There’s Something About Mary Sue

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

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139 Responses

  1. fillyjonk says:

    I also wonder if some of the eye-rolling about Mary Sues is similar to the eye-rolling about Pumpkin Spice Latte or yoga pants – in other words, it’s something *young women* like, and so it’s easily dismissed as trite and meaningless and perhaps even “basic.”

    But yeah. (I don’t know if I’m the female friend referenced but I feel similarly) – when I am on an imaginative flight of fancy and writing a narrative about myself and my life, the “good at everything” and “universally loved” are big factors. Maybe not so much the “Mary Sue, we hardly knew ye” tragic death (I am old enough to fear death at this point) or perhaps not even as much the wanting-the-sexual-attention-of-the-nominal-protagonist so much as “senpai noticed me!” sort of thing. (Again: I’m old, and some kind of affectionate respect, at this point, would be enough)

    Also good at everything without effort: as I cry and moan and berate myself for “not being better” as I try to learn the piano, or as I struggle to write a coherent manuscript out of my data, or as I figuratively beat my head against a wall to come up with good research ideas….having things come easily (or more easily; a friend of mine tells me that perhaps one of my problems is “a lot of things came so easily for you that when you struggle, you really struggle” and he is perhaps right)

    And yes: it’s because real life is hard and often cruel and lots of people dislike me for stupid and silly reasons (or so I think) and the fantasy of being loved and supported and cared about and also respected for my skills….that’s some powerful wish-fulfillment there.

    And really, is it so terrible? My inner life probably kept me alive at times as a kid, and even now, as an adult, I find it does sustain me in some ways. I’m embarrassed to admit that because I feel like, as an adult, I should be getting all my emotional needs met by real life, but real life….really isn’t ideal.

    I suspect there are women who don’t do this, of course. It’s just striking to me that I do, and apparently a lot of other women do. And I do wonder what goes on in men’s heads (though maybe I’d rather not know for some of them) when they’re inventing narratives for themselves.Report

    • atomickristin in reply to fillyjonk says:

      Yes, you are said female friend! 🙂 I thought we had quite a productive and insightful conversation that day and wanted to share it with the rest of the class.

      Everything you say resonates with me! Completely agree. I have relied on that inner life to make it through my entire childhood and a lot of adulthood too. I think we had very similar childhood experiences in many ways so we learned those type of coping skills.Report

  2. Oscar Gordon says:

    I have seen male Mary Sue’s, in anime. Some shows will have a male character, usually not the central character, but someone who’s around a lot (so perhaps more of a Canon Sue), who everybody fawns over, etc. It seems to be specific to anime, though.

    If I can pull an example out of my memory, I will post it.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      The only cases I can think of are rival characters.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      I think the point is that Mary Sue is supposed to be read as the central character in the story, though. That’s part of what it’s such a call-out thing, because not only does Mary Sue show up and be awesome, but all of a sudden the story is about her regardless of how important any of the other characters were.

      So, like, Roy Mustang in FMA isn’t a Mary Sue because while he’s flashy and awesome, the story isn’t actually about himReport

    • bookdragon in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      I have heard Kirito, Tatsuya, and Kira Yamato called the ‘holy trinity of Gary Stus’Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Fair points, so the anime archetype isn’t quite on spot.Report

    • North in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Makoto Mizohara from El Hazard; Tenchi Muyo from the anime of the same name; Ranma Saotome from Ranma 1/2; hell, even Goku from Dragonballs. Anime is lousy with its and harem anime is very very much a thing. The Gary Stue’s are thick and heavy in anime.Report

      • Maribou in reply to North says:

        @north Citing Ranma in that list makes me very skeptical of the entire list…Report

        • North in reply to Maribou says:

          @maribou, I was just tossing out names that sprang to mind for harem anime that had Gary Stu-ish tendencies.Report

          • Maribou in reply to North says:

            @north Yeah but you picked literally a genderfluid character that spends half his time being a girl and drives everyone nuts on the regular and is written by a woman. Not feeling it as a *counter* example to Kristen’s argument. Not familiar w/ the other examples, they might be entirely convincing were I so.Report

            • North in reply to Maribou says:

              @Maribou I don’t think it being any of those things precludes the character from being Mary Sue or Gary Stue ish (though maybe we need a genderfluid version)?

              That said of the ones on the list I have seen by far the least of Ranma 1/2 so I am not wedded to it being on the list at all.Report

            • LeeEsq in reply to Maribou says:

              I think if you try to explain modern genderfluid philosophy to Ranma, he would first be confused because he isn’t really that smart or intellectual and then get very pissed because he definitely sees himself as a hot-blooded male that hates his curse. Its like asking for a beatdown.Report

              • maribou in reply to LeeEsq says:

                @leeesq Oh sure he would be confused and pissed off – I agree with you there, I just don’t think he’s a good posterboy for Gary Stu-ism given his unique positioning. I was using the word as a pragmatic descriptor, not philosphical shorthand.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to maribou says:

                I suppose that my criticism is that the word genderfluid implies a sort of voluntary willingness and enthusiasm about being genderfluid. While Ranma does eventually indulge a little in using his female form to do things he wouldn’t do in his male form, like eat junk food coded as female in Japanese culture, it isn’t voluntary and he doesn’t really like his condition. I’m not sure that you can have reluctant and unenthusiastic genderfluid people.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to LeeEsq says:

                It’s true that “genderfluid”, expressed as a concept using that term, came along about thirty years after Ranma 1/2 got made. I don’t remember any indication that Ranma ever wanted to be Girl Ranma or was interested in exploring life as a female-bodied person; the whole thing was a joke, like, “what if a dude sometimes had to be a chick?” To the extent that he turned to Girl Ranma on purpose it was to bamboozle someone, and he considered the whole thing a big hassle.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to North says:

        Ranma is different from Makoto and Tenchi but not for the reasons Maribou lists. Ranma really worked hard to achieve his status while Makoto and Tenchi just fell into it. Ranma has many more negative personality traits than Makoto and Tenchi. The later are generically nice, kind young men. Ranma is a good person but he isn’t really that nice. He can be arrogant, mean-spirited, greedy, manipulative, and ruthless when he wants to be. Plus he can be mean by obliviousness more often than not.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Harem anime leads aren’t Mary Sues, exactly, because they usually don’t have any traits, positive or negative. They’re the generic lead that every male is supposed to be able to identify with.

      Have we ever talked about fish on this site? If you watch an anime, fish are incredibly detailed. There’s a psychological reason for this. The less detail a figure has, the more we tend to fill in the details humanly. So you can’t have a human character made of a generic eyes, nose, and mouth eating a generic fish with eyes and a mouth. The same impulse that allows you to see the drawing of the human as a real character motivates you to see the drawing of the fish as a real character. So if you’re a food animal in anime, you’ve got to be drawn in great detail.

      I think the same principle applies with the generic harem male lead. If you give him a distinct look, or notable personality quirks, you make him tougher for the male viewer to identify with. And harem anime are purely male fantasy, relying on the viewer to identify with the lead.

      As for shounen action leads, they usually stand out in their determination. They have to earn everything they get. Sure, they may earn it insanely quickly, but they have training montages and get beat down by the villain their first try and nearly lose their rematch.

      Taking Kirito as an example, while I think he’s a lot more interesting a character (and a lot darker) than most people realize in the first season, he otherwise has more traits of a harem lead than an action lead, and that makes sense given the anime.Report

      • pillsy in reply to Pinky says:

        Have we ever talked about fish on this site? If you watch an anime, fish are incredibly detailed.

        I was momentarily confused because of the other meaning folks use for the word “fish” around here.Report

  3. bookdragon says:

    “Women have it drummed into us since the moment we emerge from the womb that we need to be successful in every arena and if they invent a new arena we better be good in that one too even though we never practiced before. Is it really any surprise that when we concoct an ideal woman, it’s one who is effortlessly successful at everything she ever tries?”

