Zoë Marriott, “Real Girls, Fake Girls, Everybody Hates Girls”
This is just a sample of a long and thoughtful essay — check out the rest!
Full disclosure - I’m in the “Mary Sues make terrible characters” camp, mostly because they (and the stories centered around them) tend to insist that this one character is “not like other girls” in her exceptional awesomeness, and leave no space for other female characters to be anything but jealous sycophants and/or flat antagonists. However, this is a very well-thought-out article outlining the reasons why I’m wrong.
Yeah, you really are.
Let’s also remember that the idea that women aren’t entitled to wish fulfilment fantasies is deeply problematic. As comicbookgirl has pointed out, Batman is a Mary Sue, except that we don’t call him a ‘Gary Stu’, he’s just Batman, a male power fantasy. And apparently that’s an OK think for men to have, but not for women. Once again, women are held to a higher standard, and we need to question not only the inequality in holding women to that standard, but the standard itself.
People say that there are way more Mary Sue characters than Gary Stu characters. In fact, this is laughable, because the reverse is true, and every instance of a ‘Mary Sue’ is torn down as being so terrible as a piece of writing, whilst the Gary Stus rake in the awards. Which is why my TV is full of Sherlocks and Doctors and Houses and John Reeses and John Does and Charlie Crewses and Patrick Janes and I gather that there is yet another white male ‘True Detective’ show starting up and my friends sigh at me when I say that I just can’t deal with watching it, even though they say it’s so good and they thought I loved that style of show and… I DO. But I am sick of men getting to be the Gary Stu Super Detective Wish Fulfillment fantasy and that being FINE, where the reverse is not offered to women. Where if we try we are told that the cool character we created isn’t fair to ‘real’ women.
Well, I’m a real woman, and I want to dream, too. I want to feel awesome, too. I want to imagine I’m the best at everything, too. Men walk around with this background culture in which they are bombarded with cool male characters that are the best at everything and they don’t even realise how that affects how they see the world, and how our confidence is eroded by not having that.
And yes, since my ‘On Being Scully' essay four years ago we have had Sarah Lund and Carrie Matheson and Saga Norén and… that's about it. And two of those women are not English language originals. But you know what they all have in common: a gritty realism that undercuts the fantasy. Whilst House has 'flaws' his co-workers and even his boss not only tolerate, but seem to admire them. Sarah Lund's flaws are not so great, and the people around her are not so tolerant. Carrie Matheson's representation of mental health issues is engaging and intriguing, but you can't tell me none of those men above have mental health issues. Do any of them have to undergo electro-shock therapy?
Even our heroes are held to a higher standard that see them brought down by ‘reality’.
So, no, I no longer take any criticism of ‘Mary Sues’ lying down. Because I have realised that what you’re doing is denying me my heroes, and making sure the ones that I do, somehow, get away with, get dragged through the mud.
Oh look, I fucked up.
You’re absolutely right. The tendency to call any female character who’s perceived to be “too powerful” a Mary Sue, and the persistent way the term is then used to dismiss female wish fulfillment characters while endorsing male ones creates an environment that makes Mary Sues necessary. Regardless of genre or quality (which is subjective anyway), these works are definitely important and needed.
I failed to address that earlier, which was especially shitty right after I posted an article talking about that very thing. As a male, I have the luxury of being able to separate the writing itself from the social context in which it exists. The comment I made was forgetful and misguided, and for that I apologize. I will do my best to fix that in the future.
I still think that it’s necessary to acknowledge the more problematic aspects of Mary Sue as a character trope. In my experience, Mary Sues are rarely anything other than white, cis, straight women, conventionally attractive and able-bodied. Her perfection/power is often borderline contingent upon upholding different systems of oppression. This post talks about that more.
With that said, Gary Stu falls prey to those criticisms just the same, if not more easily, and that is not a discussion that’s happening at all.
That’s OK - hope I didn’t seem to be laying into you in particular.
I still reject the whole idea of the Mary Sue. It’s a bogus concept used to condemn characters that would be considered perfectly OK, were they male.
It is of course still true that there are more white cis, straight, able-bodied female characters in general, and that’s a problem, but to use that problem as another way of calling legit characters we should see more of (including those who are not white, cis, straight, able etc.) problematic simply because they are female (which I remain convinced is all that it done when we call a character a Mary Sue) I’m still gonna say is sexist and an act of the patriarchy protecting itself.
Can white female characters also exhibit characteristics of white supremacy/privilege? Of course! But this whole idea that there is a Mary Sue and ‘Her perfection/power is often borderline contingent upon upholding different systems of oppression’… I reject that ‘she’ exists. It is accepting that there is a kind of female character that is inherently less valid than the myriad of male characters could just as easily fit that label, were it not for the gender issue, that is the problem. If we want to criticise the fact that I can think of three white female super-detectives and no women of colour, I am on board with that. But not one of Sarah Lund, Carrie Matheson, or Saga Norén is actually a Mary Sue, even then. Because female characters are not allowed the level of perfection permitted by all those male characters I mentioned that we would call Mary Sues if they were female.
We can criticise white supremacist fantasies without ruling out the very idea of women being allowed to have fantasy power figures all together. And I think it’s very important that we do.
Again, I’m not meaning to have a go at you, but there’s a real issue with saying you accept a point, but then continuing to defend the very idea of a concept that is all about bringing women down and not letting us have the same fantasies that are permitted of men. I know you concede at the end that those same problems are exhibited by the male characters… but the focus of your response it about hanging on to this damaging term. And I don’t want ‘Gary Stu’ to become more common as a term - it’s not going to happen anyway, but it’s also not AT ALL the point - the answer is not to outlaw power fantasies. I want black women and asian women and gay women and bisexual women and mentally ill women and asexual women and disabled women and transgendered women and all the different types of women AND oppressed men to have power fantasies. These are EVEN MORE important to us, because they are a way of upsetting the status quo. They are a way of us taking our power back and giving it to ourselves. In insisting that these characteristics are solely the tool of oppressors you effectively ONLY ALLOW power fantasies for oppressors. And, quite frankly, they have enough of those already.
I don’t want to debate this anymore. So this will be my final comment. You may also wish to consider that where oppressed people discuss an issue and you recognise it as important, it’s often best to amplify, but not add your own restrictions. Even if you think you’ve seen something that the oppressed person has missed. That way lies mansplaining and hijacking of issues, and you need to be aware that 99% of the time you are on your tenth thought about the matter and the person who is actively affected by the issue is on their thousandth. It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s one I try to do when I, for instance, see my trans friends discussing something that affects them directly. And I don’t always do so perfectly, but it’s what I aim for. It maybe that I am missing some race or sexuality issues related to Mary Sues - I am white and straight - but I am a woman, one who has talked a lot to other women, who has had her eyes opened to the problem of using the concept of the Mary Sue to condemn powerful female characters by having it pointed out to her by gay women and women of colour. We’re not a hive mind, or a hive body, for that matter, but sometimes it’s good to amplify and not add ‘buts’ when a member of an oppressed group objects to something. If a woman of colour wants to school me on this, she can go right ahead, but as a man it’s worth being aware that it’s very easy to cherry-pick from the diverse opinions of an oppressed group to support your own position. Almost every conversation I have with a man about a feminist issue - the good men, the ones who are listening and open to learning - will involve them citing this one woman they know who doesn’t think it’s an issue. It’s important to remember that the fact that we aren’t a hive mind is not itself a counter-argument.
Hope there’s no hard feelings. Like I say, I’m trying to explain, rather than have a go, but I have things to do today, and this is the end of the emotional energy I’m gonna devote to this.