Deconstructing the Mary Sue Myth
Amber Benson, Andrea Letamendi, Cecil Castellucci, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and Sarah Kuhn.
Javier was the moderator of this panel, and he made it a bit awkward. That’s because some of the discussion went like this (these are not real quotes!):
Javier: For my first question, how has being accused of writing a Mary Sue negatively affected you?
Amber: It hasn’t. Being an actress is what people don’t like.
Sara: My nice reviewers were just responding to the fact that my protagonist was superficially a lot like me, even though she wasn’t perfect. I should have seen it coming.
Cecil: Never been accused.
Andrea: I’m not a writer, but I can guess writers are negatively affected.
Javier: The writers have just said that they make their female characters more flawed to avoid accusations of making a Mary Sue.
Teh Womenz: To be clear, we didn’t actually say that… we just really like flawed characters.
Excuse me, I need to write a letter to someone.
For the one of you that didn’t get the memo, your panelists are not present just to be a female mouthpiece for your ideas, regardless of how noble those ideas may be. Listen first.
That aside, this panel had some valuable things to say about the double standard that exists regarding female and male wish-fulfillment characters. Here are things they actually said:
Sarah: I think also that when there are female protagonists, sometimes when we’re watching that we feel we don’t have as many chances… we don’t have female James Bond. […] It started to make sense for me when someone told me my character in One Time Glory is not a good role model, because we don’t have a lot of girl and geek girl protagonists. […] When I see an Asian American female character, maybe even if it isn’t a protagonist, I will sometimes hold that character up to a more scrutiny, because I feel she has to represent something bigger than usual, and maybe that’s not fair.
Cecil: She can’t be flawed, she has to be perfect; she’s the only one.
Sarah: Whenever you’re updating any of those franchises, it still surprises me that any of those people are against making a character a woman. With the Star Trek reboot, how does this gender breakdown or even this race breakdown look at all revolutionary now? It was revolutionary then, now it’s completely dated. When I brought this up, people were like “oh woah woah woah, they’ve already changed enough, they couldn’t change THAT.”
Javier: They made Uhura smarter and she walks more!
Andrea: There’s this online Litmus test, that if you have created a female character, you can look at all these factors and characteristics, and there’s hundreds of them that you can check off. And I looked at some of these questions, and there is like “Is your character very petite and small, but she eats lots of pizza, so there’s no physical reason she would be that small?” … “Do other people in your story think your character’s anorexic, but they’re actually not, but they find this to be a compliment?”… “Is the character not named after you, but with the first letter of your first name?” I imagine that if I created a character, and I read all of these items, I would come up with nothing. I would have a one dimensional character, there would be no substance to it.
Sarah: I starting reading that and I almost had a panic attack. The list is so long and there’s these things like “Does your character have a hat?”
As a storytelling blogger, I think the Mary Sue does exist and is worth discussing. However, real female Mary Sues are almost exclusively in amateur works. Anytime you think a character in a professional piece is a Mary Sue, triple think it. The male version, on the other hand, is occasionally funded by Hollywood.
Labor of Love: Why Women Make Transformative Works
Julian Bliss, Rachael Vaughn, Tegan Mulholland, and Torra Kimbul.
Transformative works == fanfiction/art that has transformed the work of the original creator. This was an amazing panel, partly because of the open discussion it had with the audience.
Rachael: I hear a lot that transformative works are illegal, like they’re copyright infringement, and also that they’re silly or not serious or all about porn. It’s really important to think of them together. From the intellectual property perspective, a lot of transformative works are questioned, for example, because characters are protected by copyright. […] The thing is, that in the academic community, people that really care about IP law and IP policy, there’s a lot of questions about whether characters even should be protectable […] copyright extends not to ideas, but original works of authorship and their expression. To some extent isn’t a character just an idea? So the premise that some of this stuff is copyrightable is a little bit weak. And on top of that, in the United States there’s this defense called the “fair use” defense, and there’s also an analog in trademark law. It’s a statuary defense with four factors: how much you transformed a work that you copied, whether or not you’re commenting on it, whether your copying has an effect on the potential market for the work, and how much of the work you took. […] So even if there’s a copyright infringement case, there’s usually a pretty good fair use defense. I don’t think ALL fan works are transformative, they need to be analyzed on a case by case basis. But when I walk around at a convention and hear that all fanfiction is illegal, I sneer.
The other side, that fanfiction is silly and all about porn and fluffy, yeah, a lot of it is silly […] but some of those aspects about being about porn, are exactly what make it transformative. Like, Dean and Castiel aren’t really… no, that’s a bad example… Steve and Tony aren’t like… no, that’s another bad example… Harry and Snape aren’t really together. […] When Snarry authors… they’re commenting and transforming the work more when they make a slash pairing. I would posit that a lot of the stuff that we classify as “porny” fanfiction is actually highly transformative. And I think a number of others will weigh in on the value of both porny or not porny and silly or serious fan works.
