Skepchick Quickies 12.9


Amanda works in healthcare, is a loudmouthed feminist, and proud supporter of the Oxford comma.

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  1. I never heard the term Mary Sue before I saw that episode of Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon “Mary Sue”d himself into a Star Trek plot.

    I had no idea the term was applied in a sexist way. I thought it just meant “childish sci-fi wish fulfillment” that started with a female writer who wrote herself in as a character named Mary Sue. I took Wesley Crusher for the epitome.


  2. Sounds like one sexist tvtropes editor. In common usage “mary sue” is applied to male characters just as often as female characters.

    1. In my experience, Wesley Crusher is the character people use to explain the concept, so yeah. Well, until Bella Swan came along.

      1. In fact, from now on in deference to this article I’m going to call these characters Jesus Sues.

        What I think is sort of missed, and I think it doesn’t invalidate any of her points, is that Mary Sue usually applies to “poorly written” examples. Jo from Little Women, for example, would not usually be described as a Mary Sue even though she has many of the characteristics associated with the phenomena. Poorly written characters don’t usually get talked about so fanfic is where it became obvious.
        I have no doubt that, like so many things, there is an undercurrent of sexism but to assume that it was only a problem when women started to do it is simply not true, it only got a name that implied sexism when fanfic became a thing.

  3. OH WOW!

    The Batman thing is AWESOME!

    One of those times where I get the always much-needed reminder that I can be sexist too. Because really, I waltzed RIGHT into the trap she was setting.

    I’d also like to take a moment to point out the biggest Mary Sue in pop culture:

    Captain Jack Harkness.

    The Mary Sue for Russell Davies ascended Doctor Who fan-fic.

    1. P.S. That is a seriously amazing article. I think I just found my latest blogger hero.

      P.P.S. But AWWWW! Look at the puppy!

  4. The article on the use of the term Mary Sue has convinced me to stop using it to describe characters. I used to think it was a useful, albeit troublingly problematic, descriptive term for a type of character (and I used it for both male and female characters). Now it strikes me that if a character is badly written there are far better ways to say that (like saying ‘this character is badly written for reasons x, y, and z’) than just dismissing the character as a ‘Mary Sue’. If I just happen to find the character annoying but otherwise can’t find fault with the writing then I can say just that, that I find the character annoying, without hiding behind the pretend objectivity of calling the character a ‘Mary Sue’.

  5. No wonder I’ve always been confused by the term “Mary Sue,” though nonetheless always perceived it to be sexist. When I first encountered it I thought it specifically applied to “sweet and innocent” girlfriend characters, poorly written or simply perceived as bland. It seems every time I’ve heard it mentioned it meant something else, and according the article, it did! What the Smurf is up with all that Marklar?

  6. Gah, I hate the term Mary Sue, at least when it’s applied to standard fiction. Sexism aside, it’s common use translation is closer to “I don’t like this character, and I’m not going to explain why” when I see it.

    I always took it to be a purely fan-fiction term anyway. A character can only be a Mary Sue when they’re dropped into a setting where they proceed to be flawless and better than all the established characters. I don’t really know, though. I don’t tend to read fan fiction. Either way, I think it’s a term that just needs to stop being used.

  7. Maybe it’s just my own view of what constitutes a Mary Sue, but I think the author has an exceedingly broad definition of Mary Sue-dom. She’s obscured the essence of the trope by trying to make it merely synonymous with ‘Wish Fulfillment Character.’ And then broadly interpreting what constitutes a Wish Fulfillment Character (seriously, while incredibly competent, most modern versions of Batman are not exactly someone you’d want to BE; he’s not a generally happy person).

    I tend to think that a Mary Sue, while not *necessarily* restricted to fanfic, at least needs to be a character injected into a previously existing fictional universe or environment. This covers Wesley Crusher, or the original Mary Sue. It doesn’t include Batman or, for instance, the characters from Twilight.

    One character who’s long exemplified Mary Sue-dom to me is Mary Russell in “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.” Now if she were the protagonist of her own independent mysteries (like Sister Fidelma), I’d never for a moment consider her a Mary Sue. She’d just be a smart, competent protagonist solving mysteries.

    But she’s introduced as a young apprentice of Sherlock Holmes. She becomes the light in Holmes’ life, and he (and others, IIRC) repeatedly praise her as being even smarter than Holmes. *That* is the essence of a Mary Sue, to me; treating a new character as being greater than a universe’s established great characters.

    I’ve actually been contemplating lately whether Walter in “The Muppets” is a Mary Sue. In a lot of ways, he is. He sets the plot going, he’s instrumental in reuniting the Muppets, and he (almost) saves the day at the end. He’s a huge Muppet fan himself, and everyone seems to love him.

