Comics: Roll Dice Already!

Why You Shouldn’t Use the Term Mary Sue

This guest comic by Vectober. Check out his work!

Transcript

A female character in sexy armor stands before a crowd who boo her loudly.

When you say “Mary Sue,” people derisively imagine a woman who can do everything, is loved by everyone, and has no flaws.

A female character in more practical armor stands before a crowd who still boo her loudly.

But in reality, the term is often applied to any competent female character.

A male character with exaggerated features stands before an adoring crowd. The female characters steam in the background.

Meanwhile, there are many male characters who can do everything, are loved by everyone, and have no flaws. They are often given critical acclaim.

Because “Mary Sue” is inherently gendered, it’s better to consider each character in their own context and…

Both female characters advance menacingly, with swords labeled “plot device” and “character development. 

Hey, stop that!

 

Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Technically, there is a male version for the term ‘Mary Sue’ – Gary Stu. But I agree Gary is used far less often and not because male characters can’t have unrealistic amounts of candy and skill.

  2. Yonyonyon

    Is his name Mr.Penis?.. ooh, no, it’s Mr. Perfect…

    • Cay Reet

      We need a story with a guy named Mr. Penis.

  3. Bitter

    Please guys, get out of the feminist tupper and see that people criticize Gary Stus EVERYWHERE. Have you heard about Superman? Or Kirito? Or Batman? Or Eragon? Nice to see you, yet again, having those double standards. Because sure, no one hates male characters.

    • Cay Reet

      Yeah, they’re terrible ripped apart and taken off the market in a heartbeat. Which is why nobody ever heard of Superman or Batman. I’m sure none of them had any movies recently, either.

      • Bitter

        Sure, because Mary Sues are also taken off the market in a heartbeat. Bella Swan, Clary Fray, Katniss Everdeen, sure, we’ve never heard of them. They also didn’t have movies recently…

        • Cay Reet

          The huge, flooded market of YA is an easy place to find all kinds of overcandied characters, male ones as well as female ones. YA is a very new market where every publisher wants to get their foot in, so a lot of stuff which is published has no high standards. Comparing that to superheroes who have been around for decades is a bit odd.

          Besides, I have no idea who Clary Fray is and have never read either Twilight nor Hunger Games. But then, at over 40, I’m simply too old for that. I also believe all of them (again, can’t speak for Miss Fray) have caught a lot of flak over time.

        • Alverant

          None of those listed are Mary Sues either, but get called that by people who only know about them through movie trailers.

          • Rivers

            Katniss doesn’t really cut it as a Mary Sue. Not if you read the books at least …

    • Tiberia

      Gary Stu’s are a thing, but they are not what people focus on nor are they the standard (I’ll touch more on what I mean by “the standard” in a bit). The label gets applied to Women much more readily than men, which is a problem. If you make the same character twice, the only difference being that one is female, the other male, the female will be more likely called out for being a mary sue.

      Further, Mary Sue is the standard with Gary Stu merely being a modified version of it. The base trope is of a female, with the male version being a subcategory.

      That Gary Stu simply exists does not magically erase problems.

      The Term Mary Sue has value in critique, however that use has greatly diminished. It is a tool, but it is a dull tool. It is too broad, too imprecise, and used with reckless abandon. dropping the gendering may be impractical, but so is abandoning the tool entirely. The tool must be sharpened. more clearly defined, more precisely used, with out care for the actual gender of the character (not easy, we’re only human after all). If it is used more precisely, and only when absolutely appropriate, not merely as some insult, then the problem of gendering will be minimized, but not entirely removed

      Now, ideally we would invent a new term, using androgynous names, for the term.
      suggestions?
      -ary -oo/ue/tu/ou/oo
      Airy Oo?

      Also Superman and Batman aren’t Gary Stu’s. Get out of the silver age.
      Don’t know about Eragon, haven’t read those books for a loooong time.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        If the critique is in good faith, I believe the easiest option would simply be to describe a character as “overglorified.” Or “overcandied” if you’re using mythcreants lingo. That won’t solve the problem of sexist double standards, but it at least gets rid of the inherently gendered language.

