Why It’s Time to Retire the Term, “Mary Sue”

Twitter is buzzing because Game of Thrones fans are reacting negatively to a climax in the final season. The term that’s become the banner of the debate: “Mary Sue.” Despite having its origins in the 70s, the term didn’t cross my radar until 2014, when it kept coming up in response to Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. On the internet, the term has become a euphemism for any time a female character becomes stronger than a fanbase believes is appropriate for her to be.

But is that what the term actually means? Describing a character as a “Mary Sue” is now interpreted as sexist, even when the grievance is not gender-based. Recently, I was talking on Twitter about a character being unrelatable because they faced no adversity, and the responder (who deleted their response, so I hope they forgive me for paraphrasing) put the term “Mary Sue” into the discussion for me, just because the character in question was female, claiming that I was “one of those f*cking momma’s boys assholes that thinks any strong female is a Mary Sue if she wasn’t designed to make my dick twitch.”

I refrained from explaining to this person that my love of Alien, The Favourite, Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Arrival, and so on was a bit of a problem for their argument because it was at that point that I realized the term “Mary Sue” had become broken. It was now being used to stand in for a feeling of making a counterargument, despite not making one. This is the opposite of what a term like that is created for, since it generalizes the user’s response rather than condenses it. This led me to ask myself what the term really means and what would be the right place to use it.

The term “Mary Sue” does have an appropriate definition, which has nothing to do with how powerful someone is and even less to do with their gender. The only quality that separates a true Mary Sue from someone with just a lot of power or competence is that their power is defined by upstaging or outdoing established characters in a universe that fans want to be a part of. From the Wikipedia page:

"Mary Sue" today has changed from its original meaning and now carries a generalized, although not universal, connotation of wish-fulfillment, and is commonly associated with self-insertion, though the characterization of upstaging the established protagonist(s) of existing properties remains fundamental.

In other words, it's not just a matter of being infallible and it’s not even a little about being a girl in a male-dominated genre. The term is much more about the context of the character within a fandom than within the film itself.

The origin of the term is in A Trekkie’s Tale, a fanfiction in which Lt. Mary Sue outdoes all of the original Star Trek characters in the things that they’re famous for being good at (she’s a better surgeon than McCoy, a better captain than Kirk, a better scientist than Spock, etc.). Paula Smith wrote that story to make fun of fanfiction, and how frequently authors insert themselves into a position of getting recognition from their beloved characters. The Star Trek crew tell her she’s doing a great job, they’re amazed at her abilities, and they weep over her death. The key to her being Mary Sue isn’t how powerful she is but how central she is to a universe that was already established. The important part isn’t any of her abilities, but that she fulfills the wish of fans to be important in the universes that they love.

This is why The Bride and Ellen Ripley and Anakin Skywalker and Jyn Urso and Yu Shu Lien and Superman are not Mary Sues and Rey isStar Trek: The Next Generation’s Wesley Crusher is. They fly, fight, analyze, and fix spaceships better than established characters, who each recognize the amazing talents of the new character in drawn-out scenes of compliments that play out like getting your shirt signed by an idol at comic con. Even if they're reluctant to accept the new hero at first, the oldies eventually ask these characters to be part of their team or club or crew, as all fans dream to be asked. The new heroes go on missions that are way beyond their station, with the express purpose of making them – the characters that represent the fanbase – more important in their chosen universe. When the ship is in danger, it's up to Lt. Wesley to save the day. When Han Solo dies, Leia walks past Chewbacca without even a glance and hugs Rey instead (she's hugging the fanbase). This is exactly what A Trekkie’s Tale was parodying. Galaxy Quest is no longer a parody of a fanbase – it retroactively represents what those properties have become.

The problem with this and many terms, especially as shorthand for an argument on Twitter, is that people have become obsessed with their idea of a term’s connotation, no matter if it's positive or negative. The people who use "Mary Sue" in a sexist way have encouraged the reaction of those who believe that any grievance with these characters must be motivated by sexism. Either way you swing, analysis loses because the term is now the anti-analysis. It stands in, not for a point in a debate, but for the absence of debate in general.

So I’ll try to break through the fog. It is definitely possible for a character to be a Mary Sue without any sexist implications, and there are two reasons: a Mary Sue does not have to be a girl, and being a Mary Sue does not make them “bad” characters. This is just the type of character that they are, just as any character can conform to an established archetype. Using it in a purely derogatory way would be like saying “he’s/she’s just a superhero” as a negative implication of the character’s quality. We’ve seen countless times that an archetype can achieve greatness. Like a superhero or an action hero or any character, a Mary Sue that is completely infallible, who is motivated by nothing but the creator’s desire to high-five their idols, might be an uninteresting character. But they would be uninteresting in proportion to how badly they are executed, not because the character itself must be bad.

Just a little growth or vulnerability can make an infallible character relatable without making them weak or more fallible, because of the one thing that is never said in these discussions, which is the key to understanding why an infallible Mary Sue isn’t necessarily a bad character: vulnerability is not a flaw. You can be infallible and still encounter the struggles of living in the universe. You can be blameless for what happens to you, and still make people relate to it. You can be limitlessly powerful and still have completely normal problems that make you cry.

Consider Laura/X-23 from Logan. She has the essential qualities that make a Mary Sue, including upstaging a powerful character in the things they were established as being good at, and becoming intimate partners with someone that the fanbase would love to get approval from (Logan and Charles Xavier, respectively). Yet, her creators did not use her only to insert themselves into their fanbase. She is also vulnerable and real. She’s a wonderful character because being a Mary Sue does not make her invincible to consequences or ignorant to pain. Not all Mary Sues get that chance, but it’s less because of who they are than because of what they mean to their creators (did you know that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was born Eugene Wesley Roddenberry?).

For anyone wondering, I have no idea if Arya Stark of Game of Thrones is a Mary Sue. I haven't seen the show, so you'll have to decide that one for yourself. My goal here was to try to give anyone who asks these questions more tools to think about how they feel about their fandoms, their franchises, and the characters that they love. I'm trying my best to put out more fires than I'm starting.

As with anything, definitions are important. And right now, it’s so screwed up that almost everyone is using the term to mean whatever it means to them, or whatever they think it means to everyone else. And anyone who uses it correctly has to explain themselves to people that don't believe them and never will. This is the perfect opposite of what any term is supposed to accomplish. That’s why it's time to just retire it.


This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, May 1, 2019

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Leave a Reply