characters, it’s in the writers with no imagination or skill that are afraid of using right the characters. Think of this, when Storm was married to Black panter, they have to climb a mountain in a comic. Why if Storm can fly? Well, because Black panter don’t have powers to Storm level, and it would have been “demeaning” to him being carried by his wife… somehow that sit well with male readers and they didn’t said, Black Panter should be a secondary character.

            Batman have the same powers that Black Widow have (none unless you count being rich and have Alfred as superpowers). Nick Fury? Just being cool. Punisher? Crazyness. The “boys club” it’s full of nonpowered characters who are allowed to save the day. And the “girls club” have also members really powerful that, instead being allowed to save the day, are nerfed. No, what limits female characters it’s producers imagination about what’s acceptable and what not.

            Yes, Whedon writes female characters and I like Buffy and firefly. But he’s not the only one who do. There’s lot of them out there. And I would suggest, give a try to more of them. Read a lot, not only comics. At some point you’ll realize that Whedon it’s not the only one who writes strong women characters. May I suggest Bird of prey? Female team, Batman style. Or Jenny Sparks, from authority. Or Runaways, that was considered for a film but dropped (I don’t know why since it would be really popular with teenagers, especially girls).

            When you tell a story, you make choices. the fact that they use female characters as secondary, it’s not because they can carry plot weight, because if that were true, Hunger games would have been a fiasco. It’s because many people think “sure, Batman can save the day, Black Widow with the same powers don’t”. Or, “sure, Hulka’s comics sell better than Hulk’s, but lets put Hulk in the avengers”. Or “yes, we could put Scarlet Witch in the movie, but then if used properly, she could solve the problems on her own, because she can literally change reality and we don’t want that”. No, they chose to put female character as secondary or “romantic interest” (because god forbid people think they are gay like they think of batman and superman XD) because that’s their vision.
            Fairness aside, it gets boring, uninteresting and unimaginative. Cinema used to be considered an art, and that means telling compelling stories. But I guess that expecting a good story is naive on my part. hahaha

            PS: I’m sorry for the long post. Good english practice, though. XD

          7. I though it would help to add some links. This is the film that it’s planed for Antman:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ant-Man_(film)

            And this is a link that talk about he beating his wife (I would also said that there’s emotional abuse).

            http://www.comicvine.com/articles/off-my-mind-is-hank-pym-a-wife-beater-or-did-he-ge/1100-143296/

            And this is a character they are going to put in a film before they try a single female lead…

            I hope that the Antman film fails. Even if they tone down the character, it would still be an insult.

  2. I think we do get a couple movies and tv series with badass female mary-sues. Kill Bill comes to mind, Resident evil, Buffy the vampire slayer, Lara Croft., etc. But I do get your point and I agree 🙂

    1. Are you kidding? says: Reply

      Kill Bill? Are you serious? That misogynist fantasy of a badass female? Quentin Tarantino is an ass. That whole movie is about women victims, who play out male violent revenge fantasies. Talk about a step backwards.

      1. Everything is misogynist for people like you when it is made by a man. But when woman made stuff like Fifty Shades of Grey you totally justify it because a woman made it and even dare to call that trash “empowering” and you accuse those who criticize the blatant sexism of that novel of 2kink shaming.”

        1. Tell me more about my love of 50 Shades of Grey and my hatred of anything written by men. It sounds like I may have to actually *read* 50 Shades of Grey, and take all those male-written fantasy novels I love off my bookshelves. I would hate to fail to live up to your one-dimensional stereotype of an unreasonable feminist.

      2. How is Kill Bill misogynistic tho?
        It features strong women, including woc, doing whatever the fuck they want and most of them are not sexualised or anything. Like, you are kinda having the same posture here that the article is criticizing, why is it bad for a woman to carry out a violent revenge and so? How is it a male fantasy or whatever?

  3. This. All of this.

    I feel like the 90ies were doing so great with the invention of Buffy Summers, Sabrina Spelling, the Halliwell Sisters, Captain Kathryn Janeway,… even Lois Lane got top billing in her own tv show.