        • Bitter

          Now we’re talking! Double standards need a lot of work on them, but getting rid of this Mary Sue/Gary Stu stuff would be a great step. Just to agree on something.

        • Tiberia

          I don’t think overglorified works, in my gut (weird reasoning I know. I think it’s because sometimes an Airy Oo often is framed as not being glorified and being some heroic underdog he gains love and prestige and blah blah blah through perseverance.
          and you can have characters who are not Air Oos but who are still overglorified.

          Overcandied I think works. It covers most of what is wrong with an Airy Oo, but you would need to make the candy/spinach terminology more commonly used.

          Ok, so I used Airy Oo, three times in this post. does it work? you feeling it? I don’t think I am.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Well being a heroic underdog is certainly a kind of glory. I agree that candy is a better terminology, but you might not gain a lot of traction with it outside of Mythcreants.

            Can you think of any characters you would want to call a “Mary Sue” that “overglorified” wouldn’t work for?

          • Ariosa

            A Hairy Who?
            Makes me think of a Cousin Itt version of a Seussian Who. Or, to fit the stereotype, a 80s metal band hairstyle, on top of a Doctor Who character. Radical timey wimey.

            Way down in Whoville, home of both Gary and Sue, came a mystical time lord (and companion, too). Ze thought ze knew better. Ze thought ze would write a new kind of story where ze’d take the light. Banishing old, bad gendered cliches, the radical doctor would save ALL the days.

            And poor Gary and Mary must learn to overcome their self-aggrandizing and fabulous hair-dos to defeat this dark incursion by sitting down over a cup of tea and having a levelheaded discussion about personal limitations.

      • Bitter

        I agree to some extent, but let’s keep in mind that Mary Sue’s origin is fanfiction, a parody, but fanfiction with the girl in question being the center of the story. It’s more usual for women to write fanfiction and self-inserts, and that could be a reason why is more popular to find Mary Sues and rant about them.
        Sadly, as you said, people overused it and not in a very good way.
        Also what the fuck. Airy Oo? English is not my main language, but I’m pretty sure it has a variety of gender-neutral names. Blake Alex? That sucks, but I’m pretty sure there could be better combinations.
        There’s people who believe Superman and Batman are Gary Stus. Just sayin.
        And don’t make me talk about Eragon, that child.

        • Tiberia

          Yeah, I’m not feeling Airy Oo either. Not all experiments can be a success.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Editor’s note: I removed a comment here because I think it was a double post while the original post was in pending review.

    • liber

      Male characters have to be overglorified to ridiculus amounts for people to clasify them as Gary Stu. Meanwhile, female characters, the moment they dare to have some degree of badassery, get smacked with the term inmediately.

      If you don’t believe me, just look at the discourse that came with The Force Awakens when it came out, and the multitudes calling Rey a Mary Sue, when she was far more developed and had plenty of reassons for the things she did. Luke? Nah, he was cool, blowing up the Death Star while being a farmer most of his life is totally realistic. Yeah.

      Another example is the fandom fights between Mikasa and Levi, who have almost the same personallity, and yet only Mikasa got hate for that. (I can’t talk much about their skills because it’s been so long since i watched the show, so i’ll stick with what i remember from the fandom)

      Yes, a lot of people regard Eragon and Kirito as the posterchilds of Gary Stu, but you can’t ignore the fact that female characters gets so much undeserved criticism in far more quantities than their male counterparts. Wish fulfillment for men tend to be more well recieved than the female one.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Plus Kvothe from the Kingkiller series has litterally all the traits people claim makes a Mary Sue, including being a self insert for the author (Kvothe was the author’s D&D character), and he’s given tons of critical praise.

        • Bitter

          I have no idea what you’re talking about so I’ll refrain to comment on it.

