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.
dharma_slut: They call me Mister CottonTail (Default)

[personal profile] dharma_slut 2010-04-14 04:50 am (UTC)(link)
It seems to me that many of the pro-Mary Sue posts are completely misinterpreting the concept of a "Mary Sue."

Yes, the term has been warped out of recognition. That's the problem.

And the fact that Mary Sue is a girl's name makes it even easier to misuse the concept. Our language is very fond of perjoratives that relate to the female sex, and can only describe men by way of a modifier. Mary Sue is one of those.
liopleurodon: (Default)

[personal profile] liopleurodon 2010-04-14 07:45 pm (UTC)(link)
While I appreciate the amorphous nature of fandom-originated or fandom-oriented vocabulary, I don't understand the value of conflating "Mary Sue" to be synonymous with "original female character." It completely defeats the purpose of having a term for the concept of a Mary Sue in the first place. As you say about pejoratives, I can understand wanting to "reclaim" the term "Mary Sue" from the pejorative meaning, but like I said above, I think that is completely missing the point of what the term Mary Sue actually refers to: a fetishized and anti-feminist construction.
dharma_slut: They call me Mister CottonTail (Default)

[personal profile] dharma_slut 2010-04-14 08:19 pm (UTC)(link)
I don't understand the value of conflating "Mary Sue" to be synonymous with "original female character."

Hey, I didn't do it-- but it's happened all over fandom. And it pisses me the hell off.

What purpose does that conflation serve? Well, the more amorphous a term becomes, the more it can be turned into whatever ad hoc tool a group deems necessary. And this one has been used as a tool to establish and maintain status. That's always a good enough motive for a lot of people.

I think that is completely missing the point of what the term Mary Sue actually refers to: a fetishized and anti-feminist construction.

Which is, if I may say, a definition I have never seen before.

One could very easily have a feminist character that overtakes and warps canon anyway.

Referring back to your originl post, you said;

It seems to me that many of the pro-Mary Sue posts are completely misinterpreting the concept of a "Mary Sue."

My response is that you are mistaking who, exactly, is misunderstanding the concept. The "pro mary sue" posters are not advocating mary sue charaacters per se. They are advocating the right of young women to make mistakes without being bullied by older women.
mary Sue" as it is being used in this debate is a metonym, a container for the thing contained, in james Thurber's lovely words.

An original female character, even one who is completely self-insert, or vaguely self-insert, or a love interest for the male lead, is not inherently a Mary Sue.

Yes, that is the other thing that the "pro mary sue posters" are saying.
liopleurodon: (Default)

[personal profile] liopleurodon 2010-04-15 12:54 am (UTC)(link)
Sorry, I should have been more clear about the "fetishized and anti-feminist" comment--I was in a bit of a rush. I didn't mean it as a definition, but rather something that I see as inherent in the composition of a true Mary Sue character, in that she plays into the sexist tropes of the feminine ideal. The Mary Sue's author doesn't do this consciously or at all realize how very, very heavily her character is playing into and reinforcing the patriarchy; it's simply a reflection of the societal values that she's internalized. So I don't critique the Sue's author for doing this. It's not her fault and Sues are, to be honest, a nearly inevitable and ubiquitous aspect of a writer's trajectory. But I do take issue with the claim that Sues themselves are feminist.

My response is that you are mistaking who, exactly, is misunderstanding the concept. The "pro mary sue" posters are not advocating mary sue charaacters per se. They are advocating the right of young women to make mistakes without being bullied by older women.

Not to repeat what I just typed, but I definitely agree with those posters that young authors should be allowed to make mistakes/write Sues/write anything they want without being bullied. Absolutely. But that's not the only claim I've been seeing in these pro-Sue threads, and I have definitely seen the Sue defended as a feminist construct.

An original female character, even one who is completely self-insert, or vaguely self-insert, or a love interest for the male lead, is not inherently a Mary Sue.

Yes, that is the other thing that the "pro mary sue posters" are saying.


That seems counter-intuitive to their argument?
dharma_slut: They call me Mister CottonTail (Default)

[personal profile] dharma_slut 2010-04-15 01:38 am (UTC)(link)
well, the bullet points might be;

1) Girls need space to fuck up in. They should not be bullied in their creative endeavors. It really does less harm to a young girl to write a barbie doll version of her identity once or twice, than it does for her to be told that her MARY SUE IS AN ABOMINATION AND SHE WILL BE A SUETHOR FOREVERMORE.

2) The term "Mary Sue" has been applied to nearly every female character that shows agency and ability, including canon characters. As you, and so many other people point out, that is pushing the definition far past its proper bounds, and is also anti-feminist at the least. The term should not be used in such a manner if at all, and perhaps (definitely,in my opinion) has become too sullied by usage to be useful for any use, including the original one.

3) That (and this is side issue perhaps) one of the reasons the term has become so egregious is because it is gendered.
liopleurodon: (Default)

[personal profile] liopleurodon 2010-04-15 01:55 am (UTC)(link)
1) trufax

2) You raise a good point about the waters being so muddied that the term "Mary Sue" is no longer effective. But I think the physical aspect of the [original] Sue is still one that merits recognition and critique, and to that end it helps significantly for it to have a name. Perhaps a new vocabulary is in order?

3) I think part of the gendering of Mary Sue is that:
a) in fandom works, which are mostly written by women, the vast majority of OCs and Mary Sues are female. You do see Gary Stus, but they are rarer.
b) in canon works, there are a hell of a lot of Gary Stus who simply don't get recognized as Gary Stus because the patriarchy accepts that playing into all of the stereotypes of the ultra-masculine is a good thing. The Mary Sue is in a much more difficult position because she is trying to pander to the patriarchy and to the desire for female autonomy at the same time.