    But ever since the 2000ies there seems to have been a big backlash, female characters were pushed into the background and it’s all about the menz. Again.
    The only place were you can still find female heroes are YA adult novels, in which we get vampire hunters like Rose Hathaway, super-powered lady knights like Karigan G’ladheon, cross-dressing midshipmen like Deryn Sharp and pure survivors like Katniss Everdeen…

    1. I’d recomend Bones. It’s a good show with a main female character that could be considered a “mary Sue” but not completely crossing the line.

      You also have True Blood, though Tara or Pam or Jessica are far more interesting that Sookie.

      I’m not following it, but I think that maybe vampire diaries.

      And I’m sure it’s a matter of time there’s new shows. I guess that now the “trend” it’s more on the line of pretty little liars or subburgatory.

      Also, I’m waiting for Veronica Mars (the film).

      1. Fringe, though its run has finished, also has a great female protagonist. Though her team is (almost) entirely male, she is clearly the leader, and thoroughly awesome. The character of Nina Sharp is great as well, running a massive company and actually doing good with it while the “genius” men who created it take turns almost destroying the world.

      2. It looks like we used up our other conversation. I didn’t see a reply link.

        Let me say this first, even before I saw the links you posted, I will never watch Antman. Without knowing all of that, I always thought he was lame. Next, I love a good civil debate – so, thank you!

        I did say that they can’t take chances with female characters, but I also don’t think they should take a chance with someone like Antman. There are some really good ones out there. Antman will be an epic fail.

        Believe me, I wish there were great stories out there for female superhero and characters. Like I think I mentioned before, I wrote one myself. I can only hope that someday she finds her way to the big screen. And maybe there is one out there that I don’t know, and that is a big possibility since talking to my students and my grandsons, there are a lot of characters I have never heard of, now, let me defend myself by saying, that I would never fork over $9 to watch any of them male or female on the big screen. In order to do that, there has to be something that maybe is missing, for example – I have yet to see Green Lantern, any of the Hulk movies, or the new Spiderman movie. I probably will rent Green Lantern and the new Spidey someday, but I’m not in a hurry. I am not going to see Dead Pool or Antman, and having said that to my grandsons, I figured out a problem that might be rooted in the problem with having female superhero movies. Who is the villain? The key to a really good superhero movie is a really good supervillain. Batman has The Joker and a dozen other good villains, Superman has Lex and a handful of other nemesis’s, Spiderman has the most cool villains, X-Men have Magneto, Captain America has Red Skull, etc etc..Who would Wonder Woman fight? That same problem goes for my favorite DC hero, Flash. I don’t think he would do very well in the box office. His villains are lame.

        Nick Fury is a secondary character. He, even with Samuel L., would not be able to carry a movie by himself. I hope they never try.

        So would you suggest Black Widow have adventures like James Bond or John McClain (Die Hard)? Or can Scarlett Johannson bring the same draw as Angelina Jolie’s, Salt? Or, can Halle Berry as Storm do better at bring in an audience than she did in Catwoman? I don’t know.

        I’m not saying that the world…the movie/comic book world doesn’t need a female superhero movie. In fact, I think they need several. I’m just not convinced that there are characters who can bring the audience to the theaters. I wouldn’t start with the Avengers. It is dominated by strong male characters. I would start with the X-Men. Storm, Rogue, Jean Grey and even Kitty Pryde as so far that franchise has done a good job balancing male/female ratio, if not story line, to use as a platform or jumping off point to get a female lead.

        Expecting a good, original story from Hollywood is a little naïve 😉 but you are right, we need someone to take the lead.

