thedeadparrot: (crouching tiger)
thedeadparrot ([personal profile] thedeadparrot) wrote2010-04-11 09:43 am
Entry tags:

My Problem With Mary Sues

So there's a few new conversations about Mary Sues that have come up lately:

on mary sue policing and why i cannot abide it by [personal profile] niqaeli
Such stuff as dreams are made on by [personal profile] staranise

I just wanted to make a point that hasn't really come up yet about how deeply problematic Mary Sues often are.

First off, I do have to say that a lot of gut-level hatred for Mary Sues tends to be overblown, and I will say that I did tend to experience such hatred when I was younger and more judgmental. I really don't believe that we should police anyone's desire to write Mary Sues, and I don't agree that we should shame people who write them.

But seriously, I am getting sick of hearing about how awesome and feminist Mary Sues are, because 90% of the ones I have read are predicated on the idea that the canon female characters are not good enough for the hero, and, of course, Mary Sue is there to give the hero someone he could ~*really love*~. One of my first fannish experiences with Mary Sues was in the Legend of Zelda fandom, where Link fell in love with a new girlfriend who was awesome because she could shoot arrows on horseback and because she was so much better than Zelda, that lame, prissy, jealous harpy. This was even in Ocarina of Time canon, where SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER happened, and I remember the gut-level anger I felt at the way the author dismissed Zelda that way. Because I like Zelda, and I really hated seeing her treated as if she were less than nothing, insignificant, in comparison to this new character who I had never met before, who I didn't even know.

Recently, I read a Jed/Abbey story where the two of them sort of got Stued/Sued, and everyone wanted to fuck one or the other of them, and all the other female character were so mean and also jealous of Abbey (except CJ, I think). Look, I love Abbey like crazy, which is why I was reading the story in the first place, but all the women except her were treated as if they were flawed for not being her, for not being beautiful and sexy and loved by everyone and having the perfect husband and having wonderful children. If this is our idea of empowerment, tearing down other women for not fitting into some perceived feminine ideal, I don't want into it.

And if you don't think that this fantasy is not harmful in any way, imagine being a WOC who identifies heavily with Uhura and then running into Spock/Mary Sue with long descriptions of how much more beautiful and amazing and better for Spock the white Mary Sue is than Uhura. Imagine that you're a WOC and once again, you're reading fic that reminds you that the ideal woman is not you and will never be you. Fantasies are not inherently unproblematic, not inherently unharmful. There's a reason why feminists are always calling out porn that's made for men, and a reason we're always calling out story lines/images/characters in our canons that are meant to titillate men. Yeah, fanfic does not have that same cultural power that our canons do, but to think that white women in fandom cannot harm WOC in fandom through their fantasies is something we've gone over before. And race is just one axis along which this true. There are many, many more.

I am not exempt from having my own Mary Sues in my head, and I'm sure a lot of us do, but you know what? I've had a few different ones since forever and at least half of them were white (while I am not). Some of them were even male. None of them were disabled, fat, transgendered, or lower class. Mary Sues will always be a power fantasy, and they're also a power fantasy that uses the kyriarchy's standards of power and importance. It's one thing to let these fantasies live in our heads. It's another to actually have them contributed to the fannish conversation.

I found this quote off of TigerBeatdown, and I think it hits on something important:
We seem to be special women here, we have liked to think of ourselves as special, and we have known that men would tolerate, even romanticize us as special, as long as our words and actions didn’t threaten their privilege of tolerating or rejecting us and our work according to their ideas of what a special woman ought to be. An important insight of the radical women’s movement has been how divisive and how ultimately destructive is this myth of the special woman, who is also the token woman.

- Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken”

Mary Sue the ultimate special woman, the ultimate token woman, and the ultimate celebration of her existence as a cultural construct. I can't embrace her, and I don't know why I would even want to. Yeah, it is true that the amount of vitriol directed at Mary Sue tends to be greatly disproportionate to the dangers of her existence. But don't tell me she is not problematic in other ways besides offending our sense of taste.
torachan: (Default)

[personal profile] torachan 2010-04-12 02:30 am (UTC)(link)
I have a whole other post brewing in my head about how both Mary Sue supporters and detractors are really horrible at defining what makes a Mary Sue so annoying

Oh man, I would so read the hell out of that post, because both sides seem to have embraced the spread of the term to mean not just every OFC, but most canon characters as well, and I'm left going, but wait, that's not it!

I do think Sues are a very specific type of writing, and it's not just that the character is an obvious self-insert or good at everything or whatever. I really like this old essay by [ profile] almostnever about why Sues feel "off".
elspethdixon: (Default)

[personal profile] elspethdixon 2010-04-13 04:52 am (UTC)(link)
I think that poster is spot on with this:

To me, the real key to what makes a Mary Sue is: the Mary Sue is always right. The narrative will always contrive to make it clear that no matter how smart or brave or caring the other characters are, if they disagree with Mary Sue, Sue is right and they are wrong. Even when the Sue's advice or choices seem outlandish or absurd, by sheer virtue of her Sueishness, Mary Sue is right.

Another definition I've seen is that Sues warp canon (or, if they're in an original work, objective reality) around them such that they become the center not only of their own story, but of everyone else's as well. All the other character are just there to prop up or tear down the Sue, rather than having character arcs of their own. Which is true to some extant of all protagonists, but for Sues, it's dialled up to eleven.

Which can make reasonably well-executed Sues (i.e. those that come in a story that also contains a coherent and well-paced plot and decent prose) a very effective fantasy for adolescent readers, or for the thirteen-year-old girl/boy in all of us. To a teenager, you *are* the center of the universe, and your pain *is* worse than anyone else's pain ever. And adolescent fantasies can be valuable and vital, but they can also be harmful. Ender of Ender's Game, for example, is reasonably well-written, but has both the center-of-the-universe and never-ever-wrong qualities in spades, and is a perfect and perfectly poisonous adolescent fantasy about being so special, martyred, and Right that any relatiation dealt out to others, even murdering one's classmates and committing genocide, is not only justified, but blameless and good.

I would have loved that story above all things had I read it as a middle schooler (and before I knew that OSC was a creepy bigot), but not for any remotely healthy reasons.
goodbyebird: Text: At this point 'Mary Sue' is applied to any character under the age of seventy who make it home without drowning. (failsauce)

[personal profile] goodbyebird 2010-04-13 05:24 pm (UTC)(link)
Another definition I've seen is that Sues warp canon (or, if they're in an original work, objective reality) around them such that they become the center not only of their own story, but of everyone else's as well. All the other character are just there to prop up or tear down the Sue, rather than having character arcs of their own.

This is pretty much my definition of a Mary Sue.
lady_ganesh: A Clue card featuring Miss Scarlett. (Chloe grin (smallville))

[personal profile] lady_ganesh 2010-04-14 12:51 pm (UTC)(link)
Mine too. And I think one of the reasons I'm agreeing with a lot of the defenders and those wanting to retire the term is that hardly anyone I see actually using the term uses that fairly strict definition.
goodbyebird: Sarah Connor Chronicles: Sarah looking serious. (SCC Sarah no fate)

[personal profile] goodbyebird 2010-04-14 01:03 pm (UTC)(link)
Any other definition really enforces the notion that there is no way a woman would be that awesome/capable/accomplished, and I am so not down with that. Makes me want to make Hatshepsut/Cleopatra/Catherine the Great/Elizabeth I/Joan of Arc/Annie Oakley/Marie Curie/Coco Chanel/Amelia Earhart/etc graphics that say "Hi, I'm a Mary Sue."
lady_ganesh: A Clue card featuring Miss Scarlett. (Default)

[personal profile] lady_ganesh 2010-04-14 01:19 pm (UTC)(link)
Add in Sojourner Truth and the Trung sisters and I think you've got the best icon ever.