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.
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[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!
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[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.
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[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.
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[personal profile] torachan 2010-04-12 02:40 am (UTC)(link)
This is a really important point. Thanks for writing about it.
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[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.
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[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.
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[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)
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.
merisunshine36: white rose floating candle (Default)

[personal profile] merisunshine36 2010-04-13 04:24 pm (UTC)(link)
I just wanted to cruise by and say YES and YES and maybe some more YES. We act like teens are too young and stupid to be taught that their words have meaning and power. Eff that noise, we should be correcting prejudices from day one. It is never too early to point out to someone the ways in which what they do is hurtful, and to steer them down a better path.
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[personal profile] la_vie_noire 2010-04-13 08:17 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you for this.
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[personal profile] scrollgirl 2010-04-13 10:11 pm (UTC)(link)
I agree with your general point, especially this: 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).

In high school I wrote a lot of drawer!fic, stories set in a high fantasy world populated mostly by white people. I had an ensemble of characters, 6 or 7 women and 4 men, and they were all my avatars in one way or another. I gave them beauty and intelligence and destiny and fantastical magic powers.

All of them where white.

It's kind of amazing that it took me getting into fandom to start thinking about characters, female and male, who weren't white.

OTOH, now that I'm more aware of how thoroughly I've been indoctrinated to believe white = normal, I can try to undermine that and create OCs in my fanfic who reflect minority experiences.
eyrane: (Default)

[personal profile] eyrane 2010-04-13 11:26 pm (UTC)(link)
So now I have to rethink how I feel about the issue.

Mary Sues, especially when used unironically in full rampant glory, are annoying as fuck. I've never had any argument with that. My problem was with readers who couldn't use the back button, or went looking for these things, in order to use it to entertain others. Because that's what Sue reports usually are: entertainment. They aren't often meant to say This is racist or This is internalized misogyny and they aren't limited to Sues that are problematic in that way; at least, I didn't see any such that I can remember, back when I was reading deleterious. I may be wrong.

But this horrified me:

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.

I like Mary Sue conceptually because she's often empowering. She's not exactly fun for other people to read - she's someone else's wish fulfillment, and I don't really have a pressing desire to see every author's id (which is part of why I got uncomfortable reading the Anita Blake books, but my problems with that series are legion and immaterial to this discussion, so I won't go on) - but, well: empowering. It's why I can be irritated at people who try to police Mary Sues, but have no desire to read them myself.

But that is not empowering. And your scenario with the Spock/Uhura/Sue triangle is not empowering. It makes me want to puke. These scenarios are about slapping women down, and I really really hate that, which is where I was coming from when I was thinking "write what makes you happy no matter what!"

So. I guess what I meant by my tl;dr here is that I hadn't seen all sides of the argument, and I am pleased to be informed when I might be doing something problematic, so thank you for this post.

I still think it's dangerous to wholly deride Mary Sue, just as it would be to fully embrace her. The term is just too loaded for it to be any one thing.

But you know, actually, I think the other place that this is all coming from might be because Mary Sue and Original Female Character often seem to read as synonymous. Nothing in this round of "Why I Love Mary Sue" has seemed to me to be saying "Because I Like to Hate Canonical Women." I think it's just an attempt to claim and transform a term that can be unfairly applied and keeps getting increasingly derogatory.
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[personal profile] starlady 2010-04-13 11:26 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, what a great post. Thank you.
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here from metafandom

[personal profile] dharma_slut 2010-04-13 11:37 pm (UTC)(link)
and I am one of the people who have been castigating the anti-sue crowd bullies -- for quite a while, now, at that.

And you bring up a really important point, and one that I am going to remind myself and other people about in this debate because yeah-- Bashing the female love interest in favor of one's preferred pairing is totally sucks and makes my head blow up. In my defense of the self-insertion instinct, I did forget about that part of it and how often it can happen.

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[personal profile] mutecornett 2010-04-14 12:00 am (UTC)(link)
michelel72: (DW-Donna-Spooky)

[personal profile] michelel72 2010-04-14 12:29 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you.
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[personal profile] mikes_grrl 2010-04-14 12:31 am (UTC)(link)
I really feel like you are confounding several ideas here:

1. That Mary-Sue "supporters" (such as myself) love all Mary Sue fic and champion it. I don't; bad writing is bad writing, I don't care how canon OR how mary sue your story is. My support is in the right of the author to write what she wants to write.

2. That everyone agrees on a definition of mary sue. If you've found a fandom-wide accepted definition of mary sue, let me know, because I haven't, and I've been looking.

3. That all Mary Sues are constructs of the culturally privileged; that WOC mary sues don't exist, or if they do, they are defacto not mary sues.

Comments such as this:
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.
Assumes that your definition of mary sue as "the ultimate special woman, the ultimate token woman, and the ultimate celebration of her existence as a cultural construct" is the only or the only correct one. Which it isn't.

