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Mary Sue

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A Mary Sue is a character archetype in fiction, usually a young woman, who is often portrayed as inexplicably competent across all domains, gifted with unique talents or powers, liked or respected by most other characters, unrealistically free of weaknesses, extremely attractive, innately virtuous, and generally lacking meaningful character flaws.[1][2][3][4] Usually female and almost always the main character, a Mary Sue is often an author's idealized self-insertion, and may serve as a form of wish fulfillment. Mary Sue stories are often written by adolescent authors.[5]

Originating from fan fiction, the term Mary Sue was coined by Paula Smith in the 1973 parody short story "A Trekkie's Tale", as the name of a character standing in for idealized female characters widespread in Star Trek fan fiction. The term has been applied to male characters as well, though a male character with similar traits may be labeled a Gary Stu or Marty Stu.[6]

As a literary trope, the Mary Sue archetype is broadly associated with poor quality writing, and stories featuring a Mary Sue character are often considered weaker for it. Though the term is mostly used negatively, it is occasionally used positively.[2][7]

Origins[edit]

The term Mary Sue comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 in the parody story "A Trekkie's Tale",[1] published in Smith's and Sharon Ferraro's Star Trek fanzine Menagerie.[8] The story featured Lieutenant Mary Sue ("the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet—only fifteen and a half years old"[9]), and satirized idealistic female characters widespread in Star Trek fan fiction.[9][10] In 1976, Menagerie's editors wrote:

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 [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.[11]

Smith and Ferraro created the character to parody a recurring pattern found in author submissions to Menagerie, in which a young woman would arrive on the Starship Enterprise and quickly win over the established characters. While the Mary Sue character did not originally have a specific gender, these submitted stories tended to be written by women. According to Smith and Ferraro, women made up most of the Star Trek fan base, unlike the larger science fiction fandom.[8] Smith and Ferraro had initially considered other (male) names such as "Murray Sue" or "Marty Sue". Comparing the character to male proxies such as Superman, Smith later said, "It was OK for [men] to have placeholder characters that were incredibly able".[8]

While originally used to describe fan fiction characterizations,[12] the term Mary Sue has been applied to characters and stories in commercially published fiction as well.[3]: 98 [13] According to folklorist Camille Bacon-Smith, the stories that represent the "pure" form of the Mary Sue character are "found in the Star Trek section of any bookstore",[3]: 98  for example, cadet Piper, the protagonist of the 1986 Star Trek novel Dreadnought! by Diane Carey.[3]: 98–99  Mary Sue can also refer to the fan fiction genre featuring such characters; these stories feature female heroines who are young, attractive, and exceptionally gifted, and serve as the author's self-insertion into the story.[14] They often resolve the conflict of the story, win the love of the other characters, and die a heroic death at the end.[3]: 53  Mary Sue stories are often written by adolescent authors. An author may create a new character based on themselves, or they may alter an established character's personality and interests to be more like their own.[5]

Analysis[edit]

The two characteristics of idealization and self-insertion are usually cited by fans as hallmarks of a Mary Sue character.[9] Angie Fazekas and Dan Vena write that such characters "provide an opportunity for teenage girls to write themselves into popular culture narratives as the heroines of their own stories".[5] According to Jackie Mansky in Smithsonian, some critics argue that "Mary Sues opened up a gateway for writers, particularly women and members of underrepresented communities, to see themselves in extraordinary characters".[8] Author Ann C. Crispin described the term Mary Sue as "a put-down, implying that the character so summarily dismissed is not a true character, no matter how well drawn, what sex, species, or degree of individuality".[3]: 98 