        1. Hank Pym with the Wasp is one of the Avengers founders. That’s the reason they have chose to make that film. Of course, they’ll put the Wasp in a secondary role. Not because it can be reimagined as a good character, but because preferences. On the same hand, it seems many people, like you, have personal preferences that leads them to old characters and disliking female ones.
          The fact is they take a chance with Antman, so that proves they can take chances when they want to do it. The fact that some people think they shouldn’t doesn’t mean they can’t.
          Your wish is granted, there’s many stories with great female characters. In mythology, classical tales, books, films, tv-shows and, yes, comics too. As I said, the fact that you don’t know them and don’t want to read the ones your family recomend, doesn’t mean they don’t exist, just that you aren’t aware of their existence and that this stories doesn’t appeal to you. Your choice, but you can’t said there aren’t. A pity, since you would have difficulties recommending stories with good female characters to your students. But still your choice.
          Anyway, the villain argument is a pointless one. There’s different types of stories. Some gain with a clear villain, others not so much. Wonder Woman has Ares, the greek god of war and several other from mythology and the justice league. I’m not really a DC fan, but even I know that. As a side note, I’d said that if you can’t write a cool Ares, then you are doing something wrong as a writer. But the best story for Elektra, didn’t have a clear enemy and still worked quite well. Also, first Batman movie, didn’t have the Joker.
          Now, I bet Flash could have a good story or any other character. But for that to happen, you need creative writers and a solid plot. You can’t write something with many fights but without an argument to support that. Also, spin offs should be able to sustain themselves. And there’s a problem when you write female characters as secondary to male character that “maybe could have a film on their own someday”. That’s what they’re doing with Black Widow. She appeared in Ironman and it seems she would appear again in the Captain America 2, so his film could be more interesting. Because, lets face it, Captain america is usually boring.
          We disagree about Nick Fury and Shield. You could have really cool movies about that. In fact, marvel thought that it could be cool to have a whole TV-show for shield.
          What I suggest is that any character could be interesting if well written. And yes, Black Widow character, as a russian spy who left her country because she realized that she was being used, has a cool past and could have a whole film for her instead of being a potential love interest for Captain America or Bucky. Storm as someone rised as a thief, considered a godess in Africa and former Patrol X leader? You bet. But for a film like that to succed, the first thing it’s that producers don’t go around deciding “no, a woman can’t/won’t do that”. That’s where the real problem is. You only have to look to what they did to Hitgirl in Kick Ass 2. They decided she should be more “femenine” and by that, they mean her wearing dresses and falling in love with Kick ass. That not only is not in the comic, but doesn’t make sense with a character who’s completely crazy and obsessed with what she do. It’s like deciding that the punisher married again and decide to have a family while he fights the mafia… Absurd. But since hitgirl is a girl, they change the character to fit with their ideas. And in doing that, making the plot duller.
          “Expecting a good, original story from Hollywood is a little naïve 😉 but you are right, we need someone to take the lead.”
          Yes, it’s naive, but I hope it happens someday. It happen from time to time with indie movies. Anyway, I would settle for them admitting that if they don’t do a film with a female lead it’s because they don’t want to, not because people won’t see them or because they can’t. Even if there wasn’t interesting female characters, which is not true, they could always create one.

      3. I’m enjoying Covert Affairs and Once Upon a Time for the female characters, though both are terribly white. When I get sick of that, historical kdramas frequently star really fantastic Mary Sues, and Queen Seondeok in particular reassured me that my love for the “two men in a battle of wits” plot trope is in fact gender neutral and is just as passionate when the antagonists are two women.

  4. The characters with the fast quips, the dark backstories, who are burdened with glorious purposes and discover that with great power comes great responsibility.

    You’ve just described Xena Warrior Princess! And I agree, after the undeniable success of Xena and her enduring popularity, it’s baffling that TV executives still haven’t twigged to the fact that there’s a demand for these types of characters.

  5. Black Widow doesn´t need superpowers to be a cool character and she is important to the team in several ways. The problem is – as you point out – that she is the ONLY woman in Avengers and almost the only woman in the whole movie. And it didn´t have to be that way. It would have been son easy to resolve. Why not give Pepper more screentime? Or Maria Hill? Agent Hill shows in the beginning that she is a cool badass, but after that she is mostly background stuff. For no reason at all.