      • Bitter

        I don’t exactly agree on you with that, but now that I’m thinking, maybe I’m listening to a certain group of people who are eager to call male protagonists Gary Stus? And badass females not usually get called Mary Sues–Strong Female Characters though. Not a good term neither, as they’re females who’re only “badass” and then… what? They’re obvious baits for (usually) males to fantasize with a dominant woman. Or points for “equality”.
        I haven’t seen The Force Awakens because I don’t follow Star Wars and I only have general knowledge of it, but true, I’ve seen some reviews saying she was a Mary Sue and providing some examples of it–that she knew things she couldn’t have known, that people more experienced than her would obviously know but remained ignorant for the sake of her, and stuff like that. I don’t know, haven’t seen it. If it’s true, well, she may have a Mary Sue-ish vein. Don’t know.
        Mikasa got most hate for getting in the way of the Levi/Eren ship, mind you. As regards their skills and personalities–I think the problem is that they have different motivations. Levi wants to help saving people. Mikasa doesn’t care about people, she cares about Eren. And luckily, Armin. That doesn’t work on her favor. Levi and Mikasa may share a lot of personality traits, but she has some pretty shitty development. And that’s the author’s fault, not hers. Other female characters kicked ass, you forgot to mention, and they’re loved to death.
        I think that most of the “undeserved criticism” (having in mind the Rey stuff–I can’t really comment on it) is because of a variety of reasons:
        1- A lot of people sees a female character and instantly raise the feminism alarm. Sometimes is right, sometimes is not. There are a lot of female characters to prove them wrong, and if they think otherwise, they’re free to come fight me.
        2- A lot of people sees a female character and everything’s fine, until she plays a shitty role (as a shitty love interest, for example), has a shitty development when she clearly had potential (Mikasa), or simply there for points, be feminist points, “sexy” points, or “we had to pass the Bechdel test, Jaime” points. And that’s the authors’ fault, I recognize that. But they’re still, shitty characters.
        3- A lot of people sees a female character that has a great plot armor and she’s perfect. She’s a Mary Sue. We all agree on that. Bella Swan.

        • liber

          You’re right aboutthe discussion being more nuanced than how they look like from an outsider’s perspective, and it’s true that there are plenty of cherished badass female characters out there. However, i have still seen more cases of undeserved aclaims for female characters compared to those of male ones, which was my original point.

          And we hanging out with different groups may be why our experriences seem so different though. In my case, i tend to wander on Tumblr (keeping distance with most of the sjw discourse, mind you), specifically around communities of artists and writters. And let me tell you, some time back, the Mary Sue calling there was rampant, to the point of people being afraid of using ANY assosiated characteristic to Mary Sues (things are getting better though). So is any discussion about female characters in video games, where the sexism is much more prevalent than in other areas. YouTube comments are also shameful in this regard, but those are treated as a joke for a reasson, so…

          Female characters, being one of the “social justice” targets (alongside POC, disabled people, etc) DO get more attention than the straight white male “standart”. And, as you said, not only they get badly written more often, but their weaknesses as characters bring more hate than they would as male characters. We can see this shit with POC and queer characters too (sadly…)

          I agree with most of what you said though. And i’m curious to know where have you seen the Gary Stu callings.

          About Rey: while she did do some ridiculus things, it was clear where she learned those skills. But that was not the problem: calling her a Mary Sue inmediately brings Luke and Anakin to the discussion, who are much worse offenders than Rey will ever be, and ignoring those two when talking about Rey’s flaws as a character is what pissed off most people about the discussion. Those who called her a Mary Sue never considered the flaws of Luke and Anakin, even when pointed at, and that IS a problem. That’s why i used her as a example.

          In the case of Mikasa, i won’t comment; i’ve only seen the first seasson of the anime, and that was a long time ago. I only remember some second hand discussions about her, so using her as an example may not have been a good choice on my part. Sorry

        • Cay Reet

          Actually, a badass female character who doesn’t take sh!t from anyone also is a fantasy for a lot of women. We would like to see more women who kick ass instead of sitting around, being damselled, and waiting for the guy to save us so we can be ‘his’ for the rest of our lives (or at least a long and sweaty night after the end of the story).

  4. Richard

    I always thought a “Mary Sue” was a wish-fulfillment version of the author. Kind of like how James Bond was what Ian Fleming wanted to be. I gather the name came about from all the cheap romance novels that have the main (female) character being too perfect, and then swept off her feet by some dashing young supermodel type.

    But what do I know.

