“Mary Sue” generally describes a female character, and always has a negative connotation. But what does the term actually mean, and where did it come from?
Over years of critical usage and even scholarly examination, the Mary Sue trope has undergone a number of changes. Because of this, the definition of the term has become fuzzy and nebulous — if you ask five different people what “Mary Sue” means, you could very well get five different responses. The term has quite an etymology, with origins in Star Trek fandom in the late 20th century.
A Trekkie’s Tale
Mary Sue first appeared when Paula Smith published her satirical Star Trek fanfiction, “A Trekkie’s Tale,” in a zine called The Menagerie in 1974. “A Trekkie’s Tale” outlines the adventures of an original character named Mary Sue, who’s pretty much perfect by definition — she’s the youngest lieutenant in the fleet at only fifteen-and-a-half years old; she’s inhumanly pretty, but not the kind of girl go to bed with Captain Kirk even when he proclaims his love for her at first sight. Mary Sue is “flawlessly logical.” She rescues Mr. Spock from a green android prison, pilots the ship so well that she’s awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and finally dies surrounded by “Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability, and all around niceness.”
“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.”“A Trekkie’s Tale” by Paula Smith
“A Trekkie’s Tale” explicitly critiqued an onslaught of Star Trek fanfiction at the time, marked by writers shamelessly inserting themselves as perfect, smart, beautiful main characters around whom the story and universe revolves. Since fanfiction was an almost exclusively female institution then, these characters were also all female. With “A Trekkie’s Tale,” Smith gave a canonical name to a particular hallmark of bad writing — Mary Sue.
Since then, fanfiction readers and consumers of pop culture alike have used the name “Mary Sue” to brand female characters they deem to be unrealistically perfect or self-indulgent. They’ve even come up with a male equivalent — the Gary Stu or Marty Stu.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, widespread hatred and condemnation of Mary Sues caught the attention of critics and commentators. Ann Crispin, an author of multiple commercial Star Trek and Star Wars novels who has famously been accused for writing Mary Sues, chimed in on the debate, saying, “… the term ‘Mary Sue’ constitutes a put-down, implying that the character is so summarily dismissed as not a true character, no matter how well drawn, what sex, species, or degree of individuality.”
Predictably, people began co-opting the term and applying it toward any female character they wanted to criticize without operationalizing the term. As Crispin implied, the term allowed people to slap the label of “Mary Sue” on any character, effectively one-dimensionalizing even multifaceted characters. A more recent and high-profile example is Rey, from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, who received a surprising amount of flak for supposedly being a Mary Sue. Multiple critics have swung back at the accusation, detailing exactly why Rey does not fit the definition of a Mary Sue.
This led to the need to further refine the term’s definition. If the disease of the Mary Sue can infect even well-drawn characters, then what should the Mary Sue be defined as?
The modern Definition
Overly Sarcastic Productions made a video on the Mary Sue trope, and their definition reflects our most recent and canonical understanding of the term.
The commentator in the video prefaces their definition with the fact that historically, we’ve understood the Mary Sue from a character-centred standpoint. We thought of Mary Sues as badly written female characters, most likely of self-insert origin, who had no defining traits other than a cloying flawlessness. But the commentator takes a slightly different perspective, pointing out that the core fallacy of the Mary Sue is that she warps the storyworld itself, centring the universe, the storylines, and all the other characters around her — the way Mary Sue had Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and all the other Star Trek characters in “A Trekkie’s Tale” head over heels for her regardless of their original characterizations and personalities. According to this commentator, we should examine Mary Sues not from the character standpoint but from the plot standpoint.
The commentator also points out, though, that because Mary Sue-ness is generally ascribed to females characters and “doesn’t stick” to male characters, and because we treat Mary Sue-ness as a conversation ender, it breeds a shame that makes us terrified to write, read, or like female characters. What if she turns out to be a Mary Sue? What does that say about the author who wrote her, or the fan who connected to her? After all, no one stopped liking Star Trek, Star Wars, or James Bond films because Captain Kirk, Han Solo, and James Bond are Mary Sues.