Tegan: Marion Zimmer Bradley used to solicit fans to send her their work, then publish it, then had a legal dispute with a fan about something that they sent her, they said she used their idea in a book, and they wanted credit for it, and they wanted to be paid for it. And that put a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy writers off of fanfiction, and now sometimes they say “it’s great if you write fanfiction but don’t send it to me, I don’t want to see it because that could put me in a difficult legal position.”
Audience member: It seems like there are at least two conversations going on here that are somewhat contradictory, and I’m not sure if they have to be, but we have to work out how we’re talking about it. Because we’re saying “how come when a guy does this it’s recognized and validated” and we’re also saying “well, I really like being transgressive” and those are both really valid, but they make the conversation really complicated. […] How do you fit all this together?
Rachael: You just did a awesome job summarizing a big conflict in fandom at the moment. I think it comes down to the individual fan and the risks that you’re willing to take. If you want make a living on your work.
The Amazon reference in this next quote is referring to Amazon’s effort to acquire fanfiction.
Tegan: A lot of the difference in the male recognition and the female recognition is because it’s such a female-dominated society that we’re part of here, that just aren’t that many male fan writers that are out really getting their stuff known. […] There are few, but there’s just not that many, so it’s harder for them to get the recognition as fanfic writers just because there’s so few of them. Also, that ties in with Amazon, what a lot of people weren’t aware of was that most of the people they did contact originally, specifically, not just posting it on the board, but actually contacting were male. They actually did go through and pick out people with male-sounding names to contact about [owning] their fic.
Torra: Something that I just love when I think back on the way early day of the internet,1997 – 98, to start with an example, I ran a forum for the Adventures of Sinbad, called the Haven. It was a het pairing, because in 97 – 98 that was pretty much all you had, they had Xena/Gabrielle but they were kinda off to the side. So I ran this het forum, so for April’s Fools I changed it to a gay forum with Sinbad and Proteus. I got hate mail and death threats from people I’d known for two years and spoke with multiple times a day saying “If you don’t change this back, we’re going to report you to the ISP for inapproriate materials” and all that. I shut down the forum for three days I was so furious. But something that was really really encouraging was that, as fandom has grown, the inclusiveness has grown.
Playing God: What It Takes to Create a Universe
Hilary Heskett Shapire, Karin Weekes, Kenna Conklin, Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows, and Patrick Weekes.
Though this panel was advertised as a worldbuilding discussion, all the panelists were writers who did worldbuilding in support of their stories. As a result, the discussion was mostly about storytelling and writing. My GM friends left disappointed.
Like any panel Patrick Weekes participates in, he’s completely hijacked the quotes here. I can’t help it; he’s just so sparkly.
This quote was in response to the question: what details are most important to communicate the world to the reader?
Patrick: You make interesting single points that are going to capture the reader’s imagination. And those interesting single points, well, say “Okay, I have a talking magical war hammer. And it only has a three phrase vocabulary, but still, it’s a talking magical warhammer, and it talks in a language nobody understands. But it has a pretty good attitude, and it’s friendly and it’s helpful.” And then later I can infer stuff from that; it’s an interesting first step. It plants the flag in the ground, and says “If all I ever do with this is a talking magical warhammer, then that’s great. But if at the end of the book, maybe there’s a magical race, and I bet the ancient race made the warhammer. I bet the ancient race IS the warhammer.” You have to plant a flag in the ground, and the flag in the ground has to suggest things, but not inherently define everything. Because as soon as you define everything you turn your imagination off.
Sure, as any worldbuilder will tell you, it doesn’t take any imagination at all to define everything. But really, that’s a good example of how to capture the imagination – create something that opens up a lot of questions.
Patrick: My science fiction writing teachers once said, “The key is not to get everything right, the key is to make it difficult for the reader to prove that you’re wrong.” Because you can… Larry Niven with Ringworld, did an incredible amount of research and went to extremes to figure out how his Ringworld would work, and two months after his book came out someone did the math and realized his ring would spin and wobble and break eventually. So Larry Niven in the sequel had to put side thrusters on. Or you could have just said “It’s a ring, we’re not quite sure how it works, but it does.”