    That is a reason for Mary Sues that I had not considered before, and very insightful. Like fillyjonk, I’m too old to find the classic tragic Mary Sue all that compelling, but looked at this way, I can see where the impulse to write that sort of character comes from.

    I will quibble slightly wrt Marty Stu. Kirk, especially from Star Trek 2009, fits model pretty well as a male version of Mary Sue (up to and including tragic self-sacrificing death to save the world in Into Darkness). 😉

    But, in general, you’re right that there are few 1:1 fits for male version of Mary Sue. I do think there are male equivalents though: the ‘women want him, men fear him’ super alpha male characters that are very popular in special ops and secret agent type novels, though they show up in some sicfi/fantasy. I don’t see them created as much in fanfics, but I have run into a bunch of them in various RPGs.Report

  4. Aaron David says:

    “Mary Sue is a woman for the same reason a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a woman ”

    I think they are opposite sides of the same coin, and it really comes down to who is writing the character. Also, and I freely admit to having never thought about it prior to this AM, but maybe the Chosen one is the flip side of the Everyman? Dunno, and I don’t want to derail your thread. But in any case, I think your comparison to buxom is on the money. That indeed, it is a gendered concept and while it can, if you hold it up to the light in a certain manner it can be applied in the other direction. But that is to really push the meaning sideways.

    As for one-dimensional women, E.A. Abbot has a sad.Report

    • pillsy in reply to Aaron David says:

      Yeah I think the MPDG is a male wish fulfillment fantasy in (based on second- and third-hand information) Edward Cullen is a female wish fulfillment fantasy.

      You, dear gentle (male) reader are maybe a bit shy, maybe a bit sensitive, maybe a but nerdy, and maybe a bit depressed, and maybe not in any shape to ask out the woman of your dreams. But she is out there, and she is beautiful, and fun, and exciting, and she’s going to sweep you off your feet and give you a joie d’vivre that you currently lack. She’ll probably move on but your life will be better for it.

      Since I am pretty much the described target audience it used to be a fantasy I was a complete sucker for. Then I had the opportunity to actually encounter a real-life approximation of an MPDG who did, indeed, sweep me off my feet. This is why I think Kristen’s suggestion that the archetype has a bit (and maybe more than a bit) of reality to it.

      But I did say it used to be a fantasy. Real life often works out a bit differently than movies.Report

      • atomickristin in reply to pillsy says:

        I actually think there’s a lot that appeals to women about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope too. I don’t think it’s as unilaterally appealing to men only as you might think, because there are a lot of women out there (and I’d fully class myself in there) who relate way more to MPDG than to Mary Sue.

        probably a piece in that! 🙂Report

        • I’ve said to myself I wish I could be more like the MPDG, because instead I am actually rather staid and responsible and boring and am often the one who feels overlooked.

          then again: watching movies featuring a MPDG, I look at them and go, “Man, if I had a friend like that, I’d forever be annoyed with her, because I’d think of her as a *flake*”

          But I can TOTALLY see it as being a wish-fulfillment fantasy for certain men. Maybe even the kind of men I might low-level set my cap for….which is also why I wish I were less the Edwardian Matron type (think Margaret Dumont in her typical Marx Brothers movie role) and more….I don’t know, some kind of vague waif.

          But I also am smart enough to know that “vague waif” isn’t me, and isn’t an illusion I could sustainReport

          • veronica d in reply to fillyjonk says:

            In one of her books (sorry for being vague), Laurie Penny writes about a point in her life when she adopted a MPDG persona, which she found quite effective at attracting boyfriends. However, she writes that she found it ultimately soul crushing. For her, it involved suppressing her selfhood to become a consumable object — or something like that. I’m sure she used better words.

            That said, if you want to be spontaneous and artsy and dye your hair a neat color, you can just do that, for yourself, on your own terms. That does not make you a MPDG.Report

        • pillsy in reply to atomickristin says:

          Yeah most of the women I’ve discussed it with have sort of resented the MPDG archetype, that’s a new and interesting piece of information.

          But she seems to share some traits and play roles in some stories not so dissimilar from male leads in (more female-oriented) romances.

          Also, I’m pretty sure that Lloyd Dobbler from Say Anything is a Manic Pixie Dream Guy, which is interesting because people generally credit/blame Cameron Crowe for codifying the MPDG in his later movies.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to pillsy says:

        Another reason for the MPDG fantasy is that they represent a young woman where you don’t have to do all the heavy work dating, she will court you to. You already mentioned this though.Report

  5. pillsy says:

    Yeah I think I remember that thread and it got intertwined with some talk of Game of Thrones characters.[1] Basically, two of them.

    One is Arya Stark. The idea that Arya Stark is a Mary Sue is absolute banana-pants. She has some real talent and drive for swordplay, goes through some intensive training, gets repeatedly traumatized by a series of incredibly appalling people and events, and eventually escapes to undergo even more intensive and grueling training. I assume if The Winds of Winter ever actually comes out, she may well turn up to murder a bunch of motherfuckers right in the face, but when she does it won’t conform at all to the Mary Sue archetype.

    So I can see how someone might conclude that such a designation is motivated by sexism. It’s a totally weird description of a female character.

    The other one is Daenerys Targaryen. And holy shit is she an absolute, complete, 100% Mary Sue. Very young, strikingly beautiful, and so charismatic that men (and some women, IIRC) fall in love as soon as they set eyes on her [1], and people who don’t fall in love still eagerly devote themselves to her rather mad but noble cause.

    Oh, and she has a unique royal background and a deeply traumatic and tragic backstory.

    She displays both a will to act where others are timid or accepting of grim realities, and the moral sense to point her extremely formidable self at a grotesquely unjust social order.

    She has violet eyes. Speaks weird languages. Raises pet dragons. She’s fireproof.

    And in the context of the books and their world, she’s a walking catastrophe. She destroys her foes, true, but she isn’t exactly a healthy presence in the lives of her friends, followers, or lovers.

    It’s not that she’s a bad person: she’s one of the better people in the books. It’s that she’s larger than life in a fictional world where life is already so terrible and unforgiving that it chews most people up and spits out their mangled corpses.

    Anyway, I love the character. I can’t say that I can evaluate her as female wish fulfillment because, you know, dude here, but I’m rooting for her to win and maybe figure out how to do it without inadvertently slaughtering all the other characters I like.

    As an aside, Jon Snow is a sort of counterpart to her, as the Chosen One, also blundering his way through a world governed by a totally different set of genre conventions. It hasn’t entirely worked out great with him, either, since last I read he was being rather painfully murdered. I’m figuring he’ll get better provided GRRM ever finishes the next book. Which he probably won’t.

    [1] I’ve only read the books, so this may be a little off for show watchers. Also, I may spoil a bunch of novels, the newest of which is 9 years old.

    [2] Is the confluence of these three factors just a bit creepy in context of the book? Yes! Perhaps intentionally.Report

    • LTL FTC in reply to pillsy says:

      Re: Arya:

      At some point on Monday, it got out in social media that someone had supposedly described Arya Stark as a Mary Sue, after she was the one who killed the villainous Night King and put an end to the battle in Sunday’s episode. The phrase “Mary Sue” was trending for a time on Twitter, as numerous commentators pointed out how wrong it was to imply that Arya — who has spent the entirety of the series learning, training, and otherwise earning the opportunity to do what she did in that episode — was a Mary Sue.

      What’s unclear, however, is who exactly it was who claimed that Arya was a Mary Sue. Most of the tweets attribute that sentiment to “dudes” or “dudebros” or “people” or others who don’t have names or tweets stating that they hold this opinion. In the 24 hours after the episode, there do not appear to be any columns, op-ed pieces, or social media posts by anyone with an audience of any significance making the claim that Arya Stark is a Mary Sue.

      • pillsy in reply to LTL FTC says:

        OK that’s actually kind of hilarious.