  6. I agree with this so completely, I can hardly find words for it. They are adding Scarlet Witch to the bill for the second Avengers bill, but I’m concerned that it’s going to be too focused on her as a superhero who has not yet fully harnessed her powers, which adds to her interesting flawed nature, but inherently will ruin her qualities as a fully in control hero. We’ll see what Joss does with that one. However, all in all, I think the way in which women have been pushed back, especially in the day of blockbuster hero movies is pretty despicable.

  7. I actually didn’t even want to read the article at first due to the title, but I’m glad I did. Maybe I’m being pedantic, but the reason a Mary-Sue is so vilified is because of the last point that wasn’t brought up here– Mary-Sues are uninteresting and flat characters in and of themselves, possessing only enough qualities to make them either the best or worst (but still best) character in the story. (Most of the time, even the Mary-Sue’s background, plot or powers aren’t enough to save her from being a terribly written character.) I agree that we need more female superheroes with incredible superpowers or genius abilities, but we don’t need more Mary-Sues. They’re caricatures, stereotypes. We need more humans, more female characters that are people rather than just women.

    1. This is exactly what I was going to say. The trouble with Mary Sues is NOT that they’re powerful, tough, beautiful, smart, wealthy, tragic, and loved by everyone they meet. The urban fantasy genre is filled to the brim with sexy, intelligent, bad-ass women, many of whom have tragic pasts or personal weaknesses. Many of them are fairly wealthy or date very wealthy men/paranormal creatures.

      The trouble with a Mary Sue isn’t the outward qualities she possesses, it’s the inner qualities she does NOT possess. Mary Sues generally lack depth. Everyone raves about how kind-hearted and wonderful they are–and there’s often a completely superfluous scene thrown in of Mary Sue finding a lost kitten a home or crying at a sad TV ad for a charity or, especially, stepping in to defend a bullied child or GLBT person or person of color being attacked by racists or whatever–but aside from that “establishing” scene, there’s no textual evidence that Mary Sue is even a decent person, let alone a lovable one. She tends to be extremely shallow and superficial; she doesn’t think of the feelings of others, and others are expected to just deal with it because Mary Sue is so awesome that if you disagree with her or dislike her you’re obviously the villain.

      We’re told Mary Sue is smart, but the obvious logical solution to a problem doesn’t even occur to her. We’re told Mary Sue is loving and sweet but she’s often nasty and cruel to and about others. We’re told Mary Sue is modest but she usually spends an awful lot of time thinking about her silky waist-length hair and violet eyes, although of course she doesn’t think she’s beautiful at all. We’re told Mary Sue is sensitive while she trods all over the feelings of others with heavy, simpering boots. We’re told Mary Sue has a tragic past, but while she may think of it with tears in her enormous shining eyes, it doesn’t affect her behavior or personality in any real way. We’re told how caring she is, but when it comes to the inevitable several-men-fighting-over-her, she leads them on and treats them like set dressing.

      Mary Sue is just the ultimate expression of what happens when writers tell, not show. Everyone loves her just because. Everyone forgives her just because. She pulls solutions out of her behind–often solutions that any reasonable person would have tried long before Mary Sue appeared on the scene in her skintight designer jeans that show off her amazing curves–and everyone is stunned and admiring and effusive in their praise. Everything she has is totally unearned, and the reader is left wondering why everybody likes this girl so much when she’s so devoid of personality, brains, or real human emotions.

      Supporting characters tend to spend lots and lots of page time talking about how great Mary Sue is and how much they love her.

      So, yeah. The problem isn’t female characters with strength and power–again, there are plenty of those out there, female characters with real flaws and real strengths who are allowed to win and lose and get it right and make mistakes, just like real people. The problem is characters who are just words on a page, who create a cognitive dissonance in the reader because we’re told this shallow, lazy, unpleasant little brat is the world’s most special awesome person.

