When you hear the name Mary Sue, who do you think of? The phrase has persisted in pop culture coverage for years, to the point where it has lost all of its original meaning. Mary Sue has gone from being a bad writerly choice, to becoming a blanket term with inherently sexist connotations. It is past time to peel back the layers of history surrounding this term and understand that Mary Sue deserves more respect.
The Origins of Mary Sue
Image via Dictionary.com (Yes Mary Sue is in the Dictionary)
The concept of the Mary Sue is born from the 1970’s, in one of the first modern pop-culture fandoms, a massive pre-online community. The Star Trek fandom persisted after the series left television through unofficial fanzines. In the second issue of Menagerie, Mary Sue first appeared in a story called A Trekkie’s Tale. The protagonist intentionally epitomized the characteristics of a bad Mary Sue.
“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.” Captain Kirk came up to her.
“Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?” “Captain! I am not that kind of girl!” “You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.” Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. “What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?” “The Captain told me to.” “Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”
The Star Trek Fandom Named Mary Sue
Editor Paula Smith wrote this parody piece (although at the time it was ascribed simply to ‘anonymous’). Smith was poking fun at works of fanfiction that saw this type of author self-insertion. It was this little bit of satire that gave Mary Sue her name. Unfortunately it also crystalised the idea that only female authors insert themselves into stories this way. And this is simply untrue. It is only that women get more grief for it than men do. Mary Sues are more often attributed to female writers because the majority of fanfiction writers are young women. And so the trope self-perpetuates. Since the term evolved with the times, but not in a good way. Yet, no matter how it’s used, the term prevents young female authors from doing something every young (and old) writer does.
Let’s delve into why male self-insertion is allowed more than female self-insertion, what it means to be a Mary Sue, and why Mary Sue is actually a necessary tool for beginning writers.
The Persistence of Mary Sue
Mary Sue is an idealized version of the author that is written into pre-existing worlds. She has a tendency to be super-smart, overly-skilled, and beloved by all of the characters. In fairness, this kind of weak characterization is a problem in fanfiction. In fanfiction, the first general rule is to always focus on the pre-existing characters when writing in any given fandom. After all, that is what readers want. But it is important to note that many fanfiction authors were not writing for readers necessarily. Many of us were writing for ourselves. We wrote fanfiction as a form of escapism, to exercise early writing skills, and/or navigate our way through the world of fandom. Writing pre-existing characters allows young writers to practice story structure, plot, and prose without building their characters from scratch.
In my years of writing and reading fanfiction for The X-Files, I often stumbled across Mary Sue in those stories. Sometimes she was Mulder and Scully’s child. Often she was a new FBI agent who took up too much story-time. Occasionally she was an unexpected love interest for one of the main characters, outraging ‘shippers everywhere who were just looking for some good old MSR smut. In all of my years of writing fanfiction, I only ever wrote one original character into a fanfic. That character was a man (a new informant for Mulder and Scully). Unsurprisingly, no one ever called him a Mary Sue.
The Dangers Of Female Self-Insertion
Image via Marvel Television
Mary Sue is held up as an example to female writers of what not do. She is the first rule that fanfiction writers learn. Never put yourself into the story. Original characters must be wholly original, and definitely not idealized versions of your own experience or personality. This is the same rule that fiction writers learn in college creative writing classes. And yet male authors continue to self-insert from fanfiction to literary masterpieces without the stigma borne by female writers who do the same.
But why? Why do we deride the female author’s insertion into the world of fandom? Fantasy is all about the idealized (and/or dystopian) version of humanity. Genre fiction is where most of us found our heroes and heroines. We sought to be like them, to turn ourselves into people who could stand on par with those characters. We strove to write characters as amazing as those we loved enough to write about. There’s another, more basic writing rule: Write what you know. Fanfiction is where young women practice writing. It’s where we study other characters who are already fully-realized and write in their voices so we can find our own.
Writing yourself into the story breaks the the most important rule of fiction. Of course to fully understand creative rules, you have to break them. Fanfiction is a place where standard writing logic is thrown out the window. This might be way it is the way so many young female writers start honing their craft. Sometimes you have to write the most unbelievable characters in order to figure out believable ones. Mary Sue helps us to understand who a character can be.
Why Are Men Allowed To Self-Insert, But Women Are Not?
Author Stephen King | Image Credit: Simon and Schuster
There is an old and bitter joke in fandom: “What do you call a male Mary Sue?”
The answer? “A protagonist.”
Men have been inserting themselves into stories for as long as the written word has existed. We can go all the way back to Dante inserting himself into The Divine Comedy – his biblical fanfiction that is hailed as a masterpiece and studied by high school students around the world. But no one ever calls Dante a Mary Sue.
Ask yourself this question: how often do we allow men to write idealized versions of themselves in fiction? In the world of literary fiction, where male authors dominate, there are many examples of author self-insertion. So many well-regarded works of fiction include the self-insertion of the male writer. Kurt Vonnegut is famous for doing this in both Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. Stan Lee wrote himself into various comic books. And don’t even get me started on the way Stephen King self-inserted his own character into The Dark Tower and made himself a literal god.