    But I think that circles back to another important thing about Mary Sues: just because a story has a Mary Sue character doesn’t necessarily mean that story is *bad*. I loved “The Muppets.” And “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” was a fine book. What we have in a Mary Sue is a narrative device, one that can occasionally be done well, but which in amateur hands can easily turn into self-indulgence.

    1. The thing is, though, the definition of Mary Sue, as it gets used, IS extremely broad. It DOES simply mean a loose combination of poorly written character with unbelievable talents and/or unbelievable flaws. And it gets applied overwhelmingly to female characters and works by female authors.

      Yeah, sure, I GUESS Batman might not be someone everyone wants to be. I wouldn’t want to be him. But the characters who are consistently portrayed as “Mary Sues” ALSO have often have lots and lots of angst and tragic backgrounds and stuff.

      Personally, I thought she completely, totally, PERFEECTLY nailed her point with that intro paragraph. Look at it again. It is EXACTLY the kind of character the internet would eviscerate as a Mary Sue if female and by a female author who isn’t part of the comics/sci-fi/fantasy industry (and do I really need to mention the obstacles keeping women out of that industry?).

      But it IS Batman. A perfect description of him. Up to and including the brooding angst that someone just makes him so much cooler and everyone so much more fascinated with him.

      SOME renditions of Batman increase the depth and quality of the character. They make his psychosis believable. They make him genuinely seem like a deeply disturbed, fascistic, angry, wounded, bully who will never, ever be free of his demons. But you know what? I’d say in the hands of a competent writer, probably any Mary Sue could be likewise turned into a genuinely complex and believable character.

      But the point is, we forgive these kinds of tropes and character-types in male characters from male writers for male readers… but when it’s women, we berate and belittle and insult, and talk about silly and stupid their fantasies are.

      … which is IMMENSELY hypocritical given the way that many male “geeks” will react when people say that THEIR male-centric comics, sci-fi and fantasy are silly fantasies. Which they usually ARE. But there’s nothing wrong with silly fantasies, or wish-fulfillment. There’s nothing wrong with Batman’s awesomeness, or the awesomeness of Mary Sues if people are enjoying the works. But for one to get all angry and defensive when someone applies a standard to him that he mercilessly applies to women, well… yeah, that’s an instance of sexism.

  8. I spend what may count as an excessive amount of time on tvtropes, and I’ve read the Mary Sue page several times. The reason the writer of the article uses such a broad definition of the term is because it is used that broadly. As Mankoi pointed out, Mary Sue is often used rather than saying “I don’t like this character, and I’m not going to explain why”.

    Given the broadness with which the term has been applied it really doesn’t mean anything in particular as pretty much everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a Mary Sue. Basically it carries too much meaning and therefore too little to be used as anything other than a pejorative and pejoratives don’t really have much place in rational analysis.

    1. The above was meant to be in reply to Loren above, I had bad luck with the stupid reply function and logging in.

  9. See, I always thought a Mary Sue was when an author wrote a thinly veiled, idealized version of herself or himself into fan fiction. Like if I wrote a story where The Doctor and Amy Pond landed in a deserty back yard in Colorado, and a super cool, perfectly gorgeous woman came out and went on adventures with them and helped them defeat villains using skepticism, feminism, and knowledge of the Dewey decimal system, and she became Amy’s best friend and the Doctor fell in love with her. In non-fanfic, it’s just called an autobiographical tendency and considered to be something writers need to get out of their system. I always kind of liked it when people would call male characters Mary Sues and hated the term “Marty Sue” (I never heard Marty Stu or Gary Stu). I thought it was cool that people just unselfconciously used a female name to describe a male character.

    I don’t quite see how Wesley Crusher fits any definition of the term. To me he was more of a “let’s add a kid who doesn’t belong on this show to appeal to a younger audience” type of character. He always bored me to tears. But I hate Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Sherlock Holmes for all the reasons people are supposed to dislike this blogger’s definition of Mary Sue. Sherlock was always incredibly intelligent and resourceful. Why did they have to make him an action hero with super-power-like fist-fighting skills all of a sudden? Too perfect characters are just always annoying.

    However, she’s right about the reaction to male versus female characters. For example, people on message boards HATED Kate on Lost and called her Nancy Drew all the time because she went out into the jungle on search parties and things and basically did all the exact same things the men did. No one ever said “I’m getting really tired of Jack/Sawyer/Hurley/Locke/Charlie/Boone/Micheal/Jin always insinuating himself into the action and running off to adventures like on of the Hardy Boys.”

    1. Scratch that–Wesley Crusher can fit the definition of a Mary Sue if your definition is “A character who is irritating.” Which seems to be the proper definition of the term, from what I can tell now.

      1. Except Wesley crusher also sort of falls under your earlier definition too. He’s named after Gene WESLEY Rodenberry and is pretty widely believed to be a thinly veiled idealized version of Rodenberry.