        So many of these little online culture war kerfuffles are complete self-licking ice cream cones that spring fully formed out of nowhere.

        Still, I do think it’s interesting how every other female character in the books I can think of is emphatically not a Mary Sue.Report

      • veronica d in reply to LTL FTC says:

        Yeah, I searched around for someone claiming she was a Mary Sue, and the only person I could find saying that was Jack Posobiec — who, if you don’t know who he is, I would suggest you remain in that enviable state. In any case, he is a deeply unserious person.

        So yeah, normal social media dipshittery. Ignore.

        Note that I didn’t check the bad places on Reddit or the -chans, where I am morally certain you could find at least a few incel ninnies saying she was a Mary Sue, but so what?Report

    • bookdragon in reply to pillsy says:

      I’ll avoid putting in spoilers, but later in the tv series, Jon Snow becomes a lot more Marty Stu.

      He and Dany could both be read as either Chosen One or MS though, depending on how you apply the criteria.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

      The other one is Daenerys Targaryen. And holy shit is she an absolute, complete, 100% Mary Sue.

      They even gave her a pumpkin latte.Report

  6. InMD says:

    Interesting piece and it goes a long way to explaining the recent celebration of certain female super-characters that I’ve found mostly baffling. The genre heroines I’ve always thought most interesting are in the Lt. Ripley or Sarah Connor mold. So sort of the opposite of the Mary Sue, but definitely not the femme fatale either. So not really a good destination for the cat-suited chick-fu male fantasy but also definitely not where women would go for an unbridled power or perfection fantasy.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to InMD says:

      There is, in fact, a line of criticism of Ripley and Connor, suggesting that they’re poor examples of feminist heroes because their hulk-up moments are motivated by maternal instincts.Report

      • InMD in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Yea, there’s a point there, even if I think it’s kind of a silly one.

        Especially in the Alien context since it only applies to 1 of the 3 appearances (I pretend the 4th one didn’t happen).Report

        • pillsy in reply to InMD says:

          There’s also the issue that it’s actually not that uncommon for men to hulk out due to paternal instincts in the same genre.

          Anyway, I (obviously) don’t really mind that sort of criticism, but the tendency to go beyond probing characters and critically analyzing how they’re used to going to a list of rules to follow is unhelpful.Report

          • atomickristin in reply to pillsy says:

            I’d honestly say it’s MORE common. I mean how many times have we seen the protective older guy hovering paternally over the fragile ingenue? Even Robocop has something of that dynamic.

            One that comes to mind right away is Idris Elba’s character in Pacific Rim.Report

            • pillsy in reply to atomickristin says:

              Taken is a whole movie that’s just that from wall to wall.Report

              • InMD in reply to pillsy says:

                Taken, Die Hard, Commando… isn’t there a whole YouTube compilation of Harrison Ford intensely demanding information about his wife? Not paternal in the strictest definition but definitely a paternalistic defense of the family kind of motivation.Report

      • atomickristin in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Yep. That is one of the most infuriating and appalling lines of reasoning that has underwritten a lot of my irritation at the “girl power” trope.Report

    • pillsy in reply to InMD says:

      I’ve always been a big fan of Mace from Strange Days[1]. She goes through the movie beating the shit out of people who threaten the guy she’s low-key in love with, who’s hot, but is also a complete trainwreck of a dude who never notices her because he’s too busy mooning over his dirtbag ex-girlfriend.

      [1] Perhaps, not coincidentally, also written by James Cameron, but directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who I’ve been standing since before it was cool, man.Report

      • atomickristin in reply to pillsy says:

        It irritates me to no end when actual failings that some women definitely have – like mooning over men who are into someone else – are written off as not being good characters in a feminist way. It’s totally ridiculous and puts pressure on writers to put forth a steady stream of inhuman, unrealistic, too-good-to-be-true flawless characters. It’s boring and doesn’t allow us to investigate the way people actually are in any insightful way.Report

        • pillsy in reply to atomickristin says:

          Yeah. At some point I get the impression that feminist or gender-focused criticism of film started going from asking, “What does the way gender is portrayed in this film reflect about how we view it in society?” which is, IMO, a totally valid and interesting question and may even lead to making new and interesting movies to asking, “How is the way gender portrayed in this film Bad, Actually?” which, uh, isn’t. At least not if that’s the only question that’s ever asked.

          Also, while I definitely identified a lot with that motivation, I’ve definitely known women who have done the same damn thing. It’s just a totally human thing to do when you like someone and they don’t like you back.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to atomickristin says:

          To read the argument charitably, it might be that they’re less upset about anything girl-focused happening and more upset about Girl Stuff substituting for actual character. Like, “we don’t have to explain why Ripley is running into the alien hive to save Newt, it’s obvious that she’s got Mom Stuff going on, that’s her character”.

          This popped up a lot in the 90s because it almost seemed de rigeur for writers to reveal that female characters had rape or sexual assault in their past, and that’s why they were suddenly running around in costumes beating people up. It got to be a cliche almost that if a chick was tough it was because she was hiding her secret shame.Report

          • bookdragon in reply to DensityDuck says:

            Too true. But the flip side of that was the ‘girl in a refrigerator’ for male superheros where they were running around in costumes because some bad guy had horribly raped/murdered their love interest.

            Both tropes were pretty annoying. In fact, at some point I recall someone writing a satiric short story where a character decides the city needs a superhero and goes looking to recruit a sadistic rapist to come have a spree in the city b/c according to the comics, that was the way to get superheros.Report

            • DensityDuck in reply to bookdragon says:

              Hah. That sounds like something Mark Millar would actually present as a plotline in “Kickass”.

              “Who are you?”
              “The Herofather.”
              “What, like Darth Vader?”
              “No, more like I’m the guy who raped your mom and you became a costumed hero to get vengeance.”Report

            • DavidTC in reply to bookdragon says:

              Both tropes were pretty annoying.

              Not only were both tropes annoying, but the fact they are _different_ says a lot.

              Both of them had a woman injured, which is rather messed up when you think about it, and even more messed up when you realize that was less anti-woman than due to some incredibly screwed-up view of masculinity where male heroes _couldn’t_ be injured….they got hurt, sure, but nothing done to them personally could any sort of emotional damage whatsoever. They could shrug anything off.

              They could only have any sort of long-lasting emotional damage if ‘the only things they were allowed to have any emotions about’, aka, women and children, got injured.

              There’s this entire giant bundle of sexism and toxic masculinity to unpack inside those two tropes.Report

      • InMD in reply to pillsy says:

        I really like that one too.Report

  7. DensityDuck says:

    I think the reason that Marty Stu doesn’t have everyone fall in love with him instantly is part of the male wish-fulfillment thing; the wish is not just that you be awesome but that everyone knows it, and for everyone to know it you have to demonstrate it, and the best way to do that is by beating up the main cast of whatever story you’re inserting yourself into.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    I remembered something Duck said way back in 2017:

    Oh, dear, I can’t find it anymore, but someone–I think it was The Last Psychiatrist, maybe at their sub-blog–wrote…

    “There are four stages of heroic fantasy. First, you *are* the hero. Then, you *become* the hero. Next, you *could* be the hero if you wanted or needed to. Finally, you *create* the hero.”

    That strikes me as being “the guy version”.

    The awesome thing about it is that it allows you to continue to write yourself into your self-insert fanfics, whatever you’re writing about, well into your 50’s and 60’s.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

      I was gonna roll that out again, but I figured this blog post was about women writing and written by a woman so the dude-fantasy sequence wasn’t useful for the conversation.

      But you’re right, there’s a way that men write wish-fulfillment stories, and it’s different from how women do it, and it does a disservice to both to insist that they’re the same story.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Well, she said:

        Try to make Gary or Larry or Marty Stu show up on an established show and make a bunch of grizzled old reserved and surly dudes like Jean Luc Picard or Dean Winchester or Han Solo suddenly start gushing about how fantabulous he is and how they want to be BFF’s and protect him at all costs to themselves. At least in any fashion that is remotely believable and doesn’t end up with you despising the smarmy little twerp and/or wanting to slap the older dudes for debasing themselves that way.