Male Protagonists Are The Norm, Female Protagonists Are Mary Sue
John Scalzi has an obvious (male) Mary Sue in his Old Man’s War series, an idealized version of himself who is smart, clever, and heroic. But no one complains about these characters. Often male authors are praised as geniuses for their ‘meta’ self-insertion. Or the ideal male protagonists are just accepted as the norm. But if a woman writes a character too much like herself, then she is deemed vain and insufferable. Her idealized female protagonists are somehow unbelievable in the way idealized male protagonists are not. She becomes a Mary Sue.
Male protagonists are the default for the majority of popular media – film, television, books. This is even more true in genre fiction, and the various adaptations that have come out of the medium. And so with a movement towards inclusion and equality within genre that allows for more female protagonists to emerge, so too do the accusations of Mary-Sue. Because the term no longer means what it once did. It is no longer a mark of writerly insertion. But it still remains a label for any female character who is too good at what they do.
Image via screengrab
A recent pop culture example: Arya Stark was not a Mary Sue, just because she was the one to kill The Night King instead of the male protagonist Jon Snow. Arya is neither a self-insertion from author George R.R. Martin, nor is she a flawless beautiful character who is overly competent and skilled at everything she does. And yet, during the last season of Game of Thrones, Arya was absolutely called a Mary Sue by angry fans. This marks a shift in the term as the meaning of Mary Sue takes on new definition in contemporary pop culture.
The Evolution of Mary Sue
Over the years the term Mary Sue has gone from egregious author insertion, to something entirely different. She came to represent any original female character around whom a story revolved. If a character is beautiful and desirable, she is a Mary Sue. Is she is naturally talented and intelligent? Then she is a Mary Sue. If she takes story time away from the male protagonists, she is a Mary Sue.
Mary Sue now represents any original female character that is too perfect, too talented, too beautiful, with few flaws. There is typically a sense of outrage from fans that the Mary Sue has not ‘paid her dues.’ That she has not done anything to warrant the level of attention/acclaim she receives. If she has magical abilities, it is often said that they come to her too easily. Or she hasn’t worked hard enough to achieve the level of competence that she exhibits.
Mary Sue Is The Blanket Derogatory Term For Strong Female Characters
Image via Disney.
If you make the mistake of reading the comments, or stumbling into the wrong Twitter thread you will find many alleged versions of Mary Sue in pop culture. In Star Wars, some fans deride Rey as a Mary Sue. However, this complaint is not often voiced about the legendary Luke Skywalker.
Rey and Luke have almost identical backstories: they are both orphans who had to scrape by to survive on a desert planet. They both stumble into adventure, only to discover that they are part of a deeper legacy of Force users and a long-standing battle between light and darkness. Each of them is naturally strong in the Force and become Jedi with little training. They are both quickly accepted into the rebellion, and beloved by other characters. They both act impulsively and emotionally, in ways that Jedi are not supposed to. But since Rey is a woman, fans often treat her with scorn because they do not feel that she has ‘earned’ what she has. Luke rarely receives the same kind of vitriol from fans, because he has a more standard and acceptable hero’s journey.
There is a term for the male version of this character trope – Gary Stu or Gary Sue – but rarely do we hear this term. Male characters are typically still described with the female term. In a way this is a deeper insult, ascribing negative female traits to a male protagonist. Nothing is worse than being an annoying Mary Sue.
This is how our current pop culture coverage refers to Mary Sue. Fans find her annoying, they are angry with the unlikelihood of this character’s existence. Often, fans view her as a distraction from the more important male protagonists. Or worse, a love interest that shouldn’t exist.
The Stigma Of Mary Sue Affects Original Fiction Too
The fear of Mary Sue is so real that it seeps into the original fiction written and published by women. This has caused many female authors to steer away from writing female characters in their original work. The stigma has also caused many female genre writers to be pigeonholed into YA or Teen Fiction if they dare to write about young female characters. This has started to shift in recent years, as more feminist fantasy gets published. But there is still a long way to go.
Bella Swan in Twilight | Image via Lionsgate
Many female fanfiction authors of yesteryear have gone on to become published authors. Among these are Cassandra Clare, the author of The Mortal Instruments series. Notably, Clare is one of the female fantasy authors who got stuck with a YA label, despite the fact that the series was meant to be an epic adult fantasy.
Another prominent former fanfiction author is Naomi Novik who founded Archive Of Our Own. Novik’s first published novels – the Temeraire series – is rumored to have originated as fanfiction for Master and Commander. Novik was allowed to publish her work as an adult fantasy series. But then again that series largely revolves around male protagonists. This does not feel like a coincidence. Her successive work, brilliant fairy tale adaptations Uprooted and Spinning Silver, include some of the most wonderful genre protagonists of the last decade. For young readers and writers who dance between the YA and fanfiction worlds this reinforces the “lesson” of Mary Sue. It feels like Novik was only “allowed” to tackle female protagonists after first proving herself by writing male characters. (No disrespect intended against Novik, an author whom I deeply admire.)