I'm not saying that given your definition of mary-sue fic, that your points are not good and valid. They are. I thought this was the most important point you made:
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.
Yes, I agree, completely. But wielding the sledge-hammer of "You wrote mary-sue fic! Be ashamed, be very ashamed!" only encourages a writer stop writing, not adjust her perceptions nor attempt to improve her skills. It convinces a new, uncertain writer that her fantasies are something to be ashamed of, not that there are social and cultural constructs to her story that she has perhaps never realized existed before.

I guess to me, the idea of being a "mary sue supporter" is more about offering a nurturing, supportive environment for writers to learn from their mistakes, as opposed to an oppressive environment that punishes for sins/faults that the writer may not even be aware of.
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[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.

here from my lj flist

[personal profile] ex_lucidity482 2010-04-14 03:02 am (UTC)(link)
This is an excellent post. I've been reading (and responding to) the recent discussion about Mary Sues and while I heartily agree with the idea that the underlying misogyny of the sporking culture and the way it makes women terrified to write women being awesome is extremely problematic, you bring up a great bit of intersectionality that wasn't being directly addressed. And one that is done great disservice by the takeaway that all Mary Sues are harmless and empowering. Empowering one person at the expense of another isn't actually empowering at all.

For me, reading the discussions of sporking culture's lasting effects was automatically framed through my own experience and involvement in it. Namely, that I ended up so, so, so afraid of becoming one of those people who I was, at that time, participating in mocking that I didn't want to invent characters like me (even in original fiction) or focus on canon characters like me. This was because I'd internalized the idea that if it could be seen as representative of me then it was a self-insert (or in the case of canon characters being used as a self-insert) and if it was a self-insert it was a Mary Sue. And I only fully turned away from that neurosis (or started to because, honestly, I'm not going to pretend I don't still worry whenever I'm writing a female character) after I accepted that my belief in the importance of illuminating and representing marginalized bodies in fiction meant that I couldn't sit around and not write black women just because I happened to be one.

As already acknowledged, there are so many clarity issues in the conversation due to the fact that Mary Sue as a term has essentially lost all meaning.

In the common vernacular, a Mary Sue is a power fantasy that reinforces racist/misogynist/ableist/etc. standards and usually warps the entire narrative around it to make itself superlative to the detriment of the other characters who might have been bucking those harmful standards. But in an equally common vernacular, a Mary Sue is also any random female character that the fanculture, under the influence of those same racist/misogynistic/ableist/etc. standards, decides is too awesome/intelligent/desirable/powerful/what have you.

Basically, you know that shit is fucked when both Uhura and the OFC invented for the sole purpose of humiliating and replacing her have been called the same thing.

[identity profile] 2010-04-14 03:54 am (UTC)(link)
Insofar as I've interpreted the discussion correctly, the people who wrote the linked essays and the people who agree with them don't seem to be arguing that a Sue - or a regular old OFC - can never be problematic. They're arguing that the dilation of the term "Mary Sue" until it encompasses every female character and half the real women in fandom is harmful, and that automatic knee-jerk rejection of EVERY Sue - even the ones who really are Sues according to sane definitions of the term - is harmful.

Besides, in your example above, it strikes me that the theoretical WOC might be just as upset to see Spock paired with Kirk, or T'Pring, or Christine Chapel. Those characters may be canonical, but isn't it still just as much of a value judgment being made, *if* the person in question is being presented as being sooo much better for Spock?

As for power fantasies... very few people out there fantasize about being disempowered. There are of course different ways to empower oneself in fantasy - sometimes I fantasize about not being fat, sometimes about a world in which being fat wouldn't automatically code me as unattractive, undisciplined and unworthy. And the thing I'm most against regarding the whole "Mary Sue police" thing is that if I wrote a character who was fat and yet still considered respectable and desirable, she'd be "unrealistic", and if I wrote a character who was fit or, god forbid, even slender but who could otherwise be said to resemble me, it'd be "wish-fulfillment" and either way, I'd be screwed.
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[personal profile] liopleurodon 2010-04-14 03:56 am (UTC)(link)
God, thank you. I have been frustrated with the "feminism of Mary Sue" posts that are going around because most Mary Sues are so inherently sexist in their construction that I cannot understand this rampant defense of them. It seems to me that many of the pro-Mary Sue posts are completely misinterpreting the concept of a "Mary Sue." 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. There is a lot more to Mary Sue-dom than that, and it has everything to do with the exaggeration of idealized and fetishized traits that society demands in a female. The traits that she is given that ostensibly undermine sexist hierarchies (her "power" traits) are equally fetishized by token of making her sexy via that very power. If she is a "strong woman" at all (a strength that is often undermined by a sexualized vulnerability), she is strong not for the virtue of being a strong woman, but for the purpose of being a strong woman who is therefore attractive to the male lead(s) (and everyone else).
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[personal profile] misstopia 2010-04-14 08:13 am (UTC)(link)
I have never yet heard this idea that Mary Sues are feminist O_O Feminism means a lot of things, including the right to be imperfect because it's, you know, human and normal. Being a Mary Sue is not the only way to be badass or attractive or successful or whatever else, it just means you can't lie outside the realm of plausibility. Sometimes people demand a character that absolutely cannot be criticized in any way to identify with, and that isn't about feminism IMHO.

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