      Mary Sue isn’t shorthand for a woman with lots of positive qualities or strength or whatever else. Mary Sue is shorthand for bad writing.

      1. I think the problem is that “Mary Sue” has come to mean so many things, far beyond the initial “overly perfect original character in a fanfic.” Sometimes it’s used to criticize shallow characterization, like the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope, and I think that’s really valid and important. But I also think that the internet especially can go overboard with calling any female character a Mary Sue for having strengths or being somehow “too special,” despite the fact that similar “too special” male characters are everywhere in pop culture and accepted without criticism. I’m not saying that I wish we had more shallow female characters, or more Strong Female Characters (TM) who are all ass-kicking and no substance. But it would be good if an increase in female characters included an increase in the more wish-fulfilment, fantasy characters too, like most male superheroes already are.

        1. God no, we do not need Mary Sues, unless when used in an ironic way.

          The people that despise “Mary Sues” and originally gave them their name are WOMEN, women who read fan-fiction written mainly by other women, women who got tired of reading the same boring character, which thought they were going to read a good non-canon history of their favourite franchise and found the equivalent of “Poochie” in the Itchy and Scratchy show.

          Mary Sues suck, they are literally the character that any 10-year old without knowledge or experience in writing would create, they do not fit at all the universe in which they live. They are like Legolas in the Hobbit movies, something that does not belong there and yet it tries hard to become the focus of all attention and make all the characters and plot irrelevant, as it makes you wonder why they don’t just let him do all the work himself.

          And you like it because you are a feminist, and feminists will never accept any female character with depth or flaws other than hurting men by accident. Feminists only accept Mary Sues without fault and that cannot be wronged by any means, much less get hurt, and because these Mary Sues suck, writers simply avoid women altogether as the main character, because otherwise the history would be awful, and people do not buy bad books. This is also one of the reasons why Hollywood movies are trash.

          3rd wave Feminism actually stands for the opposite of what it preaches, and internet made it very easy to spread this mental illness to people with fragile personalities such as you, please mature soon so that you stop embarrasing your future self.

          1. If you’re going to tell me what I like and think, at least read some of the things I’ve written before diving in. Perhaps the many things I’ve written on the importance of having flawed and hard-to-like female characters might be of interest.

            I’m also not sure what the fact that women came up with the name “Mary Sue” has to do with my argument. Those are Mary Sues in the fanfiction sense. I’m talking about the way the term is applied more broadly to movies and TV (Rey from Star Wars being the best current example). And I’d hate to shake your worldview here, but I’m not arguing based on the assumption that “things women say = good, things men say = bad.”

  8. I understand your point and all, but Mary-Sues are called “unrealistic” and “too perfect” for a reason. For example, think of a absolutely beautiful girl, who is very rich, powerful, has an tragic past, or something on the lines of that. Girls will get the idea that you have to be perfect and have no flaws. That you have to achieve this form of “perfection”. Mary-Sues are usually thought of in a negative not because their beauty or anything like that, but because they seem too bland, one dimensional, predictable. If you have no flaws or are too overpowered, what would be the point of even glancing at the movie/book/story? The plot would always end the same way no matter what. So I think characters who are more “realistic”, the ones who can be vulgar, has flaws, not too powerful, but not too weak, are more interesting because you would get to see her troubles/hardships, how she would deal with them, and overall character development. While a Mary-Sue will have no development, since she has no hardships that she can’t overcome or find difficult. She would have no character development because she has no flaws to work out.

    1. For example, think of a absolutely gorgeous man, who is very rich, powerful, has an tragic past, or something on the lines of that.

      You mean like…Bruce Wayne? Tony Stark? Oliver Queen? Do you see the double standard you’re endorsing?

      1. The Mary Sue character is never a leading role; s/he is a supporting character who serves as the author’s idealized surrogate. The best example is Pete Wisdom from Warren Ellis’ run on X-Men. In the original fanfic from which the name derives, Mary Sue was a lowly ensign on board the Enterprise who was nonetheless the object of all the male characters’ desire and best friend to all the female characters, the one to who all the established Trek characters turn to for advice and support, and always comes up with the solution to save the day.