Patrick: 95% of getting the book right, is getting the flow of information right, it’s saying, “Okay, I’m planning this book to be about 100,000 words, and I’m dividing that up into 25 chapters. So the average reader can take in somewhere between… if you say every scene introduces one new character, one new location, and one new plot element, that’s about right. When you have a scene that introduces like 5 new things – “here’s-five-new-people-and-they-all-have-distinct-personalities-and-here’s-this-location-you’re-going-to-come-back-to-it-and-it’s-really-important-and-take-in-all-the-details-and-go-off-and-do-this-other-thing-over-here [intake breath] and-here’s-the-plot-and-by-the-way-this-is-how-my-magic-works-[…]” and the reader or the player is just like, “I don’t know… what? Sorry.”
Miellyn (not Patrick!): My characters talk to me. They want to say things and they want to do things and so, I’m like “Great! Let’s open the door, who’s on the other side of the door? Oh you’re here you came to see me, great.” I know it sounds a little crazy, but it’s that you’re playing with your imagination, and if you can make it real enough for you, then it’s going to be real for someone else.
Patrick: You will never run into a situation where people can’t surreptitiously explain the world through clever banter. So like… I need someone to explain so the reader knows that raising zombies is frowned upon. Maybe they don’t get that, I don’t know, I’m not judging. So I have a wizard, but the wizard already knows that so I need someone who isn’t the wizard. Okay… farm boy, farm boy… he doesn’t know it, so the wizard is going to explain why that is worse than casting fireball. So my wizard is going to explain, they’re going to go back and forth, and they’re going to do it while climbing something in the middle of the night because that’s more interesting than talking over coffee.
A dialogue purist would tell you never to do that. I think it can be done, just make sure it’s what your characters would naturally be talking about in this situation, and not something you are imposing on them.
Is Star Trek a Feminist Utopia?
Jamala Henderson, Jarrah Hodge, Mary Czerwinski, and Tanya Feldman.
The one regret of this panel’s audience: why couldn’t we keep listening to these women talk about Star Trek for several more hours?
Mary: You have to understand what Gene Roddenberry was doing, he was hiring these amazing writers Harlan Ellison and Robert Bloch, who already had a lot of pre-existing pieces, and some of the Star Trek stuff got shoe-horned into that. I want to look at an episode that’s not so great for women, called “Wolf in the Fold” [collective groan] So Robert Bloch, who wrote Pyscho, wrote this episode [summary of episode involving the mysterious deaths of alien women]. We learn that it’s this entity, and Spock says “It preys on woman, because woman are more easily and deeply terrified, generating more sheer horror than the male of the species.”
Jarrah: What I found really interesting, that if you’ve seen the… it’s on YouTube, it’s an introduction to Voyager with Next Generation that’s narrated by Robert Picardo and it’s really… hard to watch. And he’s like “Next up, we’re gonna reveal our new captain, and our new captain has got this one, really amazing thing about them” and this amazing thing is that “aren’t we clever, we made her a woman.” And it’s like this big patting ourselves on the back. It’s just really interesting that when they really started to push that and get it right, it’s still like “ha ha ha, look at us, we’re pushing the envelope. Aren’t we clever?” And like, the other captains were humans first, and then men, and she was a woman first, and then human.
In regards to the characters Uhura and Sulu from the Original Series:
Tanya: There’s this kind of model minority thing that people grew up with, where you kind of have to be the best of your culture and ethnicity and stuff like that. So I think that’s problematic in itself, and I think that, in some ways, that’s where they got stuck.[…]
Jamala: In the sixties, you needed to have some kind of representation. It’s a long road that we’re moving toward to have representations and infinite diversity and all that stuff and yes – variations. And the more you have, at some point, when you reach a point where you have ten black women sitting on deck of the enterprise doing everything, then we can have all different types of — one evil, one gay, one… you know. How cool would that be?
Mary: What Gene Roddenberry originally wanted to do was have a fifty-fifty split of cast members male and female, and he wanted to have an alien with pointed ears that kind of threw the stereotypes in our faces, that he was this demon character, but here he was this logical person. And he wanted to have the first officer be female. And he had to give up two of those things, in order to keep Spock.
Writing for Role-Playing Games
Amber: Then you actually have to write it, and that can be a really scary feeling. There’s this moment of euphoria where you’re like “I did it, I’m a real writer, this is awesome!” And then you sit down at your computer and you’re like “Oh my god, I don’t know how to do anything. This is a nightmare.” You start thinking “maybe I’ll never email them again, maybe I’ll change my name and move to Siberia.”
If you want to hear more, we have a full post covering Amber’s panel.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Fan Phenomena
Amy Peloff, Clinton McClung, Jane Espenson, Jennifer K. Stuller, Jo Jo Stiletto, and Suzanne Scott.
This was a great panel. It was especially amazing to hear Jane, who was one of the writers for Buffy and a number of other excellent shows.
Jennifer: Yesterday I heard over and over again at panels: “Buffy saved me.” “Buffy changed me.” “I would not be where I am today without Buffy.” “Buffy got me through a, b, c and d.” “Buffy connected me to my family.” And so I think there’s something there that has not just resonated with us, but completely formed who we are in communities that we create, and in the work that we do.
