Quick hit: “Mary Sue” policing

2010 April 18
by Mary

Another one bubbling up from our linkspamming hive mind: criticism of “Mary Sue” policing.

Mary Sue is a fandom term for a character who is judged to be authorial self-insert and wish fulfilment, prototypically a prominent original character in fan fiction but sometimes identified in non-fanfic. She is often derided as close to guaranteed to detract from a work. It’s a well-known enough term to be on Wikipedia as well as on TVTropes. Mary Sue policing is very old and can be very knee-jerk: you appear to have an original female character with some desirable traits! Mary Sue! Next fic please! There are snark communities dedicated to seeking out fanfic with Mary Sues and checking off their alleged Mary-Sue-ish traits.

Criticism of it is also widespread, as being essentially a tendency to mock women for having wishes to fulfil, or thinking that their own stories are worth telling.

Here’s a couple of recent critiques, first from boosette:

PPC [Protectors of the Plot Continuum] goes around bullying tweens, teens, young women and yes: older women, too — for daring to write fanfiction not up to their (dubious) standards. For writing original female characters, minor canon characters and major canon characters in a manner that is empowering to them.

For writing Tenth Walkers, for writing fourth members of the Harry Potter trio, for making Christine Chapel an Olympic-level figure skater before she entered nursing. For empowering themselves through their writing.

From niqaeli:

I actually flat-out cannot identify with plain people who have led simple lives and done nothing extraordinary. It’s not that I want to experience an exciting life through my fiction — though, yes, I do — but that my own life has not been plain or simple. If I were to write an autobiography, I’d be accused of being a Mary Sue, which what the hell. I am an actual person. Most of the people I know have led strange and interesting lives.

But even with that: so what? What the hell harm does it do for someone to write their ridiculous self-avatar? What good does policing fantasies — and particularly, these fantasies — do? All it does is create shame over the desire to, what, to be special? To be considered truly remarkable, to be loved?

What do you think? Is there an equivalent in your geekdom, where the stories of women are either marginalised or determined to be objectively poorer quality? Is it possible to avoid this sort of creep, where a term of critique becomes a way to reflexively dismiss the work of people just starting out, or not obeying the rules?

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This post was written by mary.

Mary is a Free Software contributor, computational linguistics research student and programmer at large. She can also be found at puzzling.org and Hoyden About Town.

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10 Responses
  1. Patrick permalink
    April 18, 2010

    I can’t find it now, but I saw an essay similar to this one that sort of addresses my concern with “Mary Sues”. A lot (!) of favorite characters in fiction could be called Mary Sues, but the only time I see this is when discussing fan fiction or indeed fiction written by women. The male counterpart may happen, but if so much more rarely. So lately I think that yes, it is used to marginalize and sledge-hammer women into submission.

    To me, I don’t much care if a character is an author insert. I care if the character is bland and boring.

    • Jayn permalink
      April 19, 2010

      FTR, I’ve heard of the male counterpart referred to as Gary Stu.

      • Cesy permalink
        April 19, 2010

        It’s also referred to as Marty Stu. Part of the problem is that the term is used far less often and consistently.

        • Catherine permalink
          April 19, 2010

          Hmm, I hadn’t really thought of a Mary Sue being limited to female characters by female authors. I’ve always used it to refer to any such character (How’s it going, Wesley Crusher?) but that does kind of ignore the fact that an implicitly female-gendered term will tend to be used exclusively to apply to women.


    • Kivitasku permalink
      April 21, 2010

      I think you mean that the male counterpart gets called less often, as in, a lot fewer people complain “he was a total Marty Stu”, or at least in as disparaging a tone as Mary Sues do. A superpowered male author insert us a time-honoured staple of fantasy fiction.

  2. Eva permalink
    April 18, 2010

    It seems to me that a good way to combat the “creep” you’ve identified here is to clarify and popularize the original meaning of the term. In this case that might mean discussing/blogging about the problems of a character for whom things are too easy or whose personality is too perfect, and why this leads to lackluster fiction.

