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.
lilacsigil: Japanese girl writing (Write)

[personal profile] lilacsigil 2010-04-14 01:25 am (UTC)(link)
Speaking solely of fandom Mary Sues, I would go the other way - it's not the existence or plotlines of Mary Sues that is feminist or empowering, but the fact that girls and women are writing them. Girls are not putting off awesome onto male characters (as I often did as a teenager, when there were few geeky girl characters, and most of them were in Doctor Who) but going straight to "a girl is awesome!!1111!!!" It makes me happy.

Canon Mary Sues (the more prevalent male versions in particular) certainly do need analysis, and Mary Sue is a really good term for a character so fantastic that zie deforms the universe around the black hole of their amazingness. That character is problematic in exactly the way you define above, but, as we all might expect, most of the vitriol is thrown at the female versions, especially the fan-versions. This is why I'm not ready to say that the "token woman" is worse than no woman - Mary Sue is one step forward, but only one step.
mikes_grrl: (Default)

[personal profile] mikes_grrl 2010-04-15 12:59 pm (UTC)(link)

Privileging the author entirely over the reader is not something I believe in, and the overall conversation seems to be geared only at examining the authors' POV without ever considering the readers'.


Ooooo, you know what? I kind of missed this point. Doh.

The fact is, though, that readers need to learn to be responsible for themselves too. It is impossible to shield readers from anything and everything that might upset them (as which should be evidenced from the whole "warnings wank" thing), so it is more valuable to educate readers AND writers together as to why something is upsetting and how that problem can be addressed.

I understand the underlying issues you are addressing about power and cultural privilege and the reinforcement thereof. They are important issues. To me that's not even a question; the question is, "how to solve the problem?" And that solution is with the writers, moreso than the readers. Readers need to feel safe in explaining why they don't like something, but shaming the author is not a valid way to do it, which is what I believe the culture of "anti-mary-sue" does.

If, to everyone everywhere, "mary sue" meant "poorly realized self insert that supports negative stereotypes and cultural appropriation" I might feel differently, but it doesn't mean that universally. Then a reader could say, "dude, mary sue!" and a writer might learn from it. But as it is? No, that is not how it happens. The accusation of mary-sue comes laden with the burden of embarrassment and shame and mockery, and until we change that (or, ideally, stop using the term altogether) then we will be defeating our own purpose by allowing female writers to be shamed into NOT writing about female characters at all. How does that help, empower, or entertain the readers? I don't think it does.

Hopefully I'm making sense, I haven't had my coffee yet....