        Go ahead, try it, I’ll wait.

        Not to get all gender-essentialist, but dudes write self-insert fanfic differently than chicks do. It’s true that a Gary Stu works differently than Mary Sue does.Report

        • bookdragon in reply to Jaybird says:

          They hit a lot of the same points though. Like I said above, I don’t see it in fanfic much, but I do see it in men writing characters for RPGs.

          I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a character submitted, for say a Star Trek simm, who comes from royalty or some wealthy powerful family but either rejects his privileged position to serve in Starfleet or enlists after being disowned (always for some very noble reason!). Alternately, both of his parents are admirals. He is a Born Leader With Something To Prove. This character is also almost invariably tall, extremely handsome, only in his 20s but a master of several martial arts, a topnotch marksman, and a MacGyver-type genius with every form of tech. All of his past professor and COs love him and consider him the best they’ve ever seen. (The one interesting point is that the character is not always male, though the writer most often is).Report

          • Jaybird in reply to bookdragon says:

            My fanfic experience is rather limited. Remember The Belgariad? Man, I must have read those books a dozen times. I daydreamed myself into that story and was one of Garion’s best friends, rival to Hettar, and ended up with one of the chicks from Tolnedra.

            I realize, now, that I had written a self-insert fanfic based on the real books but, at the time, I considered it little more than daydreaming myself into the story.

            It wasn’t that I was super competent, it’s more that I was brave and loyal and lucky. Physically, not *IDEALIZED* idealized, but reasonably idealized.

            I can’t imagine anybody at all wanting to read the story I wrote in my head.

            But, man, it was fun to write.

            When I see Mary/Marty in a story, it’s easy for me to just nod sagely and say “ah, this was therapy for the writer”. If the story is good, I can finish it. (See, for example, HPMOR.) If it is not, I can put it down with no hard feelings.Report

            • bookdragon in reply to Jaybird says:

              wow, yes, I remember the Belgariad! My personal fantasy was to be Polgara.

              Also, yep. For fanfic, it’s a matter of reading or not. With a collaborative simm, it takes some judgment to decide whether to interact with that writer. Most of the time you have an offline chat with the writer and, if they’re willing to take some constructive criticism, try to guide them toward writing a less over powered character.

              I try not be too critical though. I actually think writing some version of Mary/Marty is a fairly normal stage for a lot of writers, maybe even a necessary one to go through and get past in order to write better, more human characters.Report

            • North in reply to Jaybird says:

              I really enjoyed the Belgariad but never wished to be in it. But my social circle is absolutely chock a block with self inserts into that mythos. Whoo boy! I actually have a friend who changed his legal name to Belsteven Jedi.Report

    • bookdragon in reply to Jaybird says:

      Or you could just pretend to be Roger Moore’s Bond, who got to be lady-killer hero well into his later years. 😉

      But it’s a good point. I wonder how much women (esp. older ones like me) wanting an equivalent contributes to the joy over Leia being depicted as a General and mentor to Rei in the new Star Wars, or at seeing The Princess Bride actress now cast as the tough badass Amazon battle leader/teacher in Wonder Woman?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to bookdragon says:

        If “Mary Sue” is a particular flavor of “Wish Fulfillment Self-Insert Character” and people are ticked at Mary Sues but not other flavors of WFSICs, I suppose I could see how that could easily be “unfair”.

        A variant of “stuff for women is seen as inferior to stuff for men”.Report

        • Ozzzy! in reply to Jaybird says:

          Is Gen. Hoda a Canon Sue? I guess Poe didn’t like her, but seems to check all the boxes pretty nicely.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Ozzzy! says:

            From what I understand, she was awesome in the books. Like, interestingly awesome.

            I dunno. Haven’t read them, myself.

            For the movie? I think that it all depends on the wishes that the viewer wants fulfilled.

            “I want a purple-haired woman in authority to accuse one of the male protagonists of mansplaining” is one of those wishes that I can see not being universally shared among the audience.Report

        • bookdragon in reply to Jaybird says:

          My comment on Moore was more that by the time he is clearly past his prime but bedding every hot chick anyway, he’s obviously in the Wish Fulfillment fantasy character category for guys over 50 who still want to *be* the hero. (In fact, I recall a few years ago some columnist was upset when Craig was cast as Bond because he was so fit and attractive – apparently a Bond that most women would find straight up physically attractive ruined the fantasy for him).

          But I was more commenting on how there are more female characters who fit the male model for WFSIC you identified. Strong, accomplished older women who are creating the hero. Even in the Bond universe now there’s Judy Dench’s M.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to bookdragon says:

            Roger Moore was the best Bond.

            The genre of competence porn is one of those weird ones too. “Are protagonists in competence porn wish fulfillment characters?” Burn Notice, Person of Interest, McGuyver, and I’m sure that there are a ton of other examples (TV Tropes mentions Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation and, of course, The West Wing).

            As for the specific example of James Bond, I’d say that by the time of Roger Moore, the movies drifted into “camp”.

            Anyway, I seems that we’re veering toward something like “are protagonists wish fulfillment characters?”

            “Look at this guy. He’s got something important to do. That’s Hollywood for you. Wait, don’t tell me… he not only has something important to do, he actually goes out and *DOES* it?”Report

            • bookdragon in reply to Jaybird says:

              “… he not only has something important to do, he actually goes out and *DOES* it?”

              Lol. This is usual criticism from women wrt how the term Mary Sue is used for female protagonists in books/movies/shows in that a female character who can walk and chew gum at the same time will be labeled a Mary Sue.

              (and, no. Sean Connery was the best bond 😉 )Report

        • DavidTC in reply to Jaybird says:

          If “Mary Sue” is a particular flavor of “Wish Fulfillment Self-Insert Character” and people are ticked at Mary Sues but not other flavors of WFSICs, I suppose I could see how that could easily be “unfair”

          It’s not just even that. That’s just one of the many weirdly sexist things about supposed ‘Mary Sues’. But…let’s just take it at the face value for now.

          Due to the gender tilt in characters, if fanfic writers want to write het romance (Or even F/F romance), a lot of the time they end up having to create original female characters. Additionally, fanfic writers are generally female (Or queer in some way), which means their _self-inserts_ are often going to be female.

          And, thanks to the aforementioned gender bias above, the few male fanfic writers can usually find an _existing_ character to turn into a self-insert. Canon characters are are somewhat less likely to be Mary Sues (Because they have existing characterization), and even if they are Mary Sue are a _lot_ less likely to be called on that if they’re male. (More on that in a second. Edit: Rather, more on that in some other post, because this is already super-long and just scratches the surface.)

          So, basically, a lot of the ‘gender bias’ in Mary-Sue-type characters in fanfic is merely reflexive canon characters gender bias, and/or writer bias, because characters created as self-inserts _or_ as love interests are going to mostly be female.

          For example: Let’s say I want to ‘fix’ Lord of the Rings, and I’m a fanfic writer. And I’m going to do it with a self-insert character.

          If I want a male self-insert character, I can take…Aragorn. I basically ignore his canon personality (What little there is.), and write him saving the day and being much cleverer than Gandalf…and everyone loves him. This has basically every possible trait of a Mary Sue, but, and here’s where we get into sexist: No one will call him that. If I don’t like him, I have arguable a dozen other male characters I can pick…including, incidentally, Frodo.

          If I want a female self-insert character in LoTR, I can take…who? Arwen? What if I don’t like her? Oops, have to make my own. And I write her as comparable to Aragorn, oops, a Mary Sue. Okay, so I write her like Samwise…oops, still can be called a Mary Sue.

