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 Two: A feminist linguistic deconstruction

On the surface, Mary Sue doesn’t present much of a problem. Good writing requires careful execution, and Mary Sues are paragons of poor execution. In a nutshell, they are extremely poorly developed characters whose stunted development is so dense, it creates a gravity field the story cannot escape. The story becomes one of author wish fulfillment at the expense of story development. In short, she sucks so much that it is impossible for a story including her (which means a story revolving around her awesomeness) not to suck as well.

Problem solved. Mary Sues suck, don’t write them, end of story.

But it’s not. I have serious reservations about the label Mary Sue. Specifically, I have big-ass reservations from the term from a feminist linguistic perspective that make me hate the term. Unfortunately, I also have huge problems with most of the feminist discourse about Mary Sue, because it largely points to nonexistent problems to create a strawman (er, strawperson) argument. I’m not thrilled about picking their arguments apart, since I largely agree with the conclusions they are trying to reach. But there are much better and more straightforward ways to criticize the portrayal of women (or the reactions to those portrayals) than shoehorning them into Mary Sue through a logical fallacy. That, and they are completely missing the core problem the Mary Sue trope presents from a feminist/linguistic perspective.

The character development criticism the Mary Sue label attempts to assail –poorly drawn characters suck so much they kill innocent stories– is a valid criticism. Pretending it’s not misses the point entirely. And, since the standard feminist critique relies on a logic fallacy to criticize a legitimate argument about writing, it gives the false appearance that feminist criticism of Mary Sue is invalid. It also gives the impression that the feminist critique of Mary Sues –that strong female characters are often, if not usually, poorly portrayed and received in fiction– misses the boat, which it doesn’t. That’s a completely legitimate concern. It’s also a different concern, that gets lost when you try to make Mary Sue the core problem.

It’s not that I’m pro Mary Sue

Two things here. First, if you’re writing fiction for other people to consume, I have no problem saying you should never write a character who even comes close to being a Mary Sue. Nobody in her right mind is going to tell you that it is a good thing to put your own, overly idealized and poorly drawn author avatar into a story so that you can allow all other characters to fawn over you – er, her. It’s bad character development, it’s bad storytelling, there is no upside for the reader. Just, don’t.

Second, if you are simply writing for your own pleasure, feel free to write Mary Sue adventures all you want. This blog is about fiction writing for consumption by third parties. Some fiction writing is almost a form of therapeutic journaling, and a completely different set of standards apply. One standard, really, because you should just write whatever the hell you want. There is a pretty good argument to be made that, particularly for girls and women, writing Mary Sue adventures can be empowering and beneficial. Actually, that argument has already been made, in  (Re)Writing Mary Sue: E ´ criture Fe ´ minine and the Performance of Subjectivity. That is not the kind of writing I’m talking about. This analysis applies solely to fiction that will (at least potentially) be consumed by third parties.

The current feminist critique of Mary Sue misses the boat completely

The whole “every strong female character gets labeled Mary Sue” argument is bullshit. So is “Batman would be a Mary Sue if he were a woman.” I’m not saying that no idiot has ever posted an asinine opinion on a message board or Yahoo answers saying otherwise, but I have not found any serious review, criticism, or deconstruction of Hunger Games that actually takes that position. By way of comparison, I also Googled “Han Solo is gay” and found similar sources arguing that the guy who spent ten years trying to get into Princess Leia’s pants was really after Luke or Lando, so that’s the level of discourse those critiques are pointing to as an indictment.

BONUS MATERIALS: In case you’re wondering what Hunger Games would be like if Katniss were a Mary Sue, my friends at QueryTracker wrote it. It follows as the epilogue to this post.

The Batman argument is also just a logic fallacy wrapped in another logic fallacy and topped with a bunch of cherry picking. But you can still glean a little bit of the truth of the Mary Sue problem from the misused example. Using any objective measure possible, from box office receipts to critical and audience approval on Rotten Tomatoes to, my favorite, which movies Michael McDonagh thinks are awesomer, you get one result. The more conflicted and complex Batman is, and the more he must struggle to obtain his goals in the movie, the better everyone on the freaking planet thinks the movie is. I.e., the less those cherry-picked aspects of Mary Suism are present, the better everyone liked the movies. So, no, Batman did not get away with being Mary Sue because he’s a dude. The movies worked because he was decidedly NOT a Mary Sue. The less of a Mary Sue he was, the better the movies did.

