Friday, January 20, 2012

The Friday Discussion: The Mary Sue

'Ariel at Disney Princess Fantasy Faire' photo (c) 2009, Loren Javier - license:

The term Mary Sue is quite common in discussions of urban fantasy. It has become so ubiquitous that  I often wonder if everyone is truly aware of not only what the term means, but how it effects historically marginalised women.  A Mary Sue is a character who is perfect, flawless or only having very cutesy flaws (cute non flaws), and who is instantly adored by all of the cast.  If someone is not instantly enthralled with a Mary Sue, it is because they are jealous and or evil, and sometimes even both. 

Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood,  Elena Gilbert from the Vampire Diaries, Clary Fray from The Mortal Instruments Series, Tessa Grey from the Infernal Devices series, Elena from Kelly Armstrong's Otherword Series, Clare from the Morganville Vampires, Abby Corrigan from Sanctuary, Bella Swan from Twilight, are just a few examples of the Mary Sue phenomenon from books, movies and television.  Each one of these characters is beloved for absolutely no reason. The people around them follow them without question and without cause quite frankly (especially considering that these women have the sense of a concussed penguin), even in cases when doing so places themselves in jeopardy. This is exacerbated by the Mary Sue usually representing the most privileged form of femininity in that she is normally straight, cis gendered and White. 

It is rare to see a protagonist of colour in this genre and they never ever fulfill the role of Mary Sue. (In fact, when “Mary Sue” or “self insert” as a criticism is levelled at authors of colour and other marginalised authors, it is usually because the mere presence of a POC character that is capable and not a side-kick is considered “overly perfect” in a genre that frequently prevents POC from being main characters) Mary Sue then on some level relates to the perfection of White womanhood and marking it as superior to women of colour.  In many ways, it reminds me of the faux pedestal that White women have historically been placed upon.  This pedestal exists solely to give them race privilege and certainly does not apply to equality with White men.  

Even as it works to oppress in terms of race, it is also extremely sexist as it leaves no room to appreciate strengths based in intelligence, loyalty, speed, humor or strength.  It tells women that they must perform womanhood in a very specific manner to be considered truly feminine. Mary Sue is not complimentary to women, and in fact acts as a sort of literary corset, restricting individuality even as it promotes a false form of agency.  Real women are not made of sugar and spice and all that’s nice.  

And part of that is shown by how the Mary Sue interacts with other women. Often she doesn’t do that - too often she has no meaningful female companionship (Bella, Elena from the Otherworld Series, Merry from the Meredith Gentry Series), so no possibility of any kind of competition or anyone trying to overshadow her perfection. When she does have other women around her they can nearly always be fitted into 2 categories - lesser side-kicks who fawn and serve (Sookie from True Blood, Elena from Vampire Diaries) or horrible mean girls who hate her perfection (Anita Blake - even her best friend, Veronica Sims, became jealous of Anita’s awesomeness). Both of which serve not to be characters in their own right - but to further enhance the greater glory of Sue’s perfection. The Sue cannot have a female equal - womanhood cannot be enhanced, she must be raised above other women. It’s telling she can have a male equal - but not a female one.

I know some people will be looking at this and protesting the definition of Mary Sue as too narrow. This is because we have a separate trope of “Chosen One” syndrome. Usually this is someone who has super-special awesome powers way above and beyond what is normal for the world setting. They’re awesome and special and coveted by the whole cast because of their awesome, special magic and their super powers that are so amazing. Sometimes Chosen One can be done well - the extra power and specialness becomes a plot hook or an epic storyline (see Kate Daniels by Ilona Andrews or Night Huntress by Jeaniene Frost), but too often it serves as very close to Sueishness, as the special powers continually escalate and more and more of the cast revolves are the protagonist and her awesome powers that are just so wonderful and perfect. This can be so clearly seen with Cassie from Secret Circle, Anita Blake and Meredith Gentry by Laurell K Hamilton.  Much of what we’ve said about Mary Sues can apply to badly written chosen Ones. We separate this from Mary Sues because Mary Sues are so perfect and get so much attention even though there’s no damn reason why anyone would think the light shone from between their arse cheeks and because we feel that the definition of the Mary Sue has expanded a lot.

it has been said and with reason that the criticism of female protagonists is often excessive and unreasoned - which is certainly true - and the criticism “Mary Sue” is often thrown out lazily, since it allows you to criticise a character without having to define exactly why you dislike them. So, yes the phrase certainly has some very fraught history since it has been clumsily and lazily used to lash out at strong female characters without reason and sometimes not even using the loosest definition of what Mary Sue actually means. However, rather than discard the term entirely we think it’s far better to strictly define it and criticise the problems it represents rather than discard it entirely and with it the issues that it also covers.