          And that’s just at face value. There’s a lot of inherently sexist or just anti-fanfic assumptions built into the concept. For example, the idea that ‘deprotagonizing’ is a bad thing, when that’s literally the point of most fanfic. A large amount of fanfic have no protagonist whatsoever, being character or relationship pieces.Report

  9. Richard Hershberger says:

    As a point of descriptive linguistics, “Mary Sue” is most certainly applied to male characters. I just googled “He is a Mary Sue” and the first hit was a (pretty decent) discussion on TV Tropes about whether The Doctor is a Mary Sue. (The discussion is from 2010, long before the thirteen Doctor.) The arguments against the proposition are not gender-based.

    This is not to say that it isn’t perfectly sensible to discuss the differences between female and a male Mary Sue; and if you prefer to use “Marty Sue” for the latter I won’t disagree beyond nothing that this distinction is not universally made.

    My sense of how “Mary Sue” is used in the wild is that it has been generalized to a character who serves as wish fulfillment for the author and/or reader. I agree that “universally beloved,” much less instantly so, is not a characteristic of the Marty Sue. They often are immediately disliked, with the relationship gradually shifting to grudging respect, and possibly ending up with adoration. I have a weakness for early 20th century juvenile fiction aimed at boys. This is very much the convention of the genre. I read much less aimed at girls. Anne of Green Gables maybe? She is universally adored, but as I recall it isn’t universally instant.

    Jack Ryan is a great example of a Marty Sue. I always assumed that he was to some extant a wish fulfillment fantasy for Clancy. This was cemented when I learned that they were both married to a hotshot ophthalmologist–at least until Clancy traded his in for a newer model. That part didn’t seem to make it into the books.Report

    • CJColucci in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      As someone with 20-400 vision, I have great respect and gratitude for ophthalmologists, but I have trouble grasping the concept of a “hotshot ophthalmologist.” I just don’t see it.Report

    • bookdragon in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Yes. Jack Ryan became a Marty Stu, though it took a couple books.

      Anne of Green Gables actually fits the boy model more, in that she was initially disliked/didn’t fit in and eventually came to be a character that was accepted and even loved.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      “My sense of how “Mary Sue” is used in the wild is that it has been generalized to a character who serves as wish fulfillment for the author and/or reader.”

      Yes, I agree with this.

      And you might say it’s yet another example of dudes entering a primarily-female space, taking it over, and redefining it to be about what they want rather than what it originally was…Report

      • Exactly DD. Thank you.

        I feel the usurpation of the term “Mary Sue” to be some sort of putdown of any female character is pretty gross and I wanted to push back on that. Regardless of how it’s “being used in the wild” it actually has a meaning that’s of some value, and I am advocating for keeping the original meaning.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Kristin Devine says:

          I mean, for all that we mock the term (in its original or its contemporary usages) it does point to something that DavidTC describes in a comment above–that in a lot of these stories, either there aren’t any female characters or wthey have very well-defined characterization that isn’t really tractable to fanfic speculation.

          And as for the OP nature of the character, see what I said above; Mary Sue is OP so that the hero will notice her, not because being OP is necessarily part of female fantasy.Report

    • veronica d in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Jack Ryan is a great example of a Marty Sue.

      This waters down the term too much, in the sense that “if everyone is a Mary Sue, then no one is” — or whatever. You get the point.

      One key factor of the whole Mary Sue thing: the characterization must be clumsy and overwrought, which yes, this involves judgement and criticism. It won’t reduce to an algorithm: “Character has properties X, Y, and Z, but not Q, and thus Mary Sue!”

      Blah! That’s not how this works.

      Mary Sues are poorly written. They’re shallow.Report

      • pillsy in reply to veronica d says:

        Mary Sues are poorly written. They’re shallow.

        Something they have in common with Jack Ryan, especially in his later outings.

        Have you read Executive Orders?

        I hope not. It’s garbage.Report

        • veronica d in reply to pillsy says:

          No I haven’t read it. That said, the term was originally meant for “cartoonishly amateurish,” not merely “kinda bad, but still publishable.”Report

          • Richard Hershberger in reply to veronica d says:

            As bookdragon points out above, Jack Ryan didn’t start out as a Marty Sue. He was a standard ominicompetent hero. Where things went south was when Clancy put himself, via his Ryan avatar, in charge of the country, with no inconvenient other interested parties to get in the way. We got speeches about how Clancy/Ryan’s opinions were just plain common sense that any person of good will would naturally agree with, and this was met with nods of agreement. This is where the series devolved. It started as moderately competent techno-adventure, leavened by Clancy’s knack for making shit up and passing it off in a way that seemed plausible, to those who didn’t actually know anything about the subject. It slid nearly pure wankery.

            The writing got worse as it went along, too. Clancy clearly was of the “too big to edit” school. The thing is, a few people have the standing to be too big to edit, but none of them have to exercise this power. It is a choice. When a series goes from well paced books of moderate length to bloated slop, the author has affirmatively chosen this.Report

      • Totally agree, Veronica. There’s an actual meaning to “Mary Sue” that is informative and useful, and extending it to every character out there just isn’t what Mary Sue even means. It does not apply to every female character and certainly doesn’t apply to every character out there, and to try to stretch it to fit simply negates a term that is useful. While simultaneously seeming to erase something about Mary Sues that female authors and readers like by pressuring them to construct characters in such a way as to avoid this now overly vague and too encompassing “Mary Sue” term.Report

    • It may be applied to male characters but I’ve laid out the reasons of why I don’t think it properly is in my piece. Thanks for reading.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        I don’t think it needs to be black-and-white. After all, words tend to have complex meanings, often with many facets. This is true for very basic words like “chair.” For words relating to literary and social commentary, I’d say this is even more true.

        You wanted to shine a spotlight on a particular gendered feature of “Mary Sue.” That’s totally legit. You made a good case. That, however, is not the only interesting conversation we can have about the term, and those other conversations might need to spotlight different aspects.

        In other words, focusing on the specifically gendered aspects of “Mary Sue” as a term is very interesting. That said, looking at how the term can generalize into a more gender varied space is also interesting.

        I don’t think this is the sort of conversation where things are strictly right or wrong in a plain sense. These conversations are often exploratory.


        One thing, though, as we shift the meaning of a term, we must also shift its implications. If we broaden “Mary Sue” enough that it applies to Arya, then many of the negative aspects of the term evaporate. In other words, if an awesome, deep, and well-written character is a Mary Sue, then being a Mary Sue stops being a bad thing.Report

        • Ok, so write it! I would love to read it, truly.

          I take so much heat on this site because I pick angles that are not what some of you guys expect/prefer me to take. But as a writer I am looking to say things that haven’t been said a gillion times before rather than just parroting back things the more vocal commenters would overwhelmingly agree with so everyone can continue litigating their ongoing personality conflicts.

          I don’t think it’s a good use of my skills and time to do that, nor does it push the conversation in any new direction.

          But it doesn’t mean that I don’t have interest in reading another person’s take on any of this, and for sure I’d never claim I have written the end all and be all on any given topic. It just means that as a writer I want to find some unplumbed depth and plumb it. 🙂Report

  10. George Turner says:

    Introduction To Comparative Theology 201 – Midterm Exam

    Q3: Is Jesus a Mary Sue? If so, in what ways?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to George Turner says:

      Oh, jeez. I did some light substitution and started putting other Important Historical Figures in there and… Golly!Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to George Turner says:

      By this point we can say he’s firmly canonical, so he misses the (optional) element “appears in fan fic of a canonical work with actually nuanced characters”. Other than that, I think he’s a total Mary Sue.

      Unless we say the OT is canon and the NT is revisionist fan fic. Actually I quite like that take.Report

      • bookdragon in reply to dragonfrog says:

        Also consider the hagiographies for various early female saints, particularly the beautiful virgin of noble family who is martyred because she refuses marriage due to having dedicated herself to Christ. Those might be the earliest examples of Mary Sues.Report

      • George Turner in reply to dragonfrog says:

        Interview between Harold Bloom and Charlie Rose.