The Amount Of Female Protagonists Is A Problem In Genre Fiction
So, some women are afraid to write female characters. And some male authors are notoriously bad at writing female characters. This leaves us with a huge problem, namely not enough female protagonists. This lack of representation only furthers the gender divide in publishing and the narrow, male-dominated focus it’s only just starting to lose. Female authors are not considered serious or literary if they write about their own gender and have roots in fanfiction. It all comes back to Mary Sue.
Mary Sue now represents the fear all female authors face when writing. Many female authors have been successful when writing Mary Sue type characters. Just look at Twilight, where Bella Swan is considered one of the worst Mary Sues of our time. Bella represents the type of Mary Sue that is a stand-in for the reader as opposed to the writer. Her character represents all of the young women reading the story. She is clumsy, foolish, and awkward. Unaware of her own beauty, all the male characters desire her or understand why someone would.
Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games is also branded a Mary Sue, since she is competent and highly skilled. Both of these series are wildly popular with young female readers. But gatekeepers and ‘serious’ fans of genre dismiss these works as part of what is “wrong” with genre storytelling today. Both of these series (especially Twilight) are ridiculed by genre fans for being immature and silly. It it because they are both about and consumed by young women? This teaches female readers and writers a dangerous lesson. In order to gain respect in the industry and from the fans, your hero must be a man.
Image Credit: Variety
Mary Sue Is The Original Manic Pixie Dream Girl
With the movement of genre fiction into the mainstream, the Mary Sue has evolved into a character trope loathed by entire fandoms. In non-genre media, the character informs another trope – that of the manic pixie dream girl. Both of these tropes represent idealized versions of women that are unrealistic. Almost universally, Mary Sue is viewed as the trademark of bad writing. Interestingly, the manic pixie dream girl tends to be an idealized female character envisioned by a male writer. She is quirky and beautiful, a sexual dynamo. She brings life to a male protagonist who is often boring in comparison. (These male protagonists are often, unsurprisingly, author self-insertion.)
The manic pixie dream girl receives almost as much derision as Mary-Sue. But often the target of complaints is not the writer or director but the actor portraying her. Zooey Deschanel gets a lot of hate for her portrayal as a manic pixie dream girl in 500 Days of Summer. Natalie Portman also received a lot of vitriol for her similar role in Garden State. Fans find fault in the actresses themselves unable to separate the woman from the character she played. Yet, those characters were written (and directed) by men.
500 Days of Summer | Image via Fox Searchlight
Who Takes The Blame For A Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
Within this trope is another sexist double standard. Male authors and directors may receive some derision for writing a manic pixie dream girl. But not nearly as much as women do for writing Mary Sues. Somehow, when Ladybird came out several years ago I heard rumblings online that the female protagonist of that movie was a Mary Sue. This is despite the fact that the movie is clearly meant to be a semi-autobiographical story from director Greta Gerwig. And yet, Gerwig’s partner Noah Baumbach does not get similar derision about his clear author insertion in A Marriage Story.
In her life as an actress before moving onto directorial duties, Gerwig played a character in another Baumbach film (Frances Ha) who has also been called a manic pixie dream girl. But no one puts that blame on Baumbach as the director. Instead society pigeon-holed Gerwig as another actress who typified MPDG roles. Notably, only one of these directors has been nominated for several Academy Awards while the other has not. I don’t think I need to spell out which one that is. Men can get away with both self-insertion and idealized female characters without losing respect. Simply put, women are not allowed the same luxury.
Little Women was also directed by Greta Gerwig | Image via Sony Pictures.
Mary Sue, Mary Sue I Love You
In the end, Mary Sue is an essential part of any young female writer’s repertoire. She is a rite of passage for fanfiction authors. Something that must be exorcised from your system before you can move onto more mature writing. But what is the harm of writing a Mary Sue? Writers who insert themselves into fictional worlds only want to be part of a narrative they love. When writing original characters, they are taking a crack at inventing a new protagonist outside of established characters. This is key for a writer’s development. Clearly we know that overly perfect, idealized characters are never going to be the most relatable. But this should hold true to both male and female characters. The standards must be upheld for men, women, and non-binary alike.
For too long fandom looked down on Mary Sue. She has been the subject of derision and scorn from people who do not understand her. Too many essential female protagonists are unjustly labeled as Mary Sue, simply for being strong women. This sickness poisons our enjoyment of media. It drives women away from fandom, as male gatekeepers desperately try to keep the doors closed to us. The anger against Mary Sue seeps into literature and criticism, furthering the gender divide instead of closing it. It keeps female protagonists down and keeps the male-dominated status quo alive in genre fiction. The stigma against Mary Sue must end, in order for female writers to have freedom, and for women to feel safe in their chosen fandoms.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.