The short answer: Mary Sue is the author’s idealized self-insert. (If you want to know alllll about Mary Sue, including the history and origins of the term, TV Tropes has your back. Also, if you aren’t careful, your mind and soul. Pack a lunch.) A Mary Sue story is one that primarily features a Mary Sue.
The slightly longer answer: That story you used to tell yourself, about the awesome girl who was totally pretty and everyone liked her and she maybe had magic powers and also like fifteen skills that you wished you did and also her hair never did that, you know, THAT THING your hair always does? And she was in your favorite fictional (or real person fictional) world, and all the characters or people that you loved the most loved her, and she married them or solved their problems or saved them or made them awesome food or held them when they cried? That story was a Mary Sue story, and that girl was a Mary Sue. Sometimes people write those stories down and post them. (AND THAT IS FINE.) Often the stories have limited appeal beyond the author and maybe her friends. (BUT THAT IS ALSO FINE.)
The “Sorry, you kind of touched a nerve” answer: While we can all identify our own Mary Sues, even if we’ve never written them down, people tend to spend a lot of time figuring out if other people have maybe written a Mary Sue, and checking every female character for potential Mary Sueism. In fandom times of old, the letters “OC” (original character) in a story header were a giant flag that meant Potential Bad Story Here, and the letters “OFC” (original female character) were translated as Guaranteed Bad Story Here. So people mostly stopped putting original female characters in their fan fiction.
But that couldn’t stop the inexorable progression of the Mary Sue Hunt. Canon female characters in fan fiction became the focus of intense scrutiny. Is this character being, perhaps, idealized? Is she better than she should be?
It was surprising how often she was better than she should be.
I mean, it’s one thing if we write John Sheppard being brilliant and solving a Millennium Problem while being extra super badass and a sharpshooter and extremely hot and having a troubled past and also he can play the piano and small children love him and he rides a horse. It’s one thing if we write Stiles as a badass motherfucker who can hack and do MMA and make small explosive devices and he saves everyone, and also it turns out he’s a surprisingly sexually skilled virgin, and also there’s this scene where he wears skintight leather and he has two boot knives. It is fine to write those things. (AND IT IS.) You could give Sheppard’s horse a telepathic soulbond with him and have Stiles elected president of universe (because he is awesome), and you’d still potentially have a significant and delighted readership. (WHICH IS ALSO FINE. Who doesn’t sometimes like a President Awesome with a Psychic Horse story? Give Sidney Crosby a psychic horse and you’ve got my click.) That’s just having fun and extrapolating from the canon. (Or, in the case of the telepathic soulbonding horse, it’s a crossover. From real actual published original fiction. And people call us strange.)
But if a female character does one of those things in fan fiction, she’s declared a potential Mary Sue. It’s out of character, it’s over the top, it’s wish fulfillment (as if there’s something wrong with wish fulfillment), it’s a self-insert. And that. That is less fine with me.
And the Mary Sue Problem is not limited to fan fiction. Turns out Mary Sues are also surprisingly prevalent in the canon itself! A tiny sample of the female characters I have heard described as Mary Sues:
- Hermione Granger
- Nyota Uhura
- Natasha Romanov
- Haruno Sakura
- Rose Tyler
- Bella Swann
- Katniss Everdeen
- Buffy Summers
Basically, think of any female character who gets more than eighteen lines, from any popular canon. Someone has called her a Mary Sue. Because she’s competent, because she’s smart, because she’s talented. Because she can do stuff, or because she tries to. Because she loves someone, or because someone loves her. Because she thinks she’s interesting. Because the author thinks we should care about her.
Mary Sue, in short, has become another way of dismissing female characters. Of telling women that we can’t be awesome. Of drawing the line between people who do (dudes) and people who are done to (ladies). Yet another entry in the long list of All the Unacceptable Female Characters. Yet another way of viciously scrutinizing every woman, real or imaginary, and either finding her excessively flawed (and therefore terrible) or excessively without flaw (and therefore terrible).
And also, of course, if the author of the Mary Sue story is a fan fiction writer, we make fun of her.
Which is why my actual definition of the term Mary Sue is: it’s a phrase that is useful for describing a certain common tendency in fan fiction that, taken to an extreme, is often pretty repetitive and uninteresting (but not, let me note, actually criminal or anything). Unfortunately, it has, over time, warped into a tool for knocking down ladies who write, and also other ladies, so I’m trying to learn not to use it any more. (But that is hard. Because see above about usefulness. Almost everyone has dreamed up at least one or two of these, and it’s so nice to have a name for them!)
ALL OF THIS.
Real Sect of the Fandom That You’re Misrepresenting: No actually, we DO want THAT one. We want THAT one, but characterized in a way that is empowering to both herself and other women.Fandom: We need more ladies! We need more ladies on the screen, headlining books and movies, and as main characters in fics! More ladies more ladies more ladies!
Fandom: But not THAT one.
I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about, as my original statement was extremely general, and emerald-avenger (from whom you reblogged this) mentioned She-Hulk, which is a book that hasn’t even been written yet. How in god’s name do you know that it won’t be ”empowering to both herself and other women”?
#this literally doesn’t make any sense #and really just proves my point #we want ladies! #but only if they’re portrayed exactly right #instead of being allowed to have shitty writing forgiven like we do for the dudes #’if you can’t do it right don’t do it at all’ #is really not a very good mantra when there’s very little representation in general #do i want the ladies in media to be better? HELL YES #and i DON’T think we should just sit back and be gushingly thankful for what we’re getting #but jesus fuck fandom #you’re so goddamn ridiculous i can’t handle it
Nothing like setting up impossible standards for women and then judging them whenever they don’t meet them. ‘We want strong female characters’, ‘but that doesn’t mean they have to be physically strong’, ‘she just cowered in a corner!’, ‘but hdu walk away from your boyfriend’, ‘but they need to make their own choices’ ‘don’t be so clingy’ ‘she’s so cold’ ‘they need to be supportive always’ ‘i don’t think women should be reduced to a nurturing role’
Meanwhile, it’s fascinating the way Loki and Tony’s upbringings affected the sort of people they grew into. Let’s analyze their motivations – but, we’ll let the shitty things they do slide, or accept them as character choices, because they have penises so my analysis must therefore treat them like a human being and not a paragon of characterization.
We only get about one woman for every four dudes and then we take those women and we pull them apart and shove them into fucking boxes as if they can’t be assessed as a person but are instead nothing more than an assemblage of ‘desirable’ character traits – is she strong? is she empowering?
They’re valuable questions, but they’re not the only ones.
Male characters are judged with the context of their own universes; female characters are judged within the context of ours. Men exist for themselves; women exist for their audience. The men become real; the women never stop being fictional.
Oh my god websandwhiskers let me love you for that marvelously eloquent, succinct point.