    In this case, too, perhaps it’s possible to come up with an ungendered term for it and work at popularizing /that/. I don’t have any brilliant ideas for a term that would be catchy and memorable, but if someone suggests one in the comments, I’d be happy to trumpet it. :)

    • Cesy permalink
      April 19, 2010

      The most recent one I’ve heard is BWOC – Badly Written Original Character.

  3. Margaret Lion permalink
    April 19, 2010

    OMG. You are so right. I vow to never make fun of someone’s wish fulfillment fanfic or otherwise character.

    And come on!! Like Captain Kirk and James Bond. Oh PULEEEZ! Like all women are going to fall in love with them?!? I think NOT! Maybe those women are just using them for a fun one night stand for fling. ;) Gary Stu indeed. :)

  4. bitsandbats permalink
    April 19, 2010

    Way back when I was thirteen, I was a member of the PPC. To be honest, most of the members were women. Its founders were women.

    Most of the things they/we were critical of were dramatic tropes used to undermine women: rape where it wasn’t necessary as a plot device, always needing a man to save your day and the implausible combination of having all the looks, moves and brains that…really just warped women beyond recognition by adhering to impossible standards.

    And the few times there was a Gary-Stu (the male equivalent), we ripped into them, too.

    Of course, most of these stories were written by young women like ourselves. When I think about it now, I see Mary-Sue writers as the fictional equivalent of young women trying to make sense of a world that is throwing mixed messages at them. They write impossible characters because they’re told they have to be impossible. And being Legolas’ true love or a Jedi with a pink lightsaber making out with MacGregor!Kenobi is a world where they can be anything and everything.

    Also, we were so goddamn pretentious a lot of the time. Previous to joining up with the PPC I was guilty of writing a few Sue’s myself, which have all been deleted from the internet forever and ever.

    It was a strange kind of feminist process. Being too young to understand *why* something was wrong and not being able to deal with it in a helpful manner.

  5. Katje permalink
    April 23, 2010

    I’m a member of the PPC, and I read and re-read the never-updated-anymore Burning Dumpster. I’ve done a burn or two of fic in the past, before I got busy. Honestly, I really doubt our rants about Mary Sues are crushing people’s hopes and dreams. Unless their hope or dream was to write something and have no one dislike it, ever.

    I don’t have a problem with people writing Mary Sues — fine, whatever, you’re confused [editorial you]. I don’t even have a problem with them getting put on the internet. But if they are put on the internet, you have to be prepared for others having a problem with them. And my main problem with Mary Sues is how much they usually destroy the original work, which shows disrespect to the author. (Usually destroy. Not always. I’ve read a fanfic where the author sort of god-modded Hermione to the point of “if she was an OC she’d be a Mary Sue”, and it was really good. I liked it. So if someone does something good with an OC, then good on hir. Not going to rant about it.)

    Fanfic is literary discourse. It will attract criticism. Just like original fiction. Attracts criticism. That criticism is NOT about the author as a person but about the writing. Sometimes it’s hard to see that difference, or even articulate it (especially if a piece of really bad fanfic has made your brain bleed). But really, it’s nothing personal if someone attacks a piece of writing. Or writes a counter-piece about going in to deal with the Mary Sue to restore the plot to its former state.

    The reason you don’t hear that much about Gary Stus is that they have a general formula that doesn’t vary much and is, quite frankly, boring, and there aren’t that many written — probably because men don’t need to tell their own stories, as they’re already told in plenty of original fiction. Yes, we women do have stories to tell, and probably a lot of women are going to do this Mary Sue thing and then put it up on the internet and yes they are going to be criticized. But, you know, I’m writing my original fiction, and I’m putting it up on the internet, because I have a story to tell — my characters have stories to tell. If I get criticized for having author self-inserts in my book (which I do) or god-modding my characters (which I also do), does that mean they’re mocking me as a woman and my story?

    Or is this exemption from literary criticism only for writers of Mary Sues in fanfic? Do I have to just buck up as a writer of original fiction?

    I just think it’s stretching to say that criticism of fanfic is the same as marginalization of women in the field of writing, which does exist. (IE, look at authors like CJ Cherryh, who specifically took on a gender-neutral name so that people wouldn’t ignore her work on account of her being a woman. Etc.)

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