[Mary Sues were the very first topic I wrote about on this blog, some years ago. I’d like to re-examine them with my current mindset, under the hopefully true impression that I’m now older and wiser]
The long and short of my opinion on self-insert characters in teen girls’ fanfiction is really: man, who the heck cares? Writing stories that are deeply self-indulgent, highly autobiographical and borrow heavily from other people’s work is an essential (if sometimes embarrassing) part of the growth of a writer. Maybe these young authors will use their trashy OC fanfic as a practicing ground and eventually move on to write Man Booker Prize winners, maybe they’ll just keep it up as a fun creative hobby. If they’re having fun and not hurting anyone—except for annoying the Fandom Guardians, or whoever it is that gets so up in arms about these things—I see no reason they should not be left to their own devices, especially when placing yourself in a fantasy can often be a great source of safety and self-esteem.
If a Mary Sue is defined as being a) an author self-insert, and b) unbelievably perfect and wonderful and ideal and with great cosmic significance, I’m going to try and examine the second point today. I come back to the recent debate about whether or not Star Wars’ Rey is deserving of the dreaded title, which some say she is, some say she is not. The key piece in the argument seems to be that Rey is inexplicably and impossibly skilled and great at everything she does, from piloting spacecraft (and not just any—the Millennium Falcon, everyone’s favourite ship from the original series!) to doing Jedi mind tricks (which will surely impress Luke Skywalker—everyone’s favourite Jedi from the original series!).
You can see where they’re coming from if you squint; after all a key factor of the Mary Sue (among its many varying definitions) is that she is a new character inserted into an existing canon cast, who all think she’s really neat. She also has the Cosmic Destiny thing hanging over her head, being One with the Force and all that, which is demonstrated nicely when she picks up a lightsabre and starts causing trouble with it in an incredibly badass and competent way… which is also something people have claimed is an impossible and unbelievable skill. This is, naturally enough, counter-argued with the examples of Luke and Anakin Skywalker, Anakin especially. I mean, I know The Hero’s Journey has Biblical roots, but he was literally Jedi Jesus. How’s that for cosmic significance?
And that’s without mentioning all the awesome skills the Skywalker lads picked up with very little training and the awesome things they seemed to do entirely by chance or because the plot needed them to—the argument in defence of Rey is that her two male predecessors are infinitely more Mary Sue-ish than she is, but because Rey is a girl, people have come out with torches and pitchforks. It goes back and forth and back and forth. Deep down, I feel like it doesn’t really matter whether or not Rey is destined to save the universe—most fantasy heroes are—or has a lot of practical skills, because she’s an interesting, likeable and fun character that I’m glad exists, if only for the sake of all the little girls who are going to grow up with a Star Wars that is not so exclusively aimed at their brothers and fathers.
But it brings up the issue of an ‘unbelievably capable’ character, and the idea that we don’t want that. Naturally, a character for whom everything is easy is boring to watch, and not very easy to engage with, since generally we like an underdog story (even if the underdog is rich and charismatic and as handsome as we wish we were, sometimes). We like to see characters struggle and get things wrong and fall on their face, because that’s what makes it so gratifying when they come into their own and save the day or whatever at the end of the movie. We don’t want them to be completely gormless, though—that’s even more annoying, somehow (and lord knows, had Rey not been a capable badass, people would have critiqued that she was a helpless damsel). We want them to be skilled, it seems, but not beyond what we deem reasonable.
Here is food for thought: as this author points out (among other interesting things), what’s ‘reasonable’ and ‘inexplicable’ varies from viewer to viewer, and one person’s suspension of disbelief may be more malleable than the person next to them in the cinema. It may not always be obvious that a character is impossibly perfect because different viewers may perceive perfection differently, or may read between the lines in different ways to be able to accept that the skills in question make sense in context.
Often, especially in movies, there’s not necessarily time to demonstrate and justify the source of every one of the character’s skills, leaving a lot of it as subtext or shortcuts. Sometimes these are lazy (“I have seven brothers!” the heroine laughs, by way of explaining how she’s just beaten up an entire room of enemy thugs), sometimes they are nuanced (like, in my opinion anyway, Rey’s were), and generally speaking we shouldn’t assume that someone’s talent is inexplicable before we’ve considered them from multiple angles. A curious, irritated fan could even attempt to flesh out possibilities for making the character less inexplicable via fanfiction, but that’s how we got to Mary Sues in the first place so maybe it’s not such a good recommendation right off the bat.
It’s also worth noting that there are a few kinds of ‘impossibly perfect’ female characters, and the one we more often tend to see in mainstream media is the Strong Female Character rather than the Mary Sue… which is often a woman who’s wonderful, powerful and skilled in a way that appeals to the straight male’s fantasy, whereas the Sue is a type of wonderful, powerful and skilled that is generally created as a female fantasy. Female fans seem to recoil equally from both, presumably because the Strong Female Character often manages to be offensive and sexist as well as flat and uninteresting to watch. You’d think that perhaps women would be kinder to a ridiculous character that appeals to their ideal vision of themselves, but when these characters appear the Mary Sue argument sprouts like climbing ivy.
Is it moviegoing society’s natural dislike for unreasonably wonderful—and thus unrelatable—characters, or is it some sort of weird teenager-fearing ingrained misogyny? You know what, it’s probably both. Of all the ways to criticise media and fictional characters—and there are a lot, I’ve done my fair share—coming down like a tonne of bricks on a ‘Mary Sue’ seems like one of the least sensible, somehow. Possibly because its definition is so wishy-washy, stemming from a deep-seated, seething culture of fanfiction wars, and lost in translation as it’s often simply used as go-to flippant criticism of any female character ‘you’ feel is badly written.
There are plenty of ways to criticise a badly written character. Instead of perhaps complaining that she’s ‘inexplicably good at everything’ you could point out that there wasn’t as much time devoted to foreshadowing her abilities as you would have liked and/or that you found her lack of flaws made her an uninteresting heroine; instead of rolling your eyes when it’s revealed she’s Special and will somehow Save the Universe, discuss instead how this is something of a tired trope and how you’d rather see heroines creating their own destinies (or just be cautiously glad that this tried-and-died archetype is getting a heroine rather than a hero, which it so often has been reserved for). Instead of using ‘Mary Sue’ as shorthand and leaving it at that, examine exactly what that term means, and if it’s even really an appropriate criticism anyway.
Apart from the Star Wars kerfuffle, I really thought the phrase had been retired. I can see why it reappeared, though: with no credit to George Lucas except “based on characters created by…”, The Force Awakens is effectively fanfiction, and goodness knows people are wary of that. Look, maybe Rey is a Mary Sue. Given that it has such a long and complex history and so many meanings (I’ve only talked about the most prominent two, as I can figure out), it’s frankly just as likely that that’s not true as it is, and isn’t really such a bad thing. Maybe Rey’s going to signal the end of the Mary Sue era: girls will grow up with a mass-market trilogy of geekdom where they aren’t completely excluded, and they’re already the heroes of the story they love, so they won’t be as compelled to write self-insert fanfiction where they’re the star of the show, good at everything, and loved by all. Not about Star Wars, anyway.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here—the Mary Sue is a multi-faceted and head-turningly confusing term with a long, convoluted history deeply tied into internet culture and society-ingrained personal sexism and loathing of teenagers, so it’s no wonder the whole thing’s come out a bit dark and weird. Frankly I’m all for retiring the term and trying to find new ways to discuss such things that properly address the writing problems at hand and fosters less girl-hate. We have enough of that in the world already, let’s not create more simply because Rey picked up a lightsabre and looked good doing it.