    • Cay Reet

      The name Mary Sue came from a Star Trek fan-fiction with an extremely young crew member (Mary Sue) who was, essentially better at everything than everyone else. There’s also a comic, but I’m not sure if it’s still online. Mary Sue clearly was a self-insert and, of course, totally overcandied, but the term has since been applied to any kind of female character who only gives a suggestion of being a little better than expected.

  5. StyxD

    I need to get one thing off my chest:
    Was this comic created and posted at present mostly because of the backlash to the Last Jedi?

    With that said, I’m very split on this one.

    Thing is, I don’t think that getting rid of a word will erase the double standards in its usage. People will just throw something else.

    And Mary Sue is an useful term. It certainly describes a thing people noticed and wanted to name, since it was picked up from a parody fanfic and stuck for around 40 years now.
    I don’t think it’s fair to interpret that it’s all because people hate powerful female characters.

    On the other hand, Mary Sue is a dull tool indeed. Many people worry that their character may be a Mary Sue, but it’s hard to give any advicd because of how nebulous the term is. “Overcandied” is actually much better, since it captures the core of why these kinds of characters are so negatively perceived – at least that’s how I interpret them.

    But the definition of candy needs explaining every time, while Mary Sue provides a baseline that can just be sharpened. It may be more practical to just do that.

    I’m unsure.

    Also, at least in the community where I’ve learned this term, Gary Stu wasn’t really used because male examples were called Mary Sues as well. Maybe I’m biased to see this term as more gender-ambivalent than it really is.

    And I’m not nearly ready to give up humming this work of art when reading some bad characters: https://youtu.be/ldDpr02g-TM

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It wasn’t specifically about Last Jedi no, though Rey is of course one of many examples where people scream “Mary Sue” at any competent woman.

      You’re right that retiring the term won’t get rid of the double standard, but it will help level the playing field a little. “Mary Sue” is inherently gendered, the same way “bitch” is. We can call a man a “bitch,” sure, but it doesn’t have the same meaning. That’s also true for “Mary Sue.”

      There’s also some confusion over what “Mary Sue” even means. For some people it’s “any character who’s too good at stuff,” while others insist it must only apply to self insert characters, or characters who everyone loves.

      • Quinte

        Mary Sue: a character that distorts the through line, message or drama of the story.
        Characters like James Bond or Bella Swan I wouldn’t classify as Mary Sues as they are wish fulfilment characters for wish fulfilment stories. Rey in the force awakens is a wish fulfilment character in about team. She was a very thin character and I felt that the last Jedi tried very hard rewriting her, to turn her from a Mary Sue to a fallible character.
        Also as someone with a disability I can say from personal experience that changing the term won’t get rid of the negative connotation.

      • StyxD

        I don’t disagree that the term is gendered and that is a downside, but I don’t think it’s like “bitch” very much.

        For one, Mary Sue has a (vague) definition, it’s not just a term thrown to insult women. Some people argue in good faith about female characters being Mary Sues, but it can’t really happen with gendered insults, like “bitch”.

        Also, “Mary Sue” is not used as derogatory language against real people.

        The term is gendered because the original creator parodied a female character. Was it really wrong?

        Also, while I’m sure people interested in analyzing literature will apprentice more concrete terms, I’m afraid general fans won’t care. And we really can’t point to a real demographic that is hurt by usage of the term. Because throwing it at a character doesn’t really prevent works with them from being made. Because not using it doesn’t erase biases that make some people see badass female characters as “artificial” or “SJW inserts”.

        I will admit though, I’m biased myself. In the last weeks I’ve been pretty soured by the discussion around Last Jedi, when the narrative was just shy of “you must love Rey or you’re probably a nazi”.

    • Cay Reet

      I think one of the problems with the term “Mary Sue” is that it is gendered by its very nature. While, technically, the names “Mary” or “Sue” (am I the only one who loves the song “A Boy Named Sue”?) could be used for boys as well (“Maria,” the German version of Mary was used as a middle name for boys for quite a while in our history and rarely still is used today), both names and their combination as “Mary Sue” are usually considered a woman’s name. Hence especially people new to the discussion or not that deep into special places on the internet will use it more easily for a female character.

