thedeadparrot: (crouching tiger)
thedeadparrot ([personal profile] thedeadparrot) wrote2010-04-11 09:43 am
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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.
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)

[personal profile] staranise 2010-04-13 07:14 am (UTC)(link)
I actually really agree with you. This is kind of complicated to explain.

To me, Mary Sues in the way everybody "really" means them (as the terrible overpowered insert of a juvenile author) aren't all that great; they don't contribute much to the fannish discussion, to fandom's body of work. Their essential purpose is as training pieces, to teach new authors how to do a whole bunch of different things. The problem with smacking Sue-authors down is because we teach them a lot of bad habits that restrict their writing.

Your points have been kind of hanging around this discussion for a year but never really coming out There have been criticisms made about Sues in the discussions I've been having over the past year, which is, most Sues do conform to kyriarchal standards. One of the really good differences I've seen pointed out between Sues and Stus is that Sues have attributes, like beauty and talent; Stus get possessions, like magic swords and laser rockets. Because the basic assumption is, you could pick a regular twelve-year-old boy off the street and he could be a hero; but no girl could ever succeed as just her. She's always too flawed, and needs to be pumped up beyond recognition before she can take on the enemy.

And you're right, that is really fucking problematic. In the middle of female empowerment, it says, "No girl could actually do this."

My argument, which I guess I felt I had to make really strenuously because there are so many people saying, "But I HAVE to be able to rip a thirteen-year-old to shreds! It's GOOD for her!" is that by shutting down authors, by mocking them and flaming them, which is acceptable behaviour in fandom, we are hurting all of us. What inspired me was not actually the plight of thirteen-year-old Suethors; it's women I know now in their early twenties who came into fandom, took one look at Deleterius, and said, "See if they ever catch ME writing a woman in public."

I think we need to find a way to catch Suethors and teach them how to build realistic female characters who can achieve things without being superpowered; while being fat or disabled or an ethnic minority or just plain normal. Which involves something different than what we've been doing for years, and needs people saying, "Okay, why are they all perfect and white?"

(Edited because my original comment sounded like I was saying, "Oh, nice points, but they've already been made before" when you're actually saying really intelligent and interesting things that I haven't heard before, and I don't want to diminish that.)
Edited 2010-04-13 07:24 (UTC)
majoline: picture of Majoline, mother of Bon Mucho in Loco Roco 2 (Default)

[personal profile] majoline 2010-04-14 01:28 am (UTC)(link)
I think the difference here is not to not leave good constructive criticism and 'help' the author out or ask to beta a story with potential, but rather that I think fandom is tired of putting up with people who will line-by-line mock a teenage girl's story, thus telling her that until she can write just like a 'real' author she has no place on the Internet.

it's women I know now in their early twenties who came into fandom, took one look at Deleterius, and said, "See if they ever catch ME writing a woman in public."

This is me. I have just had a major epiphany in the last couple of days: I too can try my hand at writing even if my first try is bad. I've spent the last ten years telling myself I had no place writing because my first collaborative effort was labeled sue-fic and I watched for four solid months while people who I had thought were friends (who didn't know I had a hand in the writing) tore our work to shreds.

I just don't know where the balance is. I'm leery of writing anything. What if I make a mistake? What if I insult someone? What if a woman I write is the center of a story? What happens if she practices femininity? What if I use a label or an adjective that hurts someone?

All I can see is that it's easier not to write anything at all.


(Anonymous) 2011-08-06 09:17 am (UTC)(link)
Didn't know the forum rules aloewld such brilliant posts.