Although they did make one movie that is pretty close to Batman Sue. The Green Hornet was essentially Batman without the psychologically conflicted, guilt ridden vigilante aspect. It also lost money. That movie gives us a pretty good point of comparison. Here is the difference between Batman and the Green Mary Sue(ish) kind of guy.

Critics

Audience

Receipts

The Dark Knight

94%

94%

$534,858,444

Green Hornet

43%

44%

$98,780,042

BECAUSE THE POINT HERE, AND IT IS AN IMPORTANT ONE, WHICH IS WHY I’M YELLING, IS THAT NOBODY GETS AWAY WITH POORLY DEVELOPED CHARACTERS THAT SUCK. Ever. Even with a $120 Million budget and special effects and big name stars and shit. People loved Batman because of the decidedly non-Mary Sue aspects of the story.

So, please, cut that shit out. It isn’t adding anything to the discourse, and there is discourse that needs to be happening. Instead, we’re dinking around with flawed arguments, logic fallacies, and heated responses to things that nobody said in the first place.

Gendered Discourse: the part we should be pissed about…

If you haven’t noticed (and I kind of hope you haven’t, because that means I’m doing it well), I pay attention to the gendered use of language. My standard nongendered pronouns usually default to she, I wouldn’t consider calling any individual other than myself a bitch, etc. There is a spectrum of discoursive feminism, and for an American (and certainly for a hetero white dude from Idaho), I’m pretty far on the feminist side. I basically go right up to the point on that spectrum where I would have to stop using the word fuck if I took one more step. I stop there, because, fuck that.

So, to me, the biggest problem that exists with the Mary Sue label is its name. The name was an accident of history, and there was certainly no evil intent at play when a parody story was penned naming the main character Mary Sue. But it stuck. And I suspect some (a lot) of that sticking power comes from the fact that it was a tropey, intentionally gendered name. Standing in isolation, it wouldn’t cause me a lot of heartburn, but we live in a society that often uses the feminine in discourse in harmful ways. At best, it can be used to diminish (e.g., every word you’ve ever seen ending in the feminizing suffix “ette” meaning diminished or smaller). A step worse, is blatant classification according to gender (notice there is no such thing as a doctoress, and nurses get their job title from breastfeeding). Then it gets ugly, using the feminine to denigrate (if you have a sister you love, you should be annoyed every time you hear someone referred to as a “sissy”).

Had the main character been male, the level of disparagement associated with the label would have been significantly diminished. Odds are, the trope would be less associated with the particular character and we would call it a fanvitar or something. Originating with an exceptionally female name made it far more likely the name would become the label, because we live in a historically patriarchal society that freaking LOVES to use the feminine to denigrate. Political rhetoric (particularly rhetoric advocating for war and violence) relies heavily on denigration opposing views by feminizing them. If you have a Nexus account and want to see a study of that in practice where the shit really hits the fan, check out The Rhetoric of Sissy-Slogans: How Denigrating the Feminine Perpetuates the Terror Wars in the Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice.

So Mary Sue, having such a Mary Sueish name, was like glue for something bad in search of a name.

On the other side of the coin, language not only reflects social reality, it also creates that reality. “In other words, it shapes how we see ourselves and the world. If language use is constitutive rather than indexical, then it has the potential to help establish and maintain social and power relations, values and identities, as well as to challenge routine practice and contribute towards social change.” Goueffic, Louise, Breaking the patriarchal code, 1996.

That little bit of zing implicit in saying someone’s a “Mary Sue” instead of merely saying “poorly developed author avatar character that sucks” has a name. That name is sexism.

The problem with the Mary Sue label is not –as most of the feminist criticism currently claims –that characters who are not Mary Sues are being labeled that. From what I can find, that’s a fiction. But there is a very real problem in using such a distinctively feminine label as an insult cum criticism. That’s something we do all the fucking time, because our society has some pretty backward ass views on “feminine” and “insulting” being the same thing. And while I am all for eradicating characters with the poorly developed qualities of the character Mary Sue in the original Star Trek fan fiction, the criticism should not be wrapped up in the name “Mary Sue.”

This is where I circle back to where the original feminist critique landed. Although I think the rationale behind the criticism is, well, wrong, the potential harms they point to are legitimate. If anything, I think they are worse. Use of feminine labels to disparage things generally is bad. But the Mary Sue label, which is gendered as hell right out of the gates, is bound to more readily self-censor females writing female characters. And, since all of us write shitty, poorly developed characters who probably represent more self-fulfillment than we should for the first few (hundred) thousand words, the impact of that censorship could be severe. Particularly if it’s self-imposed.