        Bloom, one of the great academic experts on the Bible, can’t reconcile the Old Testament and the New Testament, either textually or theologically. He says they simply do not belong together and don’t have the same God. It’s a very deep, serious interview.

        So what I would say to Harold Bloom is that the New Testament is a book about some crazy and epic events that happened to super fans of the original testament. The two books have to go together as a box set, like the original Star Wars trilogy and the Clerks/Jay and Silent Bob Strike franchise. You have to know Star Wars canon or all the jokes and references in Jay and Silent Bob will just fly right over your head.

        Now some people devotedly cling to Star Wars and eschew the centrality of Jay and Silent Bob, even though the Jay and Silent Bob adventures are really, by some standards, superior works. Often such people try to ignore the massive Jay and Silent Bob fan base and hope the JSB fandom just leaves them alone, which unfortunately doesn’t always happen. But when faced with an external threat from an almost unrelated franchise, the two groups often come together in mutual support.Report

        • Maribou in reply to George Turner says:

          Harold Bloom also doesn’t believe there is one reconcilable old testament, either, so your analogy lacks complexity. (That said, given the complexity of the whole Star Wars franchise, I think it would hold up had you not narrowed down to that original trilogy. There are Jay and Silent Bob jokes about the expanded (old) canon of Star Wars, too.)

          And, I say this as a (somewhat ambiguous) Harold Bloom stan, he’s not “one of the great academic experts on the Bible” in a theological sense at all. In a literary sense, sure. In a bible studies sense, no, and he wouldn’t claim to be (nor would serious biblical scholars claim him to be, for the most part, even the ones who adore his work).Report

  11. dragonfrog says:

    Women have it drummed into us since the moment we emerge from the womb that we need to be successful in every arena and if they invent a new arena we better be good in that one too even though we never practiced before. Is it really any surprise that when we concoct an ideal woman, it’s one who is effortlessly successful at everything she ever tries?

    Sounds like a Mary Sue isn’t so much sexist, as a character type written in response / reaction to existing sexism.Report

  12. Doctor Jay says:

    I liked this piece a lot. Kirsten, you describe Mary Sue in much better detail, with greater precision than I ever could. Well done.

    You and I have very different definitions of the word “sexist” though. I would roughly describe it as any attitude, belief or behavior that unequally harms one gender.

    So, when you describe your feelings thus:

    I need to feel deserving of success. I need to feel like I earned it. I need to feel like the people around me – my parents and bosses and friends and love interests – look at me and see some version of perfection. Even my flaws are the flaws that they would have picked out if they could have ordered me from a catalog. And unfortunately for me, I find I need that even in my fictional escapades. I’m sure that this is in no small part because I’ve never felt good enough, or right enough, or fixed enough to be worthy of success or even worthy of love. It’s like a chronic case of Imposter Syndrome and most of us women are afflicted. Deep down inside, I don’t feel I’ll ever be good enough until I am perfect, and so in order to enjoy a fantasy – even just a FANTASY – I need to incorporate that desire to be seen as perfect through someone’s eyes, since that’s the only way I feel worthy.

    I think that’s the result of living in a sexist culture and absorbing a bunch of sexist ideas about what a woman is supposed to be.

    I thought about all the things the culture says a man is supposed to be, challenged many, and discarded a fair few of them as a teenager – because of my encounter with feminism. I did not want to preclude the ability to cry, for instance. I felt like crying, why shouldn’t I cry.

    So, the Mary Sue idea is the result of sexist attitudes about what a woman should be, as far as I’m concerned.

    I think I have seen male versions of this, but they embody a masculine ideal, so they look different. One of the big differences, it seems to me, is that the masculine ideal holds agency. Agency is a very interesting thing. Agency is violence. Agency is doing things that some person or group doesn’t want done. There is resistance. The resistance is overcome, often by fighting. The thing to be done might be recognized as a good thing by the audience, or by the in-group, but there are always people around who don’t want to see it done, and they are disappointed by the outcome.

    I think this is a very significant difference between a masculine and feminine ideal. Agency is doing things that other people, sometimes people on your team, don’t want you to do. Mary Sues never do this.Report

  13. Great piece. Really made me think about the trope and what it means. I agree with you that Mary Sue is not sexist per se. But I would note that the response to her can be: dismissing characters as “Mary Sue” for example.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Michael Siegel says:

      There is also the reading (or the watching) of a Mary Sue. Because the audience is just as important to the existence of Mary Sue as the writer is.

      *THIS* is where the sexism happens.Report

    • bookdragon in reply to Michael Siegel says:

      Yeah. That is the usual reason for the negative response to calling a character a Mary Sue.

      There are absolutely a bunch of bunch of Mary/Marty/Cannon Sue/Stu examples out there, but female characters that are competent in ways that wouldn’t strike anyone as excessive in a male character get criticized for being Mary Sues.

      That’s where it feels like sexism.Report

    • It can, absolutely, I hoped I differentiated that in the piece but maybe wasn’t clear enough. Thank you for reading!Report

  14. Maribou says:

    1) i love this post so my disagreement with it is not in any way a complaint.
    2) speaking from my decade of selling books for a living, there are ….. sooooooooooooo many books with male versions of the Mary Sue (I’ll call ’em Gary Stus) it is not even funny. Generally speaking they are westerns, with lesser showings in military fiction, post-apocalypse, etc. I mean, if we’re going to admit Canon Sues at all, that is. And you know, they have Rugged Jaws instead of Violet Eyes, insert binarist trope after binarist trope, but otherwise there’s really not that much difference. Everyone adores them. Men mostly want to be their best friends. Women all swoon or mother them. Villains cannot help but be swayed by their charisma / paying them grudging respect even as they insist on remaining villainous. Etc. If y’all haven’t read some Canon Stus in your westerns, you haven’t read many westerns…. I mean, _The Virginian_ was published in 1902.
    3) There are, actually, plenty of fanfic Gary Stus – exact mirrors of what you describe – but they mostly take place in a very gender-complicated space (if you were coming across more Marvel-hero/OC m/m fanfic, perhaps…. that’s a (very currently popular) example, not a confined playground). Because the vast majority of fanfic writers (BY NO MEANS ALL) were socialized as little girls, whatever their gender actually is (could be one of several), and so whether they are writing a male or female self-insert character, they are responding to having grown up under many of the the same sexist pressures you describe so well in the OP.Report

    • Morat20 in reply to Maribou says:

      The TV Tropes webpage has a huge list of Marty Stus ( Sadly I can’t do formatting here yet. 🙂

      They define it:
      ” All the same rules apply, but a couple variations do tend to show up, expressing different ideas of what constitutes male and female “perfection”. Also referred to as “Gary Stu” or “Larry Stu” (for those who prefer rhyming to alliteration and whose dialect has the Mary-marry merger), “Mary Joe”, or “Marty Sam”.

      Marty Stu will be the personification of action, action and more action. Or, if he is of an intellectual bent, he thinks his way through problems, inventing whole new branches of science and technology in the process, and in some cases, the character is often portrayed as the personification of both, completing missions as both the brains and the brawn, taking up the roles usually shared between the main character and a team or a partner. He’s an unstoppable fighter, a rogue agent, a fearless freedom fighter, a master of disguise. But whether he is a Blood Knight or a Omnidisciplinary Scientist, Marty Stu will be devastatingly handsome (or if not, possessed of a strange, saturnine magnetism) and desired by all significant women, although as the works involved are usually aimed at a male audience, romance is not likely to be the main dish.