        A male Mary Sue character would never be analogous to Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark; he would be Alfred or Rhodey, if Alfred or Rhodey always were the focus of the story and always came up with the answer that allowed Batman or Iron Man to save the day, while Silver St. Cloud or Pepper Potts fawned over them.

        1. If the Mary Sue came with the solutions, and everyone turns to her for advice, she is in fact a leader. The problem is perception. Since she is an OC she es perceived as “secondary”. But in that story she is the main character.

          You can see that with Batgirl o Robin. They were secondary characters in Batman’s titles, but main characters in their own titles. Same happens with the Mary Sues. In that sense, Dritzz Dourden is a Marty Stu and could be considered a forgotten Realms “fanfiction”. But since he’s male, and all that, everyone considered normal that he’s good at everything (or even that evil female drow priestess allow their males to learn something at all instead use them a pleasure slaves and breading and nothing more). But it’s fantasy and we roll with it.

          Again, the real problem it’s that Mary Sues are idealiced an uninteresting (same as MArty Stus). But some people love superman because of that, and it shouldn’t be such a problem that Wonderwomen is idealiced to the same level.

          1. You mistaken the Perfect Hero with the Mary Sue. The Perfect Hero is the driving force of the story, and people that read the work know perfectly what to expect and what they will read. Sometimes it is interesting to see how the writer comes up with obstacles for characters so overpowered, as it is the case of Lucky Luke, in which all the people around him are complete inepts that are constantly saboutaging him. Sometimes the villain is also a perfect hero so the reader can enjoy the clash of intellects of equally competent people, as is the case of Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty.

            The Mary Sue, however, is an author self-insert in another character’s story, a history that is not his or her own (this is very important), written in a way that derails the plot so that it is no longer about the main character’s story, but a vehicle to have all these charismatic characters fawning over how cool and beautiful the writer’s avatar is. People do not want to read what is no more than poorly written self-wank. The Mary Sue is the awful product of lazy and mediocre writers that cannot even come up with their own intellectual property because they lack imagination and have no talent or writing skills whatsoever.

          2. Obviously, none of this discussion is about Mary Sues in fanfiction, but in characters that are called “Mary Sues” in mainstream pop culture — characters that wouldn’t even overpowered and flawless enough to be called “the Perfect Hero” if they were male. Please don’t be obtuse — everyone here knows where the term “Mary Sue” originates from, and everyone here also understands that its usage has evolved since then.

  9. I definitely agree with the point behind your article (and whilst I was growing up I was glad for the X-Men because I could idolise Storm), except that even Superheros aren’t “Mary Sues”. Mary Sue implies a perfect character who has no weaknesses and can solve any problem easily. That’s a boring character to read about, male or female. Yes, we want to see female superheroes who stand alongside Iron Man and Thor, and yes we want them to be able to hold their own and save the day just like the male heroes. But we don’t want characters who can defeat their enemies with one punch every time, we want to cheer them on in their struggle to defeat the big bads and triumph after a tough battle. Even the men have their weaknesses – Superman’s weakness to Kryptonite, for example – so we should expect the same of female superheroes, not some beautiful, perfect, invulnerable goddess.

  10. Thank you for pointing out, or at least strongly implying, that “Mary Sue” as a critique of a no-no-trope in fiction is likely a post hoc sexist dig. Female characters have to dance backwards and in high-heels. Defining characters as hackneyed or trite if they have certain characteristics the first time a female version shows up is appalling.

  11. One thing to consider is that Hawkeye and Black Widow, and Widow in particular, are people who use martial arts and guns as their “powers.” This is why you don’t see them on a lot of merchandise, particularly aimed at younger children. While the argument could be made that children could hurt themselves playing with sledgehammers and disc sleds as Thor and Cap, a hero that uses firearms is probably not the thing to put in front of a young child, regardless of your views on political correctness or gun control. Even though in most of the merchandise I’ve seen where Hawkeye and Widow are represented, she’s seen posing with her wrist-blasters like the comic book version of her character would be, and he is of course associated with the bow… a bow is a bow and anyone who’s seen the movie knows that Widow likes her handguns. So part of her exclusion might be a compromise move regarding the promotion of violence on the playground.

