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” now stands for a perception of unfairness that can be wielded against any critique, no matter its rationale, as well as a criticism that can apply to any strong female character no matter what good qualities they have. It's a swiss army man term. Since it generalizes responses rather than condenses them, it has become the opposite of what any term hopes to accomplish, an unproductive addition to 99% of the conversations that use it. This led me to ask myself what the term really means, whether it could ever be used appropriately, and if it's time to just retire it.

The term “Mary Sue” has a definition, which doesn't only relate to a character's power levels or gender – this is only what it has been reduced to mean in the internet's endless tin can phone discussions about it. The quality that separates a true Mary Sue from any other powerful character 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, being a Mary Sue is not just a matter of being a powerful female character in a male-dominated genre. The term is much more about the context of the character within a fandom than within the film itself. Since Alien and Terminator were created with female protagonists, you will never hear Ripley or Sarah Connor called "Mary Sues." But since Star Wars did not, Rey has been attached to the term almost since day one. This is key to understanding the term's limitations and requires a little backstory to figure out.

The origin of the term is in A Trekkie’s Tale, a fanfiction in which Lt. Mary Sue outdoes the original Star Trek characters in the things they were 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 in 1973 to make fun of fanfiction, and how frequently authors insert themselves into a position where they can get recognition from their beloved characters. The Star Trek crew tells Mary that 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 Kill Bill's The Bride and Ellen Ripley and Anakin Skywalker and Sarah Connor and Jyn Urso and Yu Shu Lien (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Superman are not Mary Sues, but Rey isStar Trek: The Next Generation’s Wesley Crusher is. They display talents beyond those of established characters and are defined as talented by that comparison. The established heroes must then recognize the amazing talents of the new character in drawn-out scenes of compliments that play 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 crew, as all fans dream to be asked. The new heroes go on missions that are beyond their station with the purpose of making themselves, the insertions of 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 to the people now creating them.

The problem with this term now, especially as shorthand for an argument on Twitter, is that people have become obsessed with their idea of its connotation, both positive and negative. This has robbed it of its intellectual value. 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. To use the Rey example, "Mary Sue" is used only to refer to how mysteriously powerful she is, or how proponents of the film view all of its critics. It's only ever a fallacy or a strawman, with nothing in-between. The internet's natural process of reduction has made fair analysis lose every one of these fights, flying the banner of a term that is now anti-analytical – it stands not for a point in a debate but for the absence of one.

I want to break through that fog as much as I can. The first important point is that a character can be a Mary Sue without that assessment being sexist. This is because a Mary Sue is not a "bad" character by default and should not have to be female by definition since the primary traits just as easily could apply to any character (the "male variants" of the term only obscure the issue of definition). Like any established archetype, a Mary Sue that is infallible, motivated by nothing more complex than its creator's desire to high-five their idols, might be an uninteresting character. But they would be uninteresting based on execution, not by definition. A Mary Sue with compelling traits can exist but only if the state of being the "Mary Sue" of a story can be interpreted as a description of the author's perspective, more than just a statement of the character's "quality." Confusing the two, or debating both of them at once, is why the term is so impossible to use. It's now universally used as a criticism,

But just a little growth or vulnerability can make an infallible character relatable without making them weak or more fallible. The secret to that relationship is that vulnerability is not a "flaw." This is why a Mary Sue, a character with unearned power, placed in a film as the author's insertion into their fandom, can still be a well-written character. They can be infallible and still encounter the struggles of living in the universe. They can be blameless for what happens to them and still make people relate to it. They can be limitlessly powerful, practically invincible, and still have completely normal problems that make them relatable.

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. She is blameless, near-invincible, yet she is also vulnerable. She’s a good character because being an invincible Mary Sue does not make her invincible to consequences or ignorant to pain. There are other examples. Mad Max: Fury Road features a protagonist that could be described as a "Mary Sue" but in a context that makes being an authorial insertion meaningfully thematic. Despite being the type of character that usually defines fan-fiction, Furiosa's ability to outdo the series' established action protagonist as the new main character of that universe is never criticized because the narrative is strongly unified around her point of view in context. The film gives her the chance to be a vulnerable, rounded character, and this has mostly excluded her from the label of "Mary Sue" online.

Not all Mary Sues get that chance, but it’s less because of who they are than what they mean to their creators (did you know that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was born Eugene Wesley Roddenberry?). These characters would never be described as "Mary Sues," despite the traits that they share with the definition of one. This is because the term is now viewed only as a way to call a character "bad," which is why it no longer has any valuable meaning in discussions of these properties. For anyone wondering, I have no idea if Arya Stark is a Mary Sue, well-written or otherwise. I haven't seen Game of Thrones, so you'll have to decide that one for yourself. My goal here was to try to give anyone who asks these questions or sees these debates online 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, this term is so screwed up that almost everyone is using it 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 exact 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