Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Meet Mary Sue Part One: Who is Mary Sue, Anyway?

Today you will meet Starfleet Lieutenant Mary Sue, the hottest, smartest, most awesome girl in the galaxy.

So much so, she sucks.

Birth of a blog post

I started working on a post about how readers’ brains function when reading fiction. It turns out neuroscience is more complicated than bitching about deus ex endings or kissing Anton Chekhov’s ass. After hours of research with nothing but data –which I love, yay data– I realized that bad boy is (a) a series, not a post; and (b) going to take about a Master’s thesis of research and a month to write if I’m going to do it justice.

Shit.

Not wanting to leave my throngs (read: fifty-five, and I love you all) of followers hanging for a month while I geek out on brain science, I put out a call for suggested topics. The first request I got was from my friend Kodi, who asked:

Could you do a post on something about “Mary-Sues?” Not, like, explaining what they are, but how they’re perceived by others and how in this day and age (especially in YA) lots of characters with the slightest confidence in themselves or whatever end up being called “Mary-Sue.” Especially if they’re female.

(An example I often hear is Katniss, who I wouldn’t consider a Mary-Sue–maybe a less emotionally developed person– especially after the train-wreck of events in Mockingjay…)

Katniss is a Mary Sue? What the fucking fuck is up with that? Does that mean Batman is a Gary Stu? ROFLMAO.

Less than two hours later, someone posted a question about Mary Sues on the watercooler, because of a making-the-rounds blog post about Mary Sues — one that seems to be creating some of this controversy:

So, there’s this girl. She’s tragically orphaned and richer than anyone on the planet. Every guy she meets falls in love with her, but in between torrid romances she rejects them all because she dedicated to what is Pure and Good. She has genius level intellect, Olympic-athelete level athletic ability and incredible good looks. She is consumed by terrible angst, but this only makes guys want her more. She has no superhuman abilities, yet she is more competent than her superhuman friends and defeats superhumans with ease. She has unshakably loyal friends and allies, despite the fact she treats them pretty badly.  They fear and respect her, and defer to her orders. Everyone is obsessed with her, even her enemies are attracted to her. She can plan ahead for anything and she’s generally right with any conclusion she makes. People who defy her are inevitably wrong.

God, what a Mary Sue.

I just described Batman.

Which again raises the question, what the fucking fuck?

So Katniss is a Mary Stu and if Batman were a girl instead of a boy, he’d be a Mary Sue, so pretty much everybody is a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu?

I don’t think so.

I’m gonna start by explaining what they are

Sorry, Kodi, but you should know better. That’s how I start analyzing everything. When we know where something came from and its original context, we usually have a better handle on what we’re talking about. Mary Sue is no exception, although we aren’t taking our normal trip back to ancient Greece or Roman scholarship or even fourteenth century etymology. You see, there really was a Mary Sue. Her ancient origins? A parody piece of Star Trek fan fiction. Before you had to say TOS about Star Trek, because there was one Star Trek.

A Star Trek fan with a sense of humor named Paula Smith penned a piece of parody fan fic entitled A Trekkie’s Tail for the fanzine “the Menagerie” in 1974. Ms. Smith had noticed that most Trekkie fan fic was the same basic story: A supersmart, superhot, superyoung (i.e., the same age as the author) character shows up on the bridge of the Enterprise. Everybody adores her, wants to do her, and goes on adventures with her. Good thing she’s there, too, because she saves everybody’s ass, since she’s the smartest, coolest, and hottest person in the galaxy. Then she often dies and is mourned by all (because of said smartness, coolness, and hotness). Justifiably annoyed by the accumulation of fan fic garbage, Ms. Smith penned her own parody. It stars, you guessed it, Lt. Mary Sue, the youngest, hottest, and smartest girl in Starfleet.

So, without further ado, here is the original text of:

A TREKKIE’S TALE

By Paula Smith

“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.” Captain Kirk came up to her.

“Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?”

“Captain! I am not that kind of girl!”

“You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.”

Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. “What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?”

“The Captain told me to.”

“Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.

But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies , Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.

However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday of the Enterprise.

You have now officially met Lt. Mary Sue, the youngest, hottest, and smartest girl in Starfleet. The girl so awesome that an entire trope is named for her. Substitute the Captain wanting to do her for Nurse Chapel checking his junk on the elevator, maintain the same level of awesomeness (i.e., turn it into a male author’s self-insertion fantasy) and you have Gary Stu, Mary Sue’s male counterpart.

Two years after Smith’s parody, the editors of the fanzine that originated the name used it to identify the kind of stories they hate:

Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in  everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [meaning, of course, Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.

Born of parody and forged in sarcasm, Mary Sue is, generally, little more than an adolescent wish fulfillment fan fic author avatar. Its meaning has been broadened a tad, now encompassing all adolescent-level wish fulfillment fantasy stories, inside and outside fan fiction. Broadened beyond that, you have people incorrectly labeling characters Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) even if they don’t belong in that category. Like, for example, Katniss Everdeen and Batman.

This Batman is not a Mary Sue:

image

Douchey Batman is, um, well, yea:

But this was a freaking parody, too!

What are the Elements of a Mary Sue?

