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.
roga: (fnl: jess ♥)

[personal profile] roga 2010-04-11 05:09 pm (UTC)(link)
I can't remember reading read any fics with Mary Sues for really long time, but I love your thoughts on this. Also thank you for the reminder that Mary Sues aren't just original characters, but that fictional characters can be Mary Sued as well, and that it has an impact.
sophinisba: Gwen looking sexy from Merlin season 2 promo pics (gwen by infinitesunrise)

[personal profile] sophinisba 2010-04-11 05:25 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks for this! I've tended to see Mary Sue condemnation as misogynist and really hadn't given much thought to the way these special characters get used to put down other female characters, including women of color. I think that's partly to do with me starting out in a fandom where OFCs were pretty much the only way to get any female characters at all, but you make great points here.
zulu: (sga - teyla/sora)

[personal profile] zulu 2010-04-11 07:21 pm (UTC)(link)
*nods* Well said. That's an excellent quote, too. I'll be very interested in your meta on what makes a Mary Sue annoying, at some point in the future when you don't have deformed surfaces breathing down your neck!
minoanmiss: (La Parisienne)

[personal profile] minoanmiss 2010-04-11 07:35 pm (UTC)(link)
I came here from agreeing with the essays you linked to, and I... am of two minds.

I agree that the problems you describe are problems -- I am a woman of color and I've *seen* the story where Spock falls in love with someone who is So Much More Awesome Than Uhura and it was all I could do not to vomit, not to flame the author. I hate OFCs that are there to say that the canon female characters are lacking, and I agree with you that they're awful.

BUT. I hate slash like that too (the kind of slash where the male characters get together because the canon female love interest is depicted as a horrible person -- for example, I've also seen the Kirk/Spock stories where Kirk is so much better for Spock and Uhura can't love Spock like Kirk does, and I find them equally as disgusting) and I still disagree vehemently with the people who say that its existence is a reason no one should write or read slash. I don't think all these problematic fantasies, terrible as they can be, are a reason to stop writing OFCs, which is the most common suggested solution I've seen to the problem of Mary Sues.

I don't think every OFC has to do what you've described. For example, I created a LOTR hobbit character once to be the betrothed of a minor canon hobbit character, so I could write about the effect of the Ruffians' occupation of the Shire on the hobbits' lives. To do so, I had to deal with my own fears of being labeled a "Mary Sue writer and thus not worth reading" and had to fence with a couple of people who cast that label at me. There were no canon love interests for her to push aside, and every reason for her to exist, and I still think years later that the concept of Mary Sue did me no good service in creating that character and her stories.

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.

I certainly don't want that either. Not at ALL. But I respectfully submit that avoiding creating OFCs may be one way to avoid doing that but it is not the only nor, in the end, the most productive.
marina: (Default)

[personal profile] marina 2010-04-11 07:38 pm (UTC)(link)
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.

YES, THIS. I'm generally sick of the meme that shows that have That One Token Woman and make her a Mary Sue are totes giving us this great gift we just haven't learned to appreciate. No thank you, I'd rather have a few flawed characters than one stupidly "special" one.
marina: (Default)

[personal profile] marina 2010-04-11 08:48 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeeah you're totally right actually, I wrote an entry about it (and linked to your entry) and realized halfway through we were talking about slightly different things. Sorry! I just got back from classes and it's been a long day. I do still totally see your point and agree with it though.
rabidsamfan: samwise gamgee, I must see it through (quest)

[personal profile] rabidsamfan 2010-04-12 01:35 am (UTC)(link)
Wonderful food for thought. (This whole discussion has been!) I haven't quite made up my mind quite yet, although I have found two cents to throw into the pot.

I have read stories with characters who are clearly "Mary Sues" of the authorial insert variety, and those characters are black, or handicapped, or fat, too. Not always and not often, but it has happened. And some of them were there to fall in love with, and be loved by, male characters, regardless of who that male character might love canonically. So does that kind of story empower a woman/girl who is not "perfect"? Or is it possible that that kind of story might empower a girl or woman who is bold enough to make her authorial insert a more accurate avatar of her own person? And does casting stones at all authorial insert type characters make it less likely that a writer will put a character who reflects her own situation into her stories?