    So to add to your list… the Mary Sues should be conjured with an eye towards whether or not a kiddified version can be created in a fashion that’s not going to have school children killing each other.

  12. You all are way too hung up on how “Mary Sue” is needed more. Mary Sue is so ill-defined in the places where they usually talk about those topics i.e. forums (usually fanfics) now have male characters that are overpowered are called Mary Sue as well (and rightly so). Thus, from here on out I will defiine Mary Sue for this comment as: A character/figure who has been overpowered, with little to no flaws or flaws that are not flaws, tragic past (because that hasn’t been done to death…not), ATTITUDE!!!! don’t take not shit from no one, knows what they want and simply walks over everything to get it…you know like biblical figures, wish-fulfillment etc. (If too many (no more than 1 or 2, reaching) aspects are displayed in a main character, or side-character, then that’s a Mary Sue: an insult to all good characters of every gender everywhere.

    Mary Sue is not a good idea…ever. Honest to everything, Mary Sues are the worst of everything ever (in fiction). Also, don’t call (or imply that) Buffy (was) a Mary Sue, she is not a Mary Sue; what you have there is a well written female character who had a case of good old character development.

    Mary Sues are not a good thing, they retard character development, you can have an awesome character without being a Sue. Rather than Mary Sues, what you need is more real characters, the best characters, gender-notwithstanding, have a basis in real life or can seem to almost hop off the page. Mary Sues are…utterly boring, in most cases. Characters need flaws and struggles to be interesting to have growth and live, Mary Sues are static unless they’re adding something then they essentially just get fat full of whatever is added.

    TL;DR

    Mary Sues are boring, and unclear. Real characters are better, flaws and strengths are needed equally.

  13. Read the Shatter Me trilogy by Tahereh Mafi! It has what you’re looking for!!!

  14. One word. Frozen.

  15. I think the main problem is that people equate “Mary Sue” with “poorly written.” I’ve read many fanfics with Mary Sue protagonist OCs and have absolutely adored them, sometimes more so than the original work. This can happen and work, if they get the right people on the job.

  16. I don’t think you quite have the grasp of what a Mary Sue is. IT’s not a powerful female character, it’s a poorly written female character.

    Female superheroes are not Mary Sues because their powers make sense in their world. A Mary Sue is a girl who can use magic when no one else can, has a hair color that no one else has, has a ton of incidental special abilities that she’ll never actually use. She hogs the spotlight, & when she’s not around, everyone else is talking about her. No man can resist her beauty & charm. Anyone she doesn’t like gets killed off or becomes an outcast in society. Often her abilities have no explanation how they work; they’re just plot conveniences. Her farts smell like flowers, animals gather when she sings, a room full of armed men can’t scratch her in battle…..Just poorly written.

    Now if you can manage to balance Sue traits, basically a 50-50 of Anti Sue & God Mode Sue, for example, an all-powerful sorceress like Slayer’s Lina Inverse who is a wanted criminal, has sub-par looks, & fails at being her ideal of feminine, you get a character who can transcend Suedome.

  17. Mary Sue is a gender neutral term as used in modern fandom. And the last thing we need is more of them.

    What makes a Mary Sue is not any of the things the author talked about. Those are often warning signs of a Mary Sue, but they are symptoms, not the disease.

    What makes a Mary Sue is the unnatural warping of the plot around him or her. This can be because the Mary Sue is too awesome, but the Martyr-Sue who suffer incessantly, and create a negative space wedgie of angst that sucks the whole plot into a black hole of nonsensical, pointless, “abuse”-solely-for-the-sake-of-drama is no less a Mary Sue.