All of the politics aside (any guesses what my next entry is about?), the core elements of a Mary Sue (you too, Gary) are straightforward. It’s a character who is so awesome she manages to be simultaneously a one-dimensional cardboard cutout and the epicenter of the universe. Not only is she bland and uninteresting herself, she also makes all of the other characters around her bland and uninteresting by sucking all of the oxygen out of every room she enters. Because she must be the smartest, fastest, most clever and amazing person in the universe, Captain Kirk and everyone else just hang out, basking in her awesomeness, while she takes care of everything. Mary Sue is an author avatar on steroids (and meth, with narcissistic personality disorder). Obstacles crumble before her, no group excludes her. The Three Musketeers order new stationary saying the Four Musketeers the minute she gets off her horse.

In short, it’s crappy writing. The character is entirely about the writer fulfilling the writer’s needs — like a selfish lover, paying no particular attention to whether the reader is enjoying herself or not.

A character is not a Mary Sue just because she is interesting, strong, smart, or attractive. It gets harder as you pile more of those elements onto a character, but even a character with all of those attributes is not, necessarily, a Mary or a Gary. More than anything, what defines a Mary Sue (for me) is her relationship with the other characters. As soon as she is one among equals, and not the object of near or total adoration from everyone else in her universe, she is not a Mary Sue. If she is a participant in the story — not the center of gravity, around which all other story elements orbit like fawning moons circling a planet of hot awesomeness — she’s not a Mary Sue. Unless other characters are rendered less interesting or competent or independent because of their love of and/or (but usually just “and”) reliance on her awesomeness, she is not a Mary Sue.

Because most of the Mary Sue “controversy” comes from people mislabeling characters as Mary Sues, or believing other people do, or something else with its roots in an incorrect definition of what a Mary Sue really is, the only place to start the discussion is with a clear understanding of what that term/trope means.

Kodi is right, “in this day and age (especially in YA) lots of characters with the slightest confidence in themselves or whatever end up being called ‘Mary-Sue.’ Especially if they’re female.”

Which is idiotic –to the extent said idiocy warrants an entire post of its own. The post Kodi was asking for in the first place; also known as “the one in which the hetero white male whose first language was the Rural Redneck dialect of English does a feminist rant.”

That comes next…

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12 thoughts on “Meet Mary Sue Part One: Who is Mary Sue, Anyway?

  1. Great to actually see the source material it’s based on. Can’t wait for the next piece – that’s where it gets interesting 🙂

  2. Wow, you learn something new everyday.

    Katniss is a strange one. I’ve heard people describe her as “heartless” but not yet a Mary Sue, though I always got the sense that her lack of emotion was what made her far from perfect and that little more interesting.

    • Thanks for commenting. I don’t get the heartless thing much more than a Mary Sue thing. I mean, the whole thing starts with her basically sacrificing her life for her sister, for God’s sake. No pleasing some people.

  3. Pingback: Meet Mary Sue Part Two: A feminist linguistic deconstruction | Michael J. McDonagh

  4. Kelekona on said:

    I like the definition that takes her effect on the people she interacts with into account. For role-play, the litmus tests make the distinction between the player forcing their will on the other players, and the other players deciding to fawn over her.

  5. If Batman or James Bond were a woman, I’m sure they will be called mary-sue, “whore” and bitch by men. It’s funny. Many people adding THEIR own definiton of mary sue. There’s another people think mary sue is a character that destroy the story or a boring character. Isn’t that the proof that mary sue doesn’t have exact description. Batman and Superman is the biggest gary stu ever and yet people love him. So what’s wrong female mary sue?

    • I’m kinda with you on James Bond (old school, the new movies have improved that) and Superman (who bores me, to be honest–I mean, he’s invulnerable, bad guy gets Kryptonite, he’s vulnerable, Superman gets past Kryptonite, he’s invulnerable again, yawn). Batman, far less so (as I discussed). I’m with you that there is some sexism embedded in the label, though (as part two of this series discusses).

      • Also, it’s funny when they mentioned Batman is gary stu, you immediately mention Katniss is mary sue. Is Katniss a genius millionaire playgirl? No? Hmmm… I smell double standart here.

        I bet you will hate female version of Batman. Female version of Batman will be a rich arrogant woman who sleep with countless men who is younger than her. She also fall in love with her villain, get pregnant by him and have illegitimate children. She also can beat Superman without kryptonite. She’s so powerfull that even can beat God. I bet female!Batman will be shoved to trash can and nobody will use her as main character in movie.

      • I’m not entirely sure you read my post. Or saw Batman.

  6. moonsummoner on said:

    I always took that quote about Batman to be more reflective of a double-standard, than a serious consideration of Batman as a Mary Sue… That if you had a narrative of a female character you could strip down to something that basic she’d be dismissed, but even though Batman can be stripped down that far, he’s still Batman. I think, to your point, Katniss is a good example of that… Katniss is an incredibly complicated, flawed character, but because she’s a female character in a role that isn’t about making a man look good in some way, her narrative is trivialized. Not to say that *doesn’t* happen to male characters, but not with the same frequency–but that was my take-away from that quote. Not that the author was calling Batman a Mary Sue, but more just making a point that if you remove the depth from a narrative you might come close to the Mary Sue trope, and male characters are far more often allowed to keep their depth than female.

    I like this post, though. I also didn’t know the origins of Mary Sue. I’m not surprised though, given that Star Trek originated most things fanfic…

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