Bacon-Smith writes that Mary Sue stories are "central to the painful experience of a female fan's adolescence", especially for those who could not or would not remain intellectually or physically subservient to their male peers; they represent a combination of active protagonist with "the culturally approved traits of beauty, sacrifice, and self-effacement".[3]: 100–101  In fan-fiction versions, the protagonist traditionally dies at the end of the story; Bacon-Smith says this expresses the "cultural truth" that to enter womanhood in a male-dominated American society, one must kill the "active agent within [herself]"; Mary Sue thus embodies a "fantasy of the perfect woman", who exists to serve the needs of men while minimizing her own abilities.[3]: 102  Less commonly, male characters may be used to personify the same wish-fulfillment functions. Called Marty Stu, Gary Stu,[15] or Larry Stu,[a] these characters are typically discussed in fan culture as adjuncts to the Mary Sue trope.[15] For example, fans have argued that in Star Trek, the character James T. Kirk is a "Marty Stu".[3]: 97 

Smith commented in 1980 that her intent was never "to put down all stories about inspiring females".[3]: 96  In a 2011 interview, she said that the male alternative is rarely pointed out, citing James Bond and Superman as popular "Marty Stu" characters.[10] She argued that male Mary Sues benefit the male audience's coming of age: "[W]hat gets focused on in the culture is defined by boys and young men. Psychologically, there's a turning point in men's lives. There's a point where they need to break away from women in their youth, and then later they come back to women as grown men, but many men never make it, never quite come back to a world that includes women as human beings".[10]

Cultural impact[edit]

The Mary Sue character has acquired a negative connotation in fan communities[3]: 53  as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting.[4] According to Bacon-Smith, the label is "the most universally denigrated genre in the entire canon of fan fiction"[3]: 94  and may represent "self-imposed sexism" by limiting the qualities allowed for female characters.[3]: 97  Mansky writes that as the term gained in usage, fans—most often male fans—have used it to denigrate any capable female character.[8]

Bacon-Smith argues that fear of creating a "Mary Sue" may be restricting and even silencing to some writers. She quotes the Star Trek fanzine Archives as identifying "Mary Sue" paranoia as one of the sources for the lack of "believable, competent, and identifiable-with female characters".[3]: 110–111  During a discussion between female authors at Star Trek fan convention ClipperCon in 1987, one author stated, "Every time I've tried to put a woman in any story I've ever written, everyone immediately says, this is a Mary Sue".[3]: 110–111  At a 1990 panel discussion, participants "noted with growing dismay that any female character created within the [fan] community is damned with the term Mary Sue".[3]: 110  Editor Edith Cantor describes a fan author who feared their character was a "Mary Sue", although the author admitted she did not know what a "Mary Sue" was. Cantor writes, "just as every dog is allowed one bite, so every Trekwriter should be allowed one Mary Sue", to be given "a sympathetic reading and critique, and perhaps returned to the author with the explanation that she is following a too-well-beaten path".[3]: 96–97 

Writing in feminist popular culture magazine Bitch, Keidra Chaney and Raizel Liebler describe Star Trek: The Next Generation character Wesley Crusher as a "quasi–Gary Sue", who is "a brilliant teen who always seems to discover the answers to problems and who is promoted to the crew of the Enterprise with no formal training".[16]: 56  According to writer Pat Pflieger, the character may have been a stand-in for Gene Roddenberry, whose middle name was Wesley.[17]

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw of The Daily Dot describes the fan fiction My Immortal's main character, Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way, as "a Mary Sue protagonist who was clearly a glorified version of the author".[7] The character Arya Stark from HBO's Game of Thrones series has been labeled a Mary Sue for her heroic role in the show's finale; frustration with this characterization inspired a response on the feminist website The Mary Sue, which took its name as an effort to "re-appropriate" the term.[8]

