A while ago, I noticed a very frustrated guy on Twitter threatening to block people for using the term “Mary Sue” to describe female characters. I was surprised. I’ve used that term myself, and never thought it particularly controversial, but apparently it has become so.
What did “Mary Sue” originally mean?
When I was a young whippersnapper, “Mary Sue” was a commonly used term in fandom. It referred to a too-perfect female character, without any flaws or nuance. These characters were often found in fanfiction, where the author had written an idealised version of herself, but they also slipped into professionally published books and other media.
So, what is a Mary Sue actually like? Well, she’s the best at everything without even trying. She’s endlessly competent and has many skills that she seems to have acquired magically rather than through hard work. Everyone loves her, but of course she doesn’t care about popularity. She always gets what she wants in the end, despite being totally selfless.
Appearance-wise, there are two options. The first is that she is stunningly beautiful, often with striking features such as unusually coloured eyes. The second is that she is average-looking but for some reason, all the men fancy the pants off her.
As you can probably tell, I find Mary Sues annoying. Most people do. The term was originally intended to make fun of lazy, unprofessional writing. It was frequently employed by women in fandom to say “Hey, stop writing two-dimensional female characters! Give us relatable women with flaws and complexity.”
What does “Mary Sue” mean now?
Unfortunately, there seems to have been a sea-change in the way the phrase “Mary Sue” is employed. Perhaps it’s inevitable that, like any criticism directed at female characters, it has been seized upon by misogynists, who use it indiscriminately. So, while “Mary Sue” used to refer to a female character who:-
- Is unrealistically perfect
- Is completely unrelatable
- Solves every problem without any difficulty or sacrifice
It now seems to refer to a female character who:-
- Gets shit done
- Is more capable than most/all of the male characters
- Gets what she wants
Examples are everywhere, from Game of Thrones to Star Wars. We finally have female characters in lead roles, playing an active part in proceedings rather than sitting around looking pretty, and misogynists are all too keen to dismiss them as Mary Sues – a young girl’s fantasy rather than great characters.
There’s a huge double standard at play. Plenty of male characters are presented as unrealistically capable without anyone batting an eyelid, but we’re less used to questioning the abilities of able-bodied white dudes. The male equivalent of a Mary Sue is a “Gary Stu”, but you rarely hear this phrase tossed around.
So, what do we do?
I have no definitive answer on what to do about all this, and you’re welcome to share your own thoughts in the comments section. But I do have some ideas on how to tackle the over-use of the phrase “Mary Sue”.
The first is to yell “You’re using it wrong!” whenever someone gets the wrong idea of what a Mary Sue is. The phrase was invented to make fun of shitty writing, not to mention the idea that the only way to be a “strong woman” is to be an idealised fantasy rather than an actual person. As a writer, a feminist and a pedant, this approach appeals to me.
However, I’m also a realist and I know this approach won’t work. Misogynists will never admit that they don’t like a female character because she’s a woman getting the job done. They will claim that a talented woman has “unearned skills” or that a girl saving the day “doesn’t seem realistic”. They will always claim they are critiquing writing, not women.
Another approach is to fight fire with fire, and start referring to every strong, capable male character as a “Gary Stu”. So, this Tony Stark is a billionaire, a genius, a playboy and a philanthropist? Sounds like a daft, fanboy fantasy to me.
Tempting as it is, this approach would be exhausting. Strong and capable male characters are a dime a dozen and I can’t be arsed to tear down almost every superhero movie, plus huge swathes of sci-fi and fantasy. It also seems a tad mean-spirited.
The best advice I can give to writers
Just keep creating female characters who kick arse and take names. We don’t shout “Gary Stu!” at every awesome male character because we take it for granted that a man can be anything – a warrior, a genius, a saviour of the universe, whatever. We just need to normalise the idea that women can be all those things too.
Perhaps, eventually, there will be so many female characters in lead roles that misogynists will get bored of tearing them down. Until then, the phrase “Mary Sue”, in its new, unfortunate form, is probably here to stay.
As annoying as Mary Sue can be, I’ve decided to go a little easier on her. A too-perfect character isn’t empowering, but these characters came from fanfiction and were never about empowerment anyway – they were about wish-fulfilment.
The idea that girls only fantasise about romance and weddings is wrong – we grow up dreaming about saving the world just like boys do, and why the hell shouldn’t we indulge these fantasies in writing?
I’m not advocating lazy writing of female characters. Give them flaws and complexity and darkness. But don’t tone down their awesomeness out of fear of the Mary Sue label. Let them win the fight, save the day and get the boy/girl/pet dragon of their dreams. Let your female characters be whatever you want them to be.