      He has usually been (and still mostly is) restricted to being a creature of action since men who do not take an active role in dramatic events are unmanly and, by definition, not perfect (Non-Action Guy tends to be looked upon with disdain). So Marty Stu, in contrast to Mary Sue who has recently been able to take more active roles, is almost never seen taking on his sister’s old school Purity Sue role as a passive motivator of others through his purity, beauty and helplessness, unless it’s in addition to the action and intellectual roles they already have. However, as times have changed, Marty’s had the occasional opportunity to show his softer side, and beautiful, passive male Possession Sues are not uncommon in Slash fiction.”Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Morat20 says:

        Sadly I can’t do formatting here yet. 🙂

        Off topic, but what sort of formatting do you want to do, and how?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Morat20 says:

        Not to imply that I know what slashfic is, but I would wager that the beautiful, passive male Possession Sues are disproportionately written by female authors.Report

        • bookdragon in reply to Jaybird says:

          Actually from what I’ve been told nearly all slashfic is written by female authors.

          It’s yet another dynamic wrt romance writing I absolutely don’t understand since if a story has two characters that are both hot guys, imagining that they are completely into each other and not interested in women at all is *not* anywhere on the list of fantasies that come to mind.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to bookdragon says:

            Well, imagine the incredibly empowering fantasy of having a man agree with you about something (to wit: that guy over there is mega hot). Now double it, because here’s two men agreeing with you.Report

          • DavidTC in reply to bookdragon says:

            Actually from what I’ve been told nearly all slashfic is written by female authors.

            Nearly all fanfic is written by female or non-binary writers, period. Here is a link to the survey results that Ao3 did:


            There were almost 4 times as many _non-binary_ people as men, which is…flatly astonishing, demographics-wise.

            It’s yet another dynamic wrt romance writing I absolutely don’t understand since if a story has two characters that are both hot guys, imagining that they are completely into each other and not interested in women at all is *not* anywhere on the list of fantasies that come to mind.

            Unlike lesbian porn, which is obviously never consumed by men?Report

            • Jaybird in reply to DavidTC says:

              From what I have heard, lesbian pornography tends to be made for male consumption (there are notable exceptions and I don’t intend to imply that there aren’t exceptions… but the exceptions are exceptions). While the participants are female, the gaze is male.

              Or so I have heard.

              Slashfic has a similar dynamic going on.Report

    • Kristin Devine in reply to Maribou says:

      Sure, I’ll give you all that. I do think there’s a concept at the nucleus of Mary Sue that is gendered though. Thanks for reading, I really appreciate your insight.Report

  15. Kolohe says:

    I’d argue Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a Mary Sue per the parameter’s you have provided (which I agree with). He was good at the Marines. He was good as a stockbroker. He was good at getting a beautiful doctor wife. He was good at being a college instructor. He was good at intelligence analysis. He was good when people started shooting guns at or near him. He was good on TV immediately after the biggest terrorist attack on the US in history.

    Everyone that ever meets him, likes him almost instantly, from British Royal family to Russian submarine captains to high ranking US government officials to ex Navy SEAL chiefs. If they don’t like him, they’re obviously either terrorists or jealous insecure political hacks.Report

    • I love Ryanverse but this is trueReport

    • Morat20 in reply to Kolohe says:

      I linked the TV Tropes definition of Marty Stu up above, because it notes “”All the same rules apply, but a couple variations do tend to show up, expressing different ideas of what constitutes male and female “perfection”.

      It’s the same basic character, just viewed through our society’s own gender lens. What the writer views as the “epitome” of perfection for the gender at hand. It’s still wish fulfillment and perfection, the angle is just a bit different depending on where the writer is standing.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Morat20 says:

        Being perfect is not the point of Mary Sue, though!Report

        • It’s not, it’s really not!!! Mary Sue can have the most adorable flaws you ever saw.

          And additionally, there are seemingly perfect, highly accomplished characters (because there are seemingly perfect, highly accomplished characters in the real world) that still aren’t Mary Sue and as writers we might want to explore that type of person.

          Perfect does not equal Mary Sue.Report

          • Kolohe in reply to Kristin Devine says:

            There’s a good example of this in one of Clancy’s Jack Ryan books (Sum of all Fears, iirc)

            Jack Ryan is so good and pure, he has the adorable flaw that he doesn’t realize his wife is mad at him because she thinks he’s having an affair due to a smear job from Jack’s political enemies that Jack has no idea is going on, and it takes his retired super SEAL bodyguard to figure all this out and tell the wife the truth.Report

  16. DavidTC says:

    I find it weird that Kristen didn’t bother to mention the context in which people are calling the term sexist: Because it is used in places it is incorrect.

    Kristen, in a sense, is playing reverse No-True-Scotsman. She’s laying out a (mostly) reasonable of what a Scotman is…a person who is born or has lived a long time within Scotland.

    Or, let’s pick a term with a negative connotation: Thug. And Kristen has, in this example, written out an explanation of how Thug is actually short for Thuggie, aka, an organized gang of murderers and robbers(1) in India, and thus it’s not racist to call people thugs. The problem is that people who are complaining about the use of ‘Thug’ aren’t complaining because they don’t like people using that term correctly, or even semi-correctly to describe random criminals. They’re complaining because racist assholes keep using the word to describe random young black men with low-hanging pants. Which…is indeed racist.

    Likewise, for a recent example, calling Captain Marvel a Mary Sue (And not Superman), is pretty damn sexist. Captain Marvel maybe be fairly overpowered compared to others, but if you objectively look at the list of traits above, Superman is _way_ ahead. He gets powers as the plot demands, he’s died a tragic death, he has a heart-wrenching backstory, everyone likes him, he’s incorruptible, etc. Yet for some reason, he’s never called a Mary Sue.

    People are not saying that pointing out the supposed bad writing of ‘actual’ Mary Sues is sexist. They’re saying that Mary Sue has now evolved to basically be a term that sexist people use to attack every strong female character with.

    1) Which, incidentally, this story is probably not true and a British invention, which…nicely maps onto the point I’m going to make, in that the ‘correct’ usage of Mary Sue is fairly problematic _also_, that a lot of the assumptions built into the ‘correct’ definition are sexist and anti-fanfic. But that’s another, much more complicated post I may or may not make.Report

    • veronica d in reply to DavidTC says:

      Regarding your footnote, my immediate quibble was going to be that even the historic meaning of “thuggie” was pretty darn racist, just not racist in the way we critique the term today. But that said, I agree with your broad point.

      I think Kristin is saying, “Let’s ignore the dumb social media conflict and instead focus on interesting aspects of the term.” That seems legit. After all, it’s reasonable (and I would insist moral) to reject all the nerdbro/gamergater/MRA dipshittery, but past a certain point we give them more attention than they deserve.

      The recent “They called Arya a Mary Sue!!!” kerfuffle is a good case in point. I’m sure someone called Arya that, somewhere. So what? They’re wrong and silly and probably sexist. Someone was terrible on the internet.

      Anyway, my point is, you’re both right in a way. Different conversations have different focuses, and that’s okay.Report

    • Kristin Devine in reply to DavidTC says:

      David, I agree that it’s being used wrongly. The entire point of the article is that it is being used wrongly based on a conversation I had with a person who was using it wrongly in a particular way. I wasn’t discussing 700 other ways it was used wrongly. It’s not that article. Others have written that article already, a good deal of them. I was saying something different. I don’t think you’re open hearing what I was actually saying, because you prefer to hear what you want to hear and attack me on that basis. Which is fine, but I still think I said something that was rather important that resonated with a few people.

      It’s a little ironic that in your rush to decry what you perceive as me allegedly ignoring sexism, you disregarded my larger point about sexism, and chose to give me a big lecture in which you mansplained (wrongly) what I was trying to say after completely missing the point.

      But hey, thanks for reading.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        You stepped forward to explain why ‘Mary Sue’ was not actually a sexist term…while people in public were apparently having an argument about Ayra Stark being a Mary Sue, which…is using the term sexistly.

        But you decided that all you were doing is clarifying terms, and that, by the exact terms of Mary Sue, the term is not sexist. And so you just…skipped over what people were actually complaining about.(1)

        This is…somewhat disingenuous. Terms, especially negative terms, can be _used_ in a bigoted way _even if_ there is some objective and non-bigoted meaning.

