Commentary

Why the Term “Mary Sue” Should Be Retired

Someone get me a blackboard to tap on; we’re starting today with a history lesson. In 1973, author Paula Smith wrote a Star Trek parody story, A Trekkie’s Tale. Smith