Perhaps a better way of critiquing the phenomenon "perfect woman who pushes out the WOC" kind of story is to phrase it in that way, instead of using the "Mary Sue" term which clearly has spawned definitions now that some of us who have been in fandom for a while never meant to attach to it.
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 [livejournal.com profile] almostnever about why Sues feel "off".
torachan: (Default)

[personal profile] torachan 2010-04-12 02:40 am (UTC)(link)
This is a really important point. Thanks for writing about it.
rabidsamfan: samwise gamgee, I must see it through (Default)

[personal profile] rabidsamfan 2010-04-12 03:39 am (UTC)(link)
Now that's interesting, because I have never felt shut out by a "Mary Sue" -- not even the really blatant self-inserts. I've empathized with some of them, cheered others on, been annoyed by some, amused by others, felt patronizing about many, and felt the urge to smile and say, "oh, I remember writing like this" by quite a few. But I've never felt shut out.

And I think the difference may lie in how I'm defining MS and how you are. (And quite possibly in the fact that I am not a person of color, and am well known for being clueless about subtleties of social interactions.)

And now I'm going to have to think harder.
softestbullet: Aeryn cupping Pilot's cheek. He has his big eyes closed. (Foto/ when the truth goes BANG)

[personal profile] softestbullet 2010-04-12 01:18 pm (UTC)(link)
This post is awesome. Thank you.

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.

Wow, yeah.
dagas_isa: Kanzaki Nao from Liar Game (Default)

[personal profile] dagas_isa 2010-04-13 03:01 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you for writing about this.

While not all Mary Sue fantasies are problematic, a lot of them can be especially if they're empowering the author (or those like the author) at the expense of others.
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.
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)
cesy: "Cesy" - An old-fashioned quill and ink (Default)

[personal profile] cesy 2010-04-13 07:57 am (UTC)(link)
I think part of the problem is that people were starting to use Mary Sue to mean any OFC, and criticising any OFC at all. It got to the point where a lot of people avoided writing any OFCs, because you couldn't do it without someone sporking it for being Mary Sue-ish.

But yes, it's a good point that we should have more OFCs and more writing about female characters of all kinds, not just the kinds that the kyriarchy approves of.
chronolith: (Default)

[personal profile] chronolith 2010-04-13 12:30 pm (UTC)(link)
Following a link from [personal profile] staranise.

What I find problematic with Sue bashing is that people who decide to go be Mary Sue police decide to do so because its a fun way to beat up on someone 'weaker' than they are. Not that I'm saying you are condoning this, but I do think you give it a pass. At least in your post. Because the harm done by a Mary Sue is greater than the harm done by the bullying done by Fandom Wank, the Sue Police, and deleterious--or whatever those FYAD wannabees call themselves. And I'm not cool with that.

While there are decided issues with certain types of 'Mary Sues'--and this is a term which could use some definitional work because it can mean pretty much anything these days--it's not just that "the level of vitriol directed a Mary Sue tends to be greatly disproportionate to the dangers of her existence" its that bashing on Mary Sue obscures any sort of more nuanced criticism of her or Marty or just fandom's issues in general.

Because the sort of internalized misogyny that you are describing pops up in slash on a routine and rather worrying basis. How many times have you read a Kirk/Spock fic where Uhuru is pushed to the side as not worth even discussing? And there women are so tainted, so imperfect that there is no way that even the canonical love interest could really be the love interest, it has to be the other guy.

Also, how often does this sort of self-loathing lead to people calling a well-written, ass-kicking canon female character as a Mary Sue? Rinoa being a Sorceress in control of her power is a Mary Sue, but Squall commanding an entire country at 17 is just normal. Um, What?

The thing that I keep circling back around to is this idea that we shouldn't do harm to each other through our writing. What you are describing certainly does harm, however the fannish 'antidote' to this harm--which doesn't even address the harm in the first place, just hides it--causes harm itself. Because how many of the writers writing these types of Sues have any idea what the kyriarchy is? I think there are ways of engaging immature writers without shredding their egos the way FW does.

But then I'm a goon and I write femmeslash pretty exclusively so the ways of the fen are often boggling to me.

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