        Moreover, this is a community that…isn’t any sort of fanfic or literary criticism. Yes, I know what Jaybird’s doing, but…a book reading club isn’t literary criticism. I suspect I’m one of the few people here who regularly encounter the term ‘Mary Sue’ outside of sexist asshats throwing around accusations on Twitter, and knows anything about it.

        But perhaps you honestly wanted to do some sort of ‘fanfic term explainer’ of the term Mary Sue, I’m not sure why. There’s a whole bunch of other stuff in fanfic that probably needs to be explained first that the random people on this site have no context for, so that’s a strange start.

        But, even pretending you were just trying to be informative about the term, you shouldn’t have done it from the position of ‘People are wrong about the term Mary Sue being sexist’, which _automatically_ is going to be linked to the current debate about how the term Mary Sue is being used sexistly. At the very least you should mention how people currently misusing it _are_ misusing it.

        You weirdly forgot to do that.

        1) Hilariously, I don’t know anything about that specific discussion, I haven’t been on Twitter since that episode aired, and don’t watch GoT anyway. But I’ve seen the exact same argument in the same contexts for other things, to the point I managed to explain this in my post _without_ knowing any of the GoT specifics or even that such a thing was going on until after I posted!Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to DavidTC says:

          well ACTUALLY, KRISTIN, if that’s the discussion you WANTED then I should comment that you started this conversation INCORRECTLY, what you SHOULD have done was–Report

    • DavidTC in reply to DavidTC says:

      That came off a bit harsher to Kristen than I meant for it. I am glad she’s pointing out what Mary Sue actually means, despite some problems I have with the ‘real’ concept.

      It’s just…that’s not why people are complaining about the term being sexist, as far as I know. It’s because the term is, at this point, basically used as an attack on random female characters, who don’t actually meet the qualifications laid out above. And for some reason she just…didn’t explain that. I’m not sure why.Report

      • Kristin Devine in reply to DavidTC says:

        Because it was completely beyond the scope of the piece, David. The piece was not “the complete history of the use of the term Mary Sue” it was “I had this conversation that went to an interesting and ultimately rewarding place, here’s what happened.”

        (and BTW, I DID mention that it was used in a sexist fashion!!)

        I mean, expecting a piece to be all things to everyone…I mean that’s like you’re expecting a Thinkpiece Mary Sue or something. 🙂Report

        • DavidTC in reply to Kristin Devine says:

          (and BTW, I DID mention that it was used in a sexist fashion!!)

          In the very last paragraph.

          Because it was completely beyond the scope of the piece, David. The piece was not “the complete history of the use of the term Mary Sue” it was “I had this conversation that went to an interesting and ultimately rewarding place, here’s what happened.”

          Yeah, like I said, I was a bit harsh because I was, to start with, assuming you did this to make a political point. Whereas…I’m not sure you did. I think you just…didn’t explain things, and I’m not really sure why.

          If I had read this piece on a _fandom_ site, I would have…well, I would have somewhat disagreed, but in ways that have to do with sexism and the way that criticism of _actual_ Mary Sues are, indeed, based in sexism at some level. Or, maybe I would have agreed, but with the argument that the term should be understood to be a good deal less negative than it is, that _treating it as negative_ is the actual sexism. Hell, maybe that’s where you stand on it.

          I.e., we might be entirely on the same page on this. In fandom.

          The problem is…you put it here. A non-fandom site. A fairly political-ish site, if not purely political.

          And you framed it within ‘People calling the term Mary Sue sexist are wrong’, when…90% of the people here, when they run into people calling the term ‘Mary Sue’ sexist, it will be because someone else applied it to, for example, Arya. Or Captain Marvel. Or J. Random Female Protagonist that does literally anything.

          I.e., just a single paragraph at the start (and not a vague reference at the end) saying ‘There’s been a recent discussion about how the term Mary Sue is sexist, and I contend that most people using the term are actually misusing it, and _actual_ usage of the term isn’t sexist. Here’s what it actually is inside fandom, and why its not sexist when properly used:’ would have resulted in a very different response from me.Report

          • pillsy in reply to DavidTC says:

            I was under the impression this isn’t just a politics site…?

            There are weekly threads on movies, books, video games, technology…?Report

            • DavidTC in reply to pillsy says:

              Whatever this place is, it’s not a site that talks about fandom specific things like Mary Sue, or even _uses_ that term regularly.

              I mean, here:“mary+sue”+-“something+about+mary+sue”

              Literally, sixty-nine uses of the term in years before today. At least a few of those are to the website The Mary Sue, others are talking about the Got things, etc.

              I mean, if this site wants to go full fandom, or even discuss fandom as one of the topics, like The Mary Sue, I’m all for it, and I might even write some stuff if anyone cares…but I think explaining what a Mary Sue truly is is a really weird start. Were people here confused? Were people here misusing the term? What’s the context of this supposed to be read as _besides_ the political things currently, repeatedly, happening?

              Kristen decided to write a piece about how ‘in fandom, some people (who are saying literally the exact words that the left are currently saying on Twitter) are wrong about Mary Sues being sexist’, and posted it in a place that I don’t really think doesn’t make sense to be.

              Perhaps I read that parenthesis into things. Perhaps I’ve missed a lot of stuff on this site, and we actually discuss fandom tropes all the time. I dunno.Report

  17. Merlin Emrys says:

    “Everybody at Hogwarts doesn’t magically fall in love with Harry Potter. ”

    Yes they do. Malfoy and Snape don’t really count against that, because even Mary Sue stories typically have a couple of people who hate her that she can “rise above”– and that’s exactly what Harry does. That “hostile press corps” you mention doesn’t show up until, iirc, Goblet of Fire. For the first few books, Harry is universally adored as “The Boy Who Lived”, is very wealthy, and is an absolute prodigy at his preferred sport. His abusive relatives are now SCARED of him in such a way that even his life with them gets better.

    So yes, early Harry is easily classified as a Gary Stu. His only imperfections are things young men don’t generally CARE about, such as academic ability (for which he has Hermione to bail him out) and the fact that… jerks don’t like him? If that’s a flaw? And he doesn’t know the finer points of wizarding society, (but he has Ron to bail him out on that front). That’s something I think bears repeating: A lot of flaws in male wish-fulfillment characters just don’t MATTER to men. And does a flaw really count as a flaw if it’s perceived as irrelevant?

    Rowling gets better as a writer as the series goes on. Harry STOPS being Sue-ish (or Stu-ish, if you prefer) but early on he’s a classic case of “boychild gets everything he wants for nothing”. Only later does he start dealing with real problems. On a side note, Neo is the same way. “Earning” his place? He literally has martial arts skills downloaded into his skull. That’s not earning anything. Earning them would mean learning the old fashioned way, with sweat and pain and occasionally lying on the floor trying to get his breath back.

    Full disclosure: When I was a kid of ten or eleven, I wrote harry potter fanfic. I am male. And I wrote the cringiest, most self-indulgent self-insert fics you could imagine. I was Harry’s new best friend. I could do wandless magic before Rowling even brought up the possibility. I could waltz through the forbidden forest whenever I pleased. Most Sues are partially self-inserts, and fic!me was most definitely a sue (or stu, whatever). Again, I am male– cis male, for those of you who care to use terms like that. My self-insert godawful “American Kid At Hogwarts” monstrosity was male. And he was exactly like any Mary Sue a woman would write. And I KNOW I am not the only guy who did stuff like this. We just never tried to get that dreck published after editing it a bit like some people have.

    I agree, broadly, that the term Mary Sue isn’t inherently sexist, although a lot of sexists use it on perfectly innocuous characters: Buffy Summers, Katara of Avatar, Fiona from Brave, Star Butterfly… the list could go on. But it bothers me that people do gloss over the more self-indulgent aspects of male wish-fulfillment characters. We’re as prone to wanting unconditional adoration and success as anyone else.Report