        1. Part of the problem with “Mary Sue” as a term for analysis is that it often gets used in different ways by different people. Just about the only thing you can be certain of when someone calls a character a Mary Sue is that they dislike the character. However people tend to act as if it’s an objective assessment of the character fitting into a defined character type.

          That’s in addition to the sexism and professionalism-ism (is there a term for discrimination against amateurs?) of using the term primarily against female characters being written by female writers who are not professional writers.

  10. I’m with MarianLibrarian on this one. I’ve only heard “Mary Sue” applied very narrowly to fan fiction rewrites in which an idealized personification of the author is dropped into a well-known narrative, like Sherlock Holmes or LOTR. In that sense, I would assume that it can be thought of as sexist if the term is being used to somehow imply that women are more likely to be writing such fiction, and that it is a bad thing to do. But I’m seeing equal amounts of it from either gender, and most writers seem to know exactly what they are doing and having fun with it.

    If there is now a broader definition, and it is becoming polemic, does that mean that it’s become misinterpreted? Perhaps, those who read the term being applied to author personifications equated the same to other wish-fulfillment fiction, and broadened the term without justification? Is there any way of narrowing the term back to its original designation? Sorry, I don’t want to sound like a concern troll, as I am a professional writer and educator, and I have many friends and students who have aspirations to be writers and professionally creative.

    What I’m hearing from them in terms of a negative use of “Mary Sue” is not when it’s used for fun or for personal emotional release, but when commercial writing and filmmaking takes the tack of introducing a jarringly contemporary, ahistorical character into a traditional narrative for purposes of pandering to a select audience. An example of this is the film “Copying Beethoven,” which anachronistically puts a heroic, talented, resourceful young woman in charge of making sure Beethoven’s 9th Symphony will be performed. In principle, I don’t see anything wrong with such a fantasy, except that the script and direction were so amateurish and emotionally manipulative. For this story to be told this way on a fanfic site would be the right venue, but made into a huge big-budget film, it screamed of immaturity and cynicism – as if the actual stories of great woman musicians weren’t worth telling, like Amy Beach, Fanny Mendelssohn, Lily Boulanger, and Anna Maria Violin from the Ospedale della Pietá in Venice.

    So I’m perfectly willing to drop the term if the evolution of its definition has become pejorative. But is there some term we can all agree on for extraneous characters hijacking classic fiction? And can we agree that if it’s done purely for reasons of agenda or cynically pushing emotional buttons in a commercial work of fiction, that it’s a bad thing?

    1. I suspect that those who have only heard the narrower use of the term ‘Mary Sue’ have been taking part in different segments of fandom than those who have heard the broad, pejorative use of the term. You’re not wrong that it can be used narrowly and by some people IS used narrowly, but there are segments of fandom (ones which seem significantly large to me, but may in fact be less so as I haven’t seen any decent over arching analysis of the entire arch of fandom) where it is used quite broadly.

      1. From what I understand, the origins of the term are from when an author writes themselves into their favorite novel. Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli are looking for the Hobbits, and Mary-Suiel finds the clue that puts them on track. Holmes and Watson are tracking a killer through the dark foggy alleyways of London, and Marty Suede stops them from walking into an ambush.

        If I am right, then my point remains, has the term been broadened unfairly? Would it be possible to rein it in, so that people stop throwing it around at every type of fan authorship? I’ve actually read some very good Mary-Sue type writing, where the authors put a new perspective on a great work. I think it’s a fun genre, so long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously, in which case it becomes annoying.

        It reminds me of the misuse of the word “enormity.” Originally it meant “outrageously monstrous” or “baldly wicked.” Then someone thought that it meant “enormousness,” and someone imitated them, and now you have Peter Jackson saying that he was aware of “the enormity of the task” on his LOTR commentary (yes, I am a geek). Is that what happened to Mary-Sue? Did someone write “Oh, that’s a Mary-Sue” about some fanfic site, and a websurfer thought “What a cool term! Yeah, all this fan fiction wish fulfillment is a Mary-Sue!” I’m sure that’s how it happened. My definition of “Mary Sue” goes back to the 90’s – if someone can find an example of the term being broadly back then, it would be interesting. I would suspect, however, that back then it was just being used the way I’ve described.

        1. I was in fact unaware that the term has seen its meaning so greatly extended until I read this article and the commentary here on Skepchick. In fact, when I read the article initially I just got the impression that the author didn’t know the meaning of the term, until I saw that it really is being used now in the way she describes.

          In the corners of fandom I used to frequent (I’ve since fallen out of those circles), the definition of Mary Sue was restricted to the insertion of an original character into a previously existing franchise/universe (or occasionally the elevation of a minor/background character). Mary Sues were regarded as bad not only because they represented the author’s wish fulfillment, but also because they undermined some central part of the franchise’s universe or narrative. For example, an original character in Harry Potter fanfic who was smarter than Hermione and saved Harry by defeating Voldemort (and then proceeded to marry him) would be a Mary Sue not just because s/he is obvious wish-fulfillment or self-insertion, but because s/he so thoroughly warped existing character and narrative dynamics.