Indeed, the very existence of the Mary Sue trope springs out of a paranoia about female characters written shallowly and written to take up space in the storyworld the female fan writer is engaging in. So, yes, Mary Sue-ness is inherently misogynistic. Many engaged in the Sue discourse nowadays agree that we have historically viewed female characters and Mary Sues in particular through a very narrow lens, tinted with shades of patriarchy. With this newfound self-awareness, we have become more critical of the Mary Sue critique, questioning the callous labelling of characters as Mary Sues and taking into account the gender specificity of the trope.
Mary Sues in Mainstream Media
While I agree that we shouldn’t be so quick to pronounce and denounce characters as Mary Sues, I also believe that the imperative to critically examine the way that female characters are written still holds some merit.
The media has long been known to portray women inaccurately and unrealistically. When Mary Sues only existed in the realm of fanfiction, they may have given women and young girls a cathartic power, as Camille Bacon-Smith theorized in her 1992 ethnographic study of Star Trek fandom. But in mainstream or original media, especially media written by male creators, shouldn’t we more carefully scrutinize female characters who we can easily label as Mary Sues, rather than putting the matter aside because we “shouldn’t be so critical of strong female characters?”
Modern fictional heroines tend to uphold dominant society standards, even when they utilize a mantle of feminism by limning a so-called “strong female lead.” These characters are usually white, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive (even if they don’t realize it themselves). Perhaps they don’t classify as Mary Sues in the most analytical sense — badly written characters that warp the storyworld and characters surrounding them.
But if we regress back to consider the character aspect some more, we can see that a lot of modern mainstream heroines can in fact fit a generic mold. Think of the literary heroines who dominated the young adult scene of the early 2010’s: Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, Tris Prior of Divergent, Annabeth of Percy Jackson, and Hermione Granger of Harry Potter all share whiteness, brown hair, slight builds, and an selfless but sassy attitude that sets them apart from other girls of their worlds. Katniss and Tris boast even more similarities, being the Chosen Ones to rebel against the governments of their dystopic countries.
The original critique of the Mary Sue as a character stemmed from the position that the Mary Sue constituted gratuitously self-indulgent and thoughtless writing. I agree with the argument that this critique goes against the very principles of fanfiction and fanfic culture — if there ever was a place for self-indulgent writing, it’s fanfiction. But when it comes to using the same argument against critiques of mainstream media characters being labelled as Mary Sues, I contend that we can’t apply the same rules. Unlike the subculture of fanfiction, mainstream media is part of a larger dominant society, and we need to recognize this distinction in our critiques.
Mary Sue critiques of mainstream female characters such as Rey typically stem from pretty misogynistic claims — for example, Rey received criticism because people believed that she shouldn’t have been able to fight the way she did, or come out victorious over warriors with more training than her. These claims can be refuted with a quick look at her backstory. But rather than focusing on what women should and shouldn’t be able to do in stories, I want to focus on what these characters say to women in real life.
When most popular and celebrated female protagonists we see in TV, movies, and books come in the form of slender, able-bodied cis white women, they actively participate in perpetuating dominant ideals of femininity. Moreover, these characters typically travel the same hero’s journey, overcoming narrative obstacles with their smarts, wit, and fighting abilities. The slew of “strong female characters” that look the same and undergo the same character arcs point to the idea that there’s only one way to be a good or compelling female protagonist. Where’s the nuance afforded to male protagonists, who are allowed to be nerdy losers or angst-ridden antiheroes?
Strong female characters are good, but they’ve gotten tiring. I want to see narratives about weak or scared women characters, about what it means to be strong as a Black, Indigenous, or woman of colour, about trans and nonbinary women, about disabled women. The “strong female character” narrative speaks to a white Western feminist standard that may have been empowering to a number of women a decade or two ago, but no longer makes the cut (not that it ever truly did). The idea that strong female leads refute — the idea that women are seen as weak or incapable — is a stereotype that plagues mostly white women. It doesn’t take into account the tropes that other women face down.
The strong female lead, the kind of female character that lazily relies on her cis womanhood to compel audiences, represents a new kind of Mary Sue of mainstream media. She indulges certain audiences without addressing the needs and wants of others; she doesn’t stray from her trope’s form as a character; she lacks the nuance to strengthen her character and story. But unlike 1974’s Mary Sue, who merely annoyed her audiences at her worst, this mainstream Mary Sue threatens to homogenize and hegemonize public perception of women and femininity.