Which puts women writing female action characters on a very narrow path. Maybe even a tightrope. On one side is Mary Sue, and on the other is the hyper-sexualized female action hero one writer dubbed the fighting fuck toy (FFT). There is plenty of room for well developed characters in there, and there is also room for legitimate criticism of poorly developed characters. There should, however, be no room for denigration based on the feminine nature of even those characters that stray over the line.

There are things to be concerned about with regard to the Mary Sue label. Batman and Katniss being Mary Sues are not among of them. That said, from a discoursive linguistic point of view, the trope and the label are almost certainly harmful and unnecessary. A shitty character who makes a book suck for that particular group of reasons doesn’t need a feminizing label any more than shitty characters who make books suck for any other reason. The focus needs to be on the quality of the writing.

Epilogue: The Mary Sue Hunger Games

By Bowden and Kodi

Scene District 12.  A cock crows.  Two girls rise from bed.

Prim:  Morning, Katniss.
Katniss:  Morning, Prim.  You’re looking lovely this morning.
Prim:  I wish I looked as lovely as you.
Katniss:  Oh, pshaw.  You’re like all blonde and pretty and stuff.  I’m like dark and skinny and crap.
Prim:  Oh, yeah?  Then how come I don’t have a bunch of hot guys following me around everywhere I go?
Katniss:  Them?  They’re just being polite and stuff.  They pity me because my dad dying and crap.  God damn, I’m hungry.
Prim:  Oh, no!  Why didn’t you say something sooner.  I’ll go milk my goat!

Mother enters

Mom:  Katniss.  How are you this morning.
Katniss:  (under her breathe) Well I’m cold and I’m hungry and I have a crick in my neck.  But if I tell you any of that, you’ll just be miserable worrying about me all day.  You deserve some happiness, so I’ll pretend I’m fine.
Mom:  What was that?
Katniss:  I said I’m fine.
Mom:  Are you sure?
Katniss:  Yes, mom, I’m sure.  Now leave me alone and think of yourself for a change.
Mom:  Ok, if you insist.  I just wanted to bring you this dress and draw you a bubblebath and brush your hair and give you a makeover with all this stuff that I just spent my life savings on.
Katniss:  Why?
Mom:  Because you’re the best daughter ever, and I can’t have people thinking I don’t appreciate it.
Katniss:  Whatever.
[An hour later there is a knock on the door]
Peeta: Wow!  You look beautiful!
Katniss:  No I don’t, but thanks anyway.
Gale:  Hey Katniss, I’m here to walk you to the quad.
Peeta: No, I’m here to walk her to the quad.
[Give each other dirty looks]
Katniss:  You can both walk me to the quad.  Peeta, can you, like, go get Prim?
[To Gale after he leaves]  I’m sorry I made out with Peeta.  I only did it to make you jealous.
Gale:  That’s ok.  I forgave you a long time ago.
Katniss:  Only, now, I’m like, starting to fall for him, so I can’t decide which of you I like better.
Gale:  Take all the time you need, Catnip.  I’m not going anywhere.
[Prim and Peeta return and they walk]
Peeta:  You know, Katniss.  You should consider becoming a career tribute.  You’d win for sure.
Gale:  Yeah.  Then we can all hang out together at the winners’ village.
Katniss:  No way.
Prim: Oh, come on.  The other tributes will surrender when they see how awesome you are.
Katniss:  You guys are so funny.
Prim:  Oh shoot.  They are drawing the names already.
Effie:  And the male tribute is:  Peeta Mallarky!
Peeta: Gack!
Gale:  Haha.  Guess who has two thumbs and is going to end up with Katniss by default.  This guy!
Prim:  Oh, snap!
Katniss:  Shush.  They are announcing the female tribute.
Effie:  And for female tribute:  Primrose Everdeen!
Prim:  No!  Oh, no!  They can’t pick me!  I’m the only doctor in the village!  What if Katniss gets sick!  I’m going to be so worried I won’t be able to sleep! I’ll lose for sure!
Katniss:  Fiiiiine.  I volunteer!
Crowd:  KAT NISS!  KAT NISS!  KAT NISS!
Prim:  Nooo!!!  You can’t take her!  I won’t let you!
Katniss:  Oh come, on Prim, you suck at fighting and you know it.  The guys are right.  I’m going to win for sure.