    The Mary Sue is the character who destroys any sense of plot, tension, or verisimilitude by being obviously the authors favorite to the point that the world around him or her is distorted to make him or her right – ruining the established characterization of other characters, or creating plot holes, or just going against all physics, psychology or basic sense to let the favored Sue win or be proved more just or ‘pure.’

    The only character who shows any hint of being a Sue in Avengers is Tony Stark, and that’s marginal at best.

    Bella Swan is a Mary Sue. Mike Harmon is a Mary Sue. James Bond or Honor Harrington (in the latter books) might be argued to fit in the category. Natasha Romanoff? She’s no Sue. She’s just justifiably awesome.

    1. Then I guess you consider Dritzz dourden and Elminster Marty Stus. XDD Not that I dissagree. hahaha

  18. I agree to the certain point where you refer “mary sue” as being the same as a superhero: this is not true. The reason ist that the term got so terribly mixed up you’re having troubles to trace it back to a point where it’s not used as an insult to every author who writes a story with a strong female protagonist. And that’s probably the point that happen here: you couldn’t make it to that point. That’s understandable. But there ARE absolute things that a mary sue- no matter if that kind of character is male or female- CAN be differed from superheros

    1: does the character his mates and rivals and antagonists? or are their just a tool to let that character shine? does (s)he solve every obstacle by his/herself, like, always? does this character forces his/her needs upon everybody else, but nobody seems to care, rather love him/her even more? Is (s)he the center of affection? – That means the author AND that character has no respect for the character and it might be a hint for a sueish character.
    2: Is she the only one who can bend the rules of the world, such as reviving death characters or using deus ex machina without consequences? is she “fixing” the world to her please? Like coming up with a way to float or fly by pure will with no tools in a world that would need a device for doing that and has no such thing as mindpower that is able to bend physics (also know as magic)? Less recognized things might be a character that just seems to know everything and can handle any obstacle and plottwist before it’s actually starts to have an effect- if so, you have a second hint for a sueish character.
    3: has that character a development and growth? or is she starting being perfect and staying perfect until the very end? As Lajos Egri says: “there is only one realm in which characters defy natural laws and remain the same – the realm of bad writing.”- the third hint.

    long story short: just because somebody is an outstanding person won’t make him a sue. A Superhero- sure. But as long as that person won’t overshadow EVERYTHING and do as he or she pleases, it’s just a person/ character. If the character respects other characters in a way as you would respect people around you and is unable to do any change to the consistency of the world, it is NOT a sue.

    So, a superhero is (usually) NOT a sue. There are far more Marty Stues in this world….. Sorry Superman, but after you changed reality like two times and eventually have no more limits, you’re not in the game of being a character anymore. Your “burden” of being awesome in everything but want to be normal is also everything but reasonable. Not saying it’s not understandable to blend in somehow, but, really, the last of your kind, and such a tragic past and responsiblity and…..

    …I think you get the point….

  19. I don’t think you’re quite getting the point of calling a character a “Mary Sue”. Mary Sues warp the plot around them like a singularity. Bad guys inexplicably lose their minds. Everyone who likes the Mary Sue character is a good guy, everyone who dislikes the Mary Sue is a bad guy.

    Bad fiction is filled with such characters. The single most egregious example I can think of is Honor Harrington from David Weber’s horrible, horrible space opera.

  20. Mary Sues are never a good thing. And the gazillions of overly powerful, overly independent, overly snarly, overly rude female characters that are currently ruining speculative fiction are not helping anyone. No female with a maturity level of above ten years old is going to feel empowered by seeing some c =a character that beats up every opponent with one arm behind her back, always has a snarky comment, and has every male character going gaga over her. A character doesn’t need to be female for me to feel empowered by their struggles, and a character that always wins doesn’t really make for much character development,. or an interesting story. In fact, i would much ratehr see more realistic female characters. I would love to see a female character that is physically weaker then male characters, but that still perserveres, because that is what real women do.

What do you think?