Susan: I was at that LA festival screening where everyone was like railing on Dawn so agressively, and Joss happened to be there, and it was very…
Clinton: He got up and said “What’s wrong with Dawn, you guys?”
Susan: And I think I might have shouted “Everything.”
Jane: I get a lot of tweets, really like a lot of tweets like the form: “I can tell you’re going to do this, you’re going to get this person together with this person on Once Upon a Time, I can tell, so I’m stopping watching now.” And sometimes they’re totally wrong. Or like “I can tell you’re going to kill Henry so I stopped watching last year.” People get upset about stuff even before it’s happened, and I think, rumors go around, people like to think that they’re ahead of the storytelling. I think there’s really a lot of danger in an immediate connection between the writers and the fans of anything. That when the fans start guessing where it’s going, correctly or incorrectly, or demanding that it go a certain direction, as a creator who wants to surprise people, you act in the opposite direction, even though you’re trying actively not to let the tweeting propel you, it actually propels you away from the place you wanted the story to go.
Jane: Writing scripts, as you say, is exactly like writing fanfiction. Even when you’re writing them as you’re employed on a show, writing Harsh Light of Day, every scene was like a fanfiction. “Oh this scene is going to be Spike and Harmony, and this scene is going to be Buffy is interested in this boy,” and it all felt like fanfiction every second. It’s just fanfic in script form, that you get paid for that goes on the television set.
Jo Jo Stiletto runs a show called Whedonesque Burlesque, which is a Buffy Burlesque show:
Clinton (to Jo Jo): What about Joss being a puppet, is that not…
Jo Jo: That’s not appropriate! No, what’s not appropriate is the things we do with puppet Joss. I actually had to tell the fans to please stop taking pictures and putting them on twitter, because I was like, “I don’t want Joss to know!” Then I found out Joss is kind of a pervert too, so I felt totally okay with that.
Audience member: What I found repeatedly, was the breaking point for most people’s feminism in the show was the scene where […] Spike attempts to rape Buffy, and how that was handled …
Someone (about a cosplayer): Spike is looking very uncomfortable right now, for shame!
Audience member: The fan reaction to how that was handled, Buffy continues her relationship with Spike. So I was just wondering what your take was on that point in the show and how fans reacted to it.
Jane: Yeah, I was there. The thinking was… people can learn. People can change. If we have no hope that people can see what they’re doing and change, then what hope do we have for making things better, so the notion was to have him make this attempt, and then instantly be so cognizant of what he’d done, so remorseful, that he immediately said “I have to go get a soul. I have to become a better man. I have to change, and grow, and learn to undo this behavior.” We were so clever in hiding that instant – because we wanted to do this mislead of, well you think he’s gonna go get worse instead of getting better. We hid it so cleverly I don’t know that we actually captured that moment the way it was intended. It was supposed to be a moment of learn, grow… Men: leave this behavior behind, go get a soul.
Building the Mystery: A Character Creation Workshop
Garth Reasby, H.L. Reasby, Quiana Kirkland, and Ren Cummins (all from Talaria Press).
Like the worldbuilding panel, this one was off topic. Most of the time was spent not on character building, but on generating a story concept. Our story was about a hippy cult living on a marijuana farm. It’s controlled by children who feed poison roulette brownies to the adults. The main character is a gender queer child that becomes an angry villain and ultimately destroys the commune they love. And now that the panel audience has generated this story concept, Talaria Press is forced to write it into their upcoming anthology.
Ren: One of the questions I get the most often is people ask me “how do you come up with these characters?” I mean, the main character from my last series is a twelve year old girl who is an angel of death. Which is, you know, what happens to twelve year old girls. Just like all of us. Well, not me, because I wasn’t a twelve year old girl. But… umm… if you ask me where did I come up with that character, well first, I had a daughter. And then, and literally she came to me after we watched one of the Harry Potter movies, and I asked her what she thought, and she said she didn’t like it. And I said “Why? Because they’re cool.”, and she said “They gave it the wrong name. Because Harry Potter’s dumb, he doesn’t do anything but fly around and not die.” As super powers go, not dying is a good one, but she said it should have been called Hermione Granger. Because she did everything; she does all the studying, she’s better at magic, she’s better with wands, she’s really the more strong character. The more… focused, driven character. She’s the one with more of a relatable goal, for people to watch and be “that’s the person I’d like to be.” Not just “I want to be the victim, and manage to not die.” So she says, “Dad, you need to write me a story about a girl who kicks butt.” So I wrote her six.
Goodbye GeekGirlCon, we’ll see you next year!
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