A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I used to write a lot of pop culture meta. Before I was a science nerd I was a different sort of nerd, one created in the smashing together of advanced English Literature classes and pop culture genre storytelling. Then I was invited to guest host a podcast and the science obsession started to elbow out all the other stuff on my to do list.
But they say you never forget how to ride the bike, so let’s dust ‘er off and take her for a spin around Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You should consider this your official spoiler warning.
Female & Exceptional; or, Cue The Fucking “Mary Sue” Chorus
While Star Wars is an ensemble cast, the story focused primarily on one person’s journey, with the other characters’ arcs being secondary. In the original trilogy, the focus was Luke’s arc. In the prequels, the focus was Anakin’s.
It’s clear after watching The Force Awakens that the focus of the next trilogy will be Rey. Her story was the primary driver of this movie, and – if the pattern continues – should continue to be the driver of the next two in this trilogy. In our ensemble cast, she’s arguable our main character.
And so, it should come as literally no surprise when, as the hero of our piece, she follows the pattern the Star Wars universe has established in the previous two trilogies for their lead protagonist: an exceptional person who comes from humble origins, then rises to claim and wield great power.
But Rey is female, she is newly at the head of a major franchise beloved by many, and so she must be dismissed. And these days the cool, hip way to dismiss a female character you don’t like is by calling her a Mary Sue.
Oh. Fuck. Off.
The Star Wars universe canon is populated by a large number of exceptional people, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have access to exceptional abilities, learning curves, and skills. Look at all the exceptionally people in the movies: Anakin, Obi-Wan, Qui Gon, Yoda, Leia, Han, Palpatine, Amidala, even R2D2 for god sakes. This doesn’t even include the animated series – which has even more stories of exceptional people – or the extended universe of books.
These stories have always been about exceptional people, so it stands to reason the main characters of the current movie are all going to be exceptional, especially the ones who have access to the Force. To point at this one character and say “no no, she’s TOO exceptional” given the established pattern is just absolute bullshit.
And let’s talk about the precise ways in which she is exceptional. She’s a great mechanic and exceptional pilot. You know who else was both of those things? Anakin Skywalker. And while I don’t know what Luke’s mechanic skills were, it was clear from the beginning he was an ace pilot. Rey speaks Wookie and Droid. So does Luke. Anakin spoke Droid and at least two other alien languages as a young boy on Tatoonie.
Rey is also a Force user with a seemingly super fast learning curve. You know who else had a ridiculous Force learning curve? Anakin Skywalker. This fact about him is more or less what the entire set of prequel trilogies is about. And let’s talk about Luke’s learning curve: he gets good enough to take on Anakin in just a couple of years, with only a little bit of training from Yoda compared to the years of formal, Jedi Academy and padawan training Anakin had.
If anything, what we may be seeing in Rey – especially if one of her parents is a Skywalker – is a deliberate compounding of Force ability through the generations. With every successive generation, the ability gets stronger and more innate.
Also, for what it’s worth, remember that Rey was dropped on Jakku as an 7 or 8 year old girl (who we see in flashback) and was likely memory-wiped, given she doesn’t remember her life before Jakku. We also know Luke Skywalker was training Jedi before he went AWOL. It is likely, given what we know, that Rey was one of the students under Luke’s tutelage. During the Force Awakens what we might have been seeing is Rey re-discovering an ability that has already had some training boosting it, and is accessing that training in the same way someone who hasn’t played a piano in years still has the muscle-memory in place to pull off a reasonable tune.
Fine, Let’s Talk About Mary Sue
First of all, the definition of what a Mary Sue is and isn’t has become one of the most widely contested and oft-returned to conversations of wider fandom. It may be the most well-discussed idea to have ever come out of fandom culture: there are hundreds of thousands of words dedicated to trying to understand Mary Sue. To pin her down, unfold her parts, and examine her existence, value, problems, and impact.
Many of these discussions are extremely nuanced and well-considered. More people interested in trying to understand the layers of cultural baggage, stereotyping, and tokenism of women in media could do a lot worse than diving into the surprising depths the Mary Sue conversation is trying to unravel.