          Under this kind of definition, Wesley Crusher (or Batman) can’t qualify as Mary Sues because they are a part of the original franchise. Indeed, self-insertion and wish-fulfillment by the creators of the media franchise has its own separate category on TvTropes, the Creator’s Pet (formerly The Wesley).

          I’m sorry to see the overextension of what used to be a useful term force us to abandon it.

  11. A Mary Sue isn’t just any wish fulfillment character. It’s a trap an author can fall into where they love a character and can’t see how that character is coming off to a person who is reading the story without the authors emotional investment. Batman and (it hurts me to type this) Bella Swan are not Mary Sues (at least in the books, I don’t enough about what fans think about the movies to comment on them). The idea isn’t to stop people from writing wish fulfillment characters but to understand how their character appears to other people and therefore improve their writing.

    1. No comment about Batman, I don’t have enough exposure to the series to render judgement, but I’m pretty sure that Bella Swan comes across VERY differently to Stephanie Meyers than she does to me or to a majority of those who are critical of the series. In my reading of the books it seemed quite clear to me that the author thought Bella was really special, insecure about herself yes, but also very important. To me however it seemed pretty clear that Bella wasn’t actually very appealing, the text told us things about her that didn’t seem borne out by what it showed us about her and she just generally came across as hollow and dull (to be fair Edward and several of Meyers’ other characters come across in the same way, I’m using Bella as my primary example but she is not the only one).

      1. Actually I think she comes across exactly as she is meant to be depicted and we just find that abhorrent. She’s dull and hollow because she fits the mould of what conservative Christians think a woman should be and I think that is intentional. If she was strong and independent and had her own ideas and didn’t need a man to tell her what to do then we’d like her but the target audience of the books might not.

  12. Taken from the article:

    ” How many nerdy, schlubby guys suddenly become badasses and have hot girls chasing after them in fiction? See: Spiderman- blatant everyman who happens to stumble across amazing powers and catch the eye of a supermodel. ”

    So nerdy schlubby guys have to become badasses to hope a woman looks at them? And the author doesn’t think it’s something wrong there?

    1. You’re taking her words out of context. I see nothing in the article that intimates that nerds have to be badasses – she doesn’t say that anywhere. She is remarking on the the prevalence of ugly duckling stories for both sexes by pointing out young men also have crudely-written wish fulfillment fiction. As for the notion that the answer to an insecure person’s problems with social acceptance is to become aggressively heroic, that is a universal notion that goes back to the beginnings of literature. Just because she’s commenting on it doesn’t mean she approves of it in any way.

  13. Like some other commenters, I had heard the term Mary Sue applied to both male and female characters. In fact, the first time I ever came across it was in a critique of a male character. But maybe that’s because “Marty Stu” really doesn’t roll off the tongue well.

    Anyway, I think the broad definition of a Mary Sue is more a consequence of lazy critics. At it’s most extreme end (and I’m guessing it’s original intent), Mary Sue’s aren’t considered bad writing because they’re perfect, it’s when they’re so perfect that they diminish the story.

    They have no flaws or internal conflict, so it’s impossible for them to grow as a character.

    They’re immune to conflict, often picking solutions out of thin air.

    Their perfection makes them fight against the core concepts of what makes a good story.

    In the Batman example, the more recent concepts of writers playing up his flaws probably does stem from the earlier versions of him being too perfect. That’s why the more acclaimed stories have always been where his obsession and flaws impact him and the characters around him.

    There’s no drama with Mary Sue’s. It’s not just wish-fulfillment, it’s wish-fulfillment at the expense of good storytelling. Because Mary Sues, and Marty Stus, are boring.

  14. Another male Mary Sue to add to the list: Edmond Dantes from the Count of Monte Cristo. The original ‘Dark Avenger.’

    I never thought (don’t visit TVTropes. I seem to be immune from its pull. Perhaps I lack a pheromone receptor or something.) Mary Sue was used exclusively to refer to female characters or even that anyone would think it originated with female writers. (How could it when so much literature (yes including fanfics) are written by men? Makes no sense.)

    Thank you for link.

  15. The Mary Sue article was interesting. I think that, when the term first appeared in the fanfic community, it was useful, and meant in a non-sexist fashion. The character who coined the term was, generally, deserving of a ‘bad writing Trope’.

    However, much like many other pejoratives, the term has become so broad that it is almost impossible to put it back in the box of its original meaning. (Another that I’m still waging the good fight on is “bullying”–it amazes me how many people use the term to describe any sort of aggressive behavior, even if there’s none of the accompanying power/privilege dynamic that makes the behavior so damaging.)

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