January 2007 archive

Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary to Popular Belief…

Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary to Popular Belief...

Okay, I will admit it right now: I love Mary Sues. I always have; I love both the stereotype original character inserted into fanfiction and the super-extraordinary fantasy cliché characters. I just can’t help it; I find them compelling and always have. I’m also guilty of having written…well, we’ll just say a few. (Not nearly as many as I’ve contemplated, however.) But for this, I’m concentrating on the original meaning of the phrase, a perfect authorial-insert character into fanfiction.

So yes: I love them.

The major drawback to the characters include that they’re often very, very poorly written, and they rarely mesh with the actual ‘canon’ characters they’re interacting with. These are very fair criticisms, and I tend to avoid them by, well, avoiding reading badly written stories. Because the characters can work, when people get a better handle on writing and characterizations; some will probably always be crappy, but they don’t have to be. The poor writing, I think, is often the sign of a young or inexperienced writer (two traits which can, but don’t always, go hand in hand). I’m concentrating mostly on the idea of young writers — particularly girls — here, when I say that I love Mary Sues, as a very concept.

Basically, it goes like this. There are two major archetypes of Mary Sues. The first, the one I’m more familiar with (as it appeals more to me) is some kind of Tough Girl; this is a character who can beat up anyone, tell anyone off, and is smart and intimidating. Depending on what the writer thinks is super cool, she may be a punk, goth, tomboy, or…well, almost anything else. The important thing is that when she walks into the story, she owns it: the other characters’ actions all revolve around her, either loving or hating her*.

The second major archetype are the more traditionally feminine characters; they’re more likely to be the perky cheerleader types. They’re charming and beautiful, and it almost goes without saying that all canon characters instantly fall in love with them. They’re also often martyrs or saviors; their sheer goodness protects the other characters, or they tragically sacrifice themselves to save everyone.

Of course, the Mary Sue phenomenon isn’t limited to these two archetypes, and individual Mary Sues don’t always fit neatly into one or the other. Other things they are nearly guaranteed to have in common: Mary Sue is close to always related to or dating a canon character. And Mary Sues are also always, in some way (or many ways) valued by the canon characters. In fact, that value is often automatic; one of the frequent complaints against Mary Sues are the they don’t earn their place in a Scooby gang, they just show up and are there. Once again, bad writing.

But here’s why I love it: this is a society which is still struggling greatly to overcome sexism. It’s one where girls are given a social message almost from birth, which tells them who to be and how to act. It’s also a culture where most of the heroes are male; even as female roles and characters are becoming more common (though I’ve written about that before), it remains true that it’s harder to find female characters that girls want to, and easily can, identify with. But with Mary Sue, you’ve got girls saying, “This is me, as I know I could be.”

That’s powerful.

It peels back layers. For me, it was this: I always wanted to dye my hair blue. But in high school, I never worked up the bravery. I was a nice, bookwormish, quiet girl; that wasn’t the sort of thing I was supposed to do. My boyfriend definitely didn’t want me to, so I never did. When I got to college, that feeling hadn’t really gone away, though I knew the liberal arts atmosphere would have been more accepting of it. After all, it was a big choice to make; it would have affected how I looked (which is, according to culture, of utmost importance for a girl). And my wardrobe didn’t fit with blue hair! My wardrobe was for a mild mannered writer girl, not someone brave enough to dye her hair bright blue and declare, in effect, “Look at me!” So I still never did. And now I’m allegedly an adult, with an office job, which requires me to look somewhat professional. Needless to say, blue hair wouldn’t really work. So I never did it, and now I don’t think I ever will. But my Mary Sues (and oh, do I have tons of them in my head) inevitably have bright blue hair, and it never looks silly on them, and everyone thinks it’s cool.

But that’s me, and that’s a pretty mild case.

It seems to me that in saying, “This is me, as I know I could be,” the girls who write these characters are sending another message. They’re saying, “I’m worthy of being the main character, I’m a person with agency, I’m someone lovable and respected. And if you don’t love and respect me, you’re wrong.” So in a culture that sends the message that it’s better for girls to be quiet and pretty and leave being the main character up to a boy, it’s pretty awesome that there are hundreds of thousands of stories where girls stand up and say, “No, it’s all about me.” They cast themselves in the spotlight, usurping the role of the main character, imaging the former male lead as their love interest. Whether the character is doing away with a villain, snapping off a sarcastic quip in a high school lunch room, or dying nobly to save everyone else, the writer is still creating a world that revolves around her; a world where she is, without question, worthy.

Of course it’s wish fulfillment, and it rarely leads to a well told story. But I don’t mind that so much: I’m just glad that somewhere, in their heads, on paper, or on the internet, girls are making connections to stories that often otherwise exclude them, and rewriting the narrative to include themselves. That’s just all kinds of awesome. And besides, if they’re still inexperienced writers, experimenting and learning, then who knows? These Mary Sue characters might someday transform, as the writer gains skills. They might just go from wish fulfillment characters in someone else’s world to dynamic characters in the writer’s own world. Everyone starts somewhere, starting by saying, “I want an awesome girl who reminds me of me to be the main character,” is as good a place as any — and better than most.

I don’t pretend that this is the only reason people write Mary Sues, that only girls write them, or that girls are intentionally writing Mary Sues as backlash to a culture that disenfranchises them. If women in fiction were suddenly to have equal footing with men, I don’t think that Mary Sues would die out. After all, sometimes we just really want to hang out with the cool kids we like to see stories about, even when the story is perfectly well told and there is no need to ‘fix’ it. The idea of being able to interact with the fictional characters we love is powerful. But as culture stands right now, I do think it’s awesome to see people who are underrepresented making space for themselves.

Incidentally, this is a really interesting look at Mary Sues as a tool for teaching.

*I suspect the breakdown goes something like this: if the author likes the character, the character loves Mary Sue; if the author dislikes the character, the character is instant enemies with Mary Sue. Unless, of course, they’re enemies who end up BFF/romantically involved in the end…