And there’s a lot to unravel. The term “Mary Sue” was coined and gained traction because it describes a very specific and hugely common trope in fanfiction. The author inserts a female character designed to represent their perfect self into an established canon universe, and this character becomes the gravitational force in the story, drawing toward it all favoured canon characters and pushing away all disliked canon characters. This creates a new, optimized universe with the author’s stand in – this idealized, exceptionalized version of herself – as the new central figure the universe revolves around. And in this shiny new reorganized universe, our author insert gets to be the person she wishes she could be and do the things she wishes she could do: be the hero and get the guy.
This was and still is an extremely common genre of fanfiction. And that’s OK. We read this type of fanfiction for the exact same reason we read a trashy romance novel, watch a soap opera, or enjoy a chick flick. Fantasy is fun. It’s normal. It relies on cliches and tropes because they’re good, reliable shorthand ways to hand-wave off the setup stuff we’re not really there for so we can get to and enjoy the fantasies we signed on for.
One of the reasons girls and women write a lot of this type of fanfiction is because these fantasies are not well-served by mainstream media in the same way male wish-fulfillment fantasies are. If we’re looking for straight-up romance, then there’s a lot to choose from. But as soon as we start looking for hero narratives that star a female character, the well dries up pretty quickly.
There are plenty of wish-fulfillment stories out there for men, our culture is awash with them. We find them on television, in movies, in video games, and in books. Boys and men who come from an ordinary life, are swept up in adventure, are bestowed with superpowers, extreme abilities, or suddenly important talents, become the driving force of the story, take on the mantel of hero, and ultimately win the day. Often they get the girl. Sometimes multiple girls. Many of them aren’t particularly well-written, but sometimes quality isn’t the point. Their purpose is not to inspire as great literature, but to respond to a particular set of common desires and fantasies.
So called “Mary Sue” stories do the same thing. Some of the cliches within this trope reveal the particular ways this genre serves its targeted female audience. For example, Mary Sue is instantly liked by everyone she meets, except for those people she, herself, dislikes. This is a cliche that doesn’t appear nearly as often in male wish fulfillment stories, but is practically required in the female equivalent. It’s exposed here as an underlying value and desire of many girls and women: the desire to be liked. Female wish-fulfillment stories allow their readers to inhabit a character who is nearly universally well-liked and respected, but who can also control and wield great power unapologetically without sacrificing that status in her community. When you consider the tightrope women walk in real-life school and business contexts to be something between “confident” and “bitchy”, this mixture of narrative elements makes a lot more sense.
And One More Thing: Dismissing The Teenage Girl In The Room
The Mary Sue conversation, even in fannish contexts, isn’t without its own baggage. The term “Mary Sue” is inherently connected to frustrating over-use, to author-insertion, wish fulfillment, and – most importantly – to poor quality writing, both the act itself and to ignorance in the ability to recognize the writing is of poor quality. It is regularly used to negate and dismiss what is often the first creative writing attempts of the author, who may be writing and sharing writing with an audience for the first time, who is often young (usually between 10 – 16), and is a short hand to say “ignore this, it’s junk, it was written by a lonely teenage girl”.
Many fanfic pieces with similar character tropes and cliches written by older fanfic authors or male fanfic authors often isn’t dismissed this way. The subtext of the term implies that something written by young girls is valueless, hopeless, and should be made fun of. Never mind the same character tropes appear in mainstream “professional” narratives in male characters all the time, and that most people’s first forays into creative writing often include very similar cliches.
This dismissal should be familiar to you: it’s very similar to the way we dismiss soap operas, romance novels, and chick flicks. In many ways, the term Mary Sue is a double-dismissal: wielded by “popular” fan writers in these groups, it dismisses a sub-genre of a genre that is already judged as valueless by our wider culture. In many ways, the derogatory use of the term “Mary Sue” within female fandom is an example of how ingrained sexism is within our culture. Even in our “safe spaces” some people are more safe than others.