Scene: The Train Ride

A somewhat drunken man, a very enigmatic woman, and Katniss and Peeta sit eating:

Katniss: *gobbles everything*
Peeta: I wish I was you, Katniss. I’d love to eat everything and not worry about my figure.
Katniss: Oh, you look fine. I’m gaining weight! *is beautiful and skinny*
Haymitch: *drinks*
Katniss: Haymitch, stop drinking, we need to discuss strategies for the games
Haymitch: *Immediately throws the liquor out the window* Yes, whatever you say! But it won’t matter, because I’m sure you’ll win.
Katniss: You expect too much of me, I’m just a poor girl from district 12.
Peeta: *under his breath* Who has every boy trailing after her
Katniss: What Peeta? *flips hair*
Peeta: *twitterpated* Uh Gah
Katniss: Oh, we’re here, I guess we’ll meet our stylists now.
Effie: Like you’ll need them! You’re stunningly attractive as you are–the sponsors will fall over themselves to get to you! You on the other hand *side eyes a Twitterpated Peeta* will need some work.

[Katniss and the others enter the style room and the others are immediately shoved to the side by a hundred screaming stylists.]

Stylist 1:  It’s her!
Stylist 2:  OMG!  OMG!
Stylist 3:  Breathe!  Don’t forget to breathe!
Stylist 2:  [Hands Katniss a pen]  Will you autograph my shoulder?
[Katniss scribbles her name with a heart over the i]
Peeta:  I bet you’ll be never be washing that shoulder again.
Stylist 2:  Hardy har, smartacre.  It’s a tattoo pen.
[Katniss is mobbed by stylists stroking her arms and running their fingers through her hair]
Stylist 3:  How do you get your ringlets so perfectly tousled?
Katniss:  I dunno.  I kind of shake my head from side to side and it just falls that way.
Stylist 1:  Skin: Aphrodite Olive #2.  Hair: Dogwood Demigoddess #10.   [The other stylists furiously scribble into their tablets.]
Katniss:  I didn’t know I’d get so many stylists on my style team.
Effie:  [Laughs a high pitched laugh]  Don’t be silly! These are the stylists for the OTHER tributes.  They’re just here to try to poach some style tips from you.
Peeta:  Hey!  That’s cheating!
Katniss:  It’s ok, Peeta.  No sense in making this too easy for me.
Cinna:  Shoo. Get lost.  [All but three adoring stylists leave]  Hello, I’m Cinna, your wardrobe guy.  And these three are your stylists.
Katniss:  Charmed, I’m sure.
Cinna: I made you a charcoal-dust colored dress, but to be honest, I like what you’re wearing much better, so I’m just going to toss it in the trash.
Katniss:  This old thing?  Couldn’t you at least liven it up a bit.
Cinna:  What do you suggest?
Katniss: I don’t know, like maybe have flames shoot out of it, or something?
Cinna:  It’s genius!  I love it!

##Fin##

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8 thoughts on “Meet Mary Sue Part Two: A feminist linguistic deconstruction

  1. I’ve never engaged with any debate surrounding “mary sue” characters because to me it’s simply meaningless. When one writes a novel/story one writes about the world as one understands it and as you so correctly say what matters is how good/bad or engaging your writing is as a whole. A poor writer will create a poorly conceived character, a good writer an interesting one.

    Yet, characters and stories are always interesting on some levels because they reflect the social values, culture and life of the author – or they reflect something the author is trying to project. It seems likely to me that 70-80% of the time that an author is going to project him/herself into his/her main characters and so the Mary Sue criticism is utterly redundant as a criticism or as a way of talking about a text. For instance, I’ve heard Bella Swan be called a Mary Sue a bunch of times – this is pointless. When we talk about Twilight we should be discussing -a s criticism or otherwise -what Meyer’s world view is and how she’s projecting that through the characters and events in her books. “Bella is wish-fulfilment” doesn’t get us anywhere at all in my opinion. of course Bella is an avatar for Meyer, that’s part and parcel of the kind of story she’s writing … “how, why, what is she trying to say to us with it” and so on? Genre stories do have simpler “avatars” than literary fiction like Madame Bovary or whatever, of course, but they still have meaning in spades, whether they are good or not.

    Oh, also, I think Batman is a thoroughly interesting figure because he’s meant and represented a lot of different things over a nearly 100 year lifespan now. Batman isn’t just “that guy from the Christian Bale movies” he has a long history. He is a wish fulfilment figure … all superheroes are, but superhero fiction is very much about exploring the pros and cons of that kind of fantasy. That is the point.

    In short, I loved your little article and agree with a lot of it too. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wow, great comments, you make some really good points. Though there wasn’t a lot of “wish fulfillment” going on, pretty much every MC Hemingway wrote was an author avatar, too. And he was the first person to admit it.

  3. I’m a female of color. I am tired of middle aged white guys acting as if they can some how right everything in the world be screaming about it enough.

    Your default is “she”? That’s ridiculous.

    Look, we women don’t need some white guy who thinks he’s doing us a favor going to bat for us. We can do it on our own. I’m not trying to be rude, but implying that your”progressive” mentality is what will open doors for us is just a the manifestation of your own savior complex.

    You can be a feminist all you want, but some of us get offended by men who think they have to play the schoolyard mediator for us helpless women who are supposedly incapable of realizing that the terminology is sexist. We don’t need a male written blog post to tell us not to self censure because of a word. To imply such is offensive.

    I am sure yourv heart is in the right place, but we aren’t any less capable of recognizing this issue than you are.

    • Thanks for commenting, though we obviously have very different opinions.
      I’m a female of color. I am tired of middle aged white guys acting as if they can some how right everything in the world be screaming about it enough.
      So in an admittedly patriarchal society, you believe that it is wrong for people in the entrenched power class to voice opinions stating that the system is wrong? You are certainly entitled to that opinion, but if the right to point to such problems is limited only to the disenfranchised, and you take offense to people wanting to agree with you, you aren’t going to get very far. Taking offense every time someone attempts to voice a supportive opinion sure as hell isn’t going to help.

      Look, we women don’t need some white guy who thinks he’s doing us a favor going to bat for us. We can do it on our own. I’m not trying to be rude, but implying that your “progressive” mentality is what will open doors for us is just a the manifestation of your own savior complex.

      Thinking of this as an “us versus them” proposition is as destructive and harmful as anything you purportedly oppose. You are saying that a person’s ability to hold or voice an opinion is determined by that persons race, or gender. That’s sexist and racist as hell. It’s also ridiculously counterproductive if you want there to be change, and aren’t just looking to scream about how bad things are.

      You can be a feminist all you want, but some of us get offended by men who think they have to play the schoolyard mediator for us helpless women who are supposedly incapable of realizing that the terminology is sexist. We don’t need a male written blog post to tell us not to self censure because of a word. To imply such is offensive.

      I’m raising four daughters, and my life revolves around them. You are of the opinion that I should just shut the hell up and not have an opinion about societal structures that are harmful to the most important thing in the world. Fuck that. Again, you think that my ability to have or voice an opinion should be decided based on whether I have a penis. That’s every bit as sexist, anti-feminist, and idiotic as saying women don’t have a right to voice their opinions because they’re women.

      I am sure yourv heart is in the right place, but we aren’t any less capable of recognizing this issue than you are.

      There are men and women who are fully capable of recognizing this issue, and there are men and women who have never bothered to think about this issue, and there are men and women who are not capable of recognizing this issue, and there are men and women who understand it far better than I do.
      Again, it’s not a “we” versus “them” thing. That appears to be an issue you are less capable of recognizing.

      • Kodi R. on said:

        Mooky, I really like your post. Well, I guess I should, because I asked you to make it. And I’m a female and feminist. I don’t think you did anything wrong.

        So yeah, keep making posts and doing rants and educating people because I love reading them and it helps me learn more about writing and you write the awesomest blog posts ever.

        Okay? Okay. 🙂

        *Power to the People*

      • Thanks, Kodi, and I’m glad you liked the post. I especially like the “awesomest blog posts ever” part!

  4. Kelekona on said:

    They original Mary Sue was probably written that way because a majority of those fantasy-vehicle characters were female.

    It’s like arguing that they’re derogatory against young people, but Ensign Sue is probably fifteen because a lot of the fic authors that write these happen to be teenagers.

    On another hand, it is hard to get into the captain’s pants as a guy when it’s clear that he’s not gay. Or rather, those fan-works wouldn’t have the same awareness as the mainstream ones. If Majel Barrette had been the second in command instead of Spock, perhaps we might have seen more male power-trip characters.

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