      Yes, the problem for which it stands definitely can happen with both male and female characters, but on the whole, female characters are more likely to be called out for it. A character written both as male and as female in the same way (just exchange he and she) will often be called a Mary Sue in female form, but not be called out (as a Mary Sue, a Gary Stu, or anything else) as a male character. The original Mary Sue definitely would have been called out as a male character, too, but she’s an extreme, that’s why she coined the name. That is, essentially, what the comic does stand for (although the whole “Last Jedi” thing might have had an influence on when it was published here). There’s a hell of a lot of double standard (just look at the armour of male and female characters in PC RPGs, for instance) when it comes to what is ‘allowed’ for male characters and what is ‘allowed’ for female ones in any form of media.

      I also like the term “overcandied,” because it’s both gender-neutral (candy has no gender) and actually better defines what it means. Someone has too much candy, too many good sides and too few bad ones. It’s easy to explain without going into fan fiction and all that stuff.

  6. Kroz1776

    I don’t want to get too much into it but I initially defended Rey’s character and while I thought she was overly competent, I didn’t think she crossed into Mary Sue territory until the Last Jedi where she gets a day or two of “training” and then can beat the crap out of trained warriors. I feel Rian tried to lampshade it by stating that oh, the force needs balance so if one side is too powerful it will raise up someone to be their equal which felt forced.

    In the first movie she uses one force power, once. If she had gone back to being incompetent like Luke was you can chalk it up to desperation. People complain about the first Kylo fight but he was shot by a gun that hitting NEAR a storm trooper blows them away. I feel like her victories in the Force Awakens were justified, the Last Jedi, I feel weren’t.

    In contrast, while it’s not shown that Luke is a good Pilot before hand, you at least have his old buddies in the rebellion that state he is already a good pilot. He has one skill. He’s good at flying and he’s a good shot. He comes off as a bit of a Gary Stu in the first movie. The issue comes from his arc.

    The Empire Strikes Back fixes this by stripping him away from his fighter and shows off that Luke isn’t as competent as we might think. The same goes for Han. It shows their flaws and still gives them victories throughout while ultimately the Empire comes out on top. Luke loses his duel with Vader, Han is frozen and shipped to Jabba and the Heroes have suffered a personal setback while the rebellion has suffered a setback.

    The Last Jedi does the reverse and strips Rey of the few flaws she may have and makes her succeed at everything she does in the movie. We want competent women characters not flawless female characters. Leia wasn’t flawless, but she was competent. Rey in the Last Jedi is the only time I’ve felt I’ve run into a female character that is so competent that it ruined the story so I agree, the term is probably a bit overused for mainstream fiction.

    • Rivers

      I don’t agree with all your points, but I do think you did make several good ones. One of my personal issues with the newer Star Wars movies, that I think heightens the issue of Rey being overly competent, is that the antagonistic characters are often shown to be flawed and incompetent. They did do this for certain reasons, but I think Rey’s character would improve a lot if the Dark Side could try bumping it up a notch.

  7. Ty

    Speaking from an entirely TTRPG experience, I’ve never actually heard anyone refer to a female character as a “Mary Sue.” I’ve heard many power-gamey male PCs referred to as “Mary Sues.”
    I’m not denying that the term isn’t obviously gendered now that I think about it, but I guess I never really thought that hard about it. I guess what I’m trying to suggest is don’t judge others who use the term too harshly.

  8. RHJunior

    Horse leavings. Mary Sue is not shorthand for “any competent female character.” It’s not a Gender Issue. Put down the SJW shirt and the vagina hat and step AWAY from the soapbox, okay?

    (And I will take pause and note the hypocrisy here: a tendency to equate ANY male character demonstrating more competence than Homer Simpson with being a Gary Stu. If he’s masculine, it’s “toxic.” If he’s capable, he’s “unrealistically written.” If he gets shit done he’s “overshadowing the female lead.” He’s not acceptable to a Modyrn Wymyn unless he’s the bumbling, cowardly, ambiguously gay comic relief for the female lead. Too bad he’s terrible writing and nobody wants to see the movie or TV show or read the book. )

    Mary Sue is not a gender issue. The reason they’re called Mary Sues is because the majority of them appear in fanfiction, the majority of fanfiction is written by females, and the majority of them are female self-inserts. There plenty of MALE Mary Sues, too, but it’s the law of averages at work here.