Media-studies researcher Christine Scodari says there is a tendency within slash fandom to label major female characters such as Nyota Uhura in the 2009 film Star Trek as "Mary Sues", because of a perception that development of the female character takes away screen time from male characters.[18] Twitter users have debated whether the Star Wars sequel trilogy features a Mary Sue in its protagonist, Rey, on the basis of Rey's seemingly natural skills as a mechanic, a fighter, a pilot, and a user of "The Force", which draw admiration from the film's other main characters.[19]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Paula Smith's alternative name is "Wesley Sue".[10]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Mary Sue, n.". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. March 2017. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. ^ a b "What does Mary Sue mean?". www.definitions.net. Retrieved September 24, 2022.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Bacon-Smith, Camille (1992). "Training New Members". Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 81–114. ISBN 0-8122-3098-1. Includes the full text of "A Trekkie's Tale" on pages 94–96.
  4. ^ a b Milhorn, Thomas (2006). Writing Genre Fiction: A Guide to the Craft. La Vergne, Tenn.: Lightning Source Incorporated. p. 55. ISBN 978-1-58112-918-2.
  5. ^ a b c Fazekas, Angie; Vena, Dan (2020). "'What Were We—Idiots?' Re-evaluating Female Spectatorship and the New Horror Heroine with Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight". In Paszkiewicz, Katarzyna; Rusnak, Stacy (eds.). Final Girls, Feminism and Popular Culture. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 240–241. ISBN 978-3-030-31523-8.
  6. ^ "Mary Sue | Origin and History". Dictionary.com. Retrieved April 30, 2024.
  7. ^ a b Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia (July 29, 2013). "The worst 'Harry Potter' fanfic ever is now a hilarious webseries". The Daily Dot. Archived from the original on June 12, 2016.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Mansky, Jackie (May 16, 2019). "The Women Who Coined the Term 'Mary Sue'". Smithsonian. Retrieved March 3, 2023.
  9. ^ a b c Barner, Ashley J. (2017). The Case for Fanfiction: Exploring the Pleasures and Practices of a Maligned Craft. McFarland. pp. 36–37. ISBN 978-1-4766-6877-2.
  10. ^ a b c d Walker, Cynthia W. (2011). "A Conversation with Paula Smith". Transformative Works and Cultures. Special issue: Fan Works and Fan Communities in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Reagin, Nancy; Rubenstein, Anne (eds.). 6. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0243.
  11. ^ Byrd, Patricia (Spring 1978). "Star Trek Lives: Trekker Slang". American Speech. 53 (1): 52–58. doi:10.2307/455340. ISSN 0003-1283. JSTOR 455340.
  12. ^ Lantagne, Stacy M. (2011). "Better Angels of Our Fanfiction: The Need for True and Logical Precedent". Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal. 33 (2): 171.
  13. ^ Cheeseman-Meyer, Ellen (April 26, 2012). "Mary Sue Fights Fascism: Diane Carey's Dreadnought! and Battlestations!". Tor.com.
  14. ^ Hellekson, Karen; Busse, Kristina, eds. (2014). The Fan Fiction Studies Reader. University of Iowa Press. p. 133. ISBN 978-1-60938-227-8.
  15. ^ a b Turk, Tisha (2011). "Metalepsis in Fan Vids and Fan Fiction". In Kukkonen, Karin; Klimek, Sonja (eds.). Metalepsis in Popular Culture. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. Note 8, p. 96. ISBN 978-3-11-025278-1.
  16. ^ Chaney, Keidra; Liebler, Raizel (2006). "Me, Myself, and I: Fan Fiction and the Art of Self-Insertion" (PDF). Bitch. No. 31. pp. 52–57. ISSN 2162-5352. Anniversary issue.
  17. ^ Pflieger, Pat (2001). "'Too Good To Be True': 150 Years Of Mary Sue". Merrycoz.org. Retrieved October 11, 2022.
  18. ^ Scodari, Christine (2012). "'Nyota Uhura is Not a White Girl': Gender, intersectionality, and Star Trek 2009's alternate romantic universes". Feminist Media Studies. 12 (3): 335–351. doi:10.1080/14680777.2011.615605. ISSN 1468-0777.
  19. ^ Framke, Caroline (December 28, 2015). "What is a Mary Sue, and does Star Wars: The Force Awakens have one?". Vox. New York.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of mary sue at Wiktionary