    Secondly, there’s an epic level of difference between a character who can do anything and a BADLY WRITTEN character who can do anything. There are thousands of hyper-competent female characters who are not only explicitly NOT Mary Sues, but are also fan favorites…. Ripley from “Alien”, for example. Samus from Metroid. Catwoman, Wonder Woman, half the cast of the X Men, the Avengers, and Justice League. Scully from X-files. Princess Freaking Leia.

    Your pet token feminist icon isn’t being disparaged as a “Mary Sue” because she’s female, she’s being disparaged as a “Mary Sue” BECAUSE THAT TOKENISM IS ALL SHE HAS. Her writing and characterization are terrible, she has no personality, her character development consists of randomly sprouting aptitudes to show how she’s ever-so-much-better than the next male character over, and she only exists in the first place to ride the soapbox for whatever women’s issues shibboleth is current this week. She’s badly written, and calling her critics sexist doesn’t do diddly to change that. TITS ARE NOT A FORCE FIELD FOR PROTECTING YOUR CHARACTER FROM CRITICISM.

    • Cameron

      RHJunior, I do not understand why you are angry. No one is saying that female characters should be exempt from criticism, and there are certainly overcandied female characters. Those are awful female characters! They have no soul, and are merely there as a jaded attempt to appeal to women.
      We are also not saying that men should not be allowed to have any candy. There are lots of incredibly competent and traditionally masculine characters that I love – Captain America, Sam Vimes, Batman, the Doctor, etc.

      My objection arrives when any kind of cool, badass female character that I love and relate to seems to come under fire for being a Mary Sue. I think this often overlaps with the idea that anything teenage girls like is automatically stupid. I love Katniss and Rey and the new Ghostbusters, and I had a great time watching their movies! I think they were really good! I haven’t watched Jupiter Ascending, but the fanfiction’s pretty rad.

      Even if they aren’t the epitome of high art, they hit all of my wish fulfillment buttons, and after decades of Transformers and Fast and the Furious and James Bond being written off as good clean fun, I think I’m allowed a few goofy blockbusters with women at the helm.

      Try this thought experiment: Think of your favorite movie. Turn all of the men into women, and the women into men. If the product makes you uncomfortable, I’d like you to really sit with that. Now imagine that *every* movie is packed with women and the occasional token man in skinny jeans and ripped shirts whose only skills are seduction and poison. It would feel pretty rough, right?

      P.S. In the future, I would appreciate it if you tried to speak civilly. Debate is great, but there’s no need to be combative!

      • StyxD

        I don’t disagree with what you’re saying in general, but I have some issues.

        It reads to me like you’re saying “There are bad female characters, sure, but not these characters I like. No one should say they’re bad.”

        I think it’s partly subjective whether a character is still badass or just overpowered.
        It’s also because Mary Sue is such a vague term, which is a good argument for using more descriptive terms! I myself think Rey is a bad character, but Mary Sue is not a right label for her.

        Also, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying some wish fulfillment, but works that thrive on it are often derided as junky. It doesn’t mean they stop being made. So why care if other people dislike them?

  9. Nora

    So true, I see how many people call Katniss Everdeen a Mary Sue (but she was taught archery since she was little, it doesn’t come from anywhere), while some people like Jason Bourne and James Bond (who have the strange capacity not to die [if the CIA and MI6 had created a way to make their agents survive 3 bullets, drowning, multiple car accidents or falling from exploding buildings we would know]). But nobody seems to claim that’s it’s unrealistic, we hear more “badass” or “enjoyable”.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes. And I’m pretty sure if James Bond turned female, into a Jane Bond, people would start complaining about how all that is unrealistic and how she’s the biggest Mary Sue that ever was.

  10. Ginger

    I am not sure on this. When a kid in early 70s a Mary Sue was like “Sweet Mary Sue” Penelope Pitstop, Mary Jane. A wholesome girl incredibly lucky but needing rescue. Still… unkillable. But very likable.
    Then in D&D circles, it became meaning OP character that can’t be touched no matter what. Unfair level of “can’t touch dis”. Was less gender oriented? At this point, recently, I’m googling the term because the meaning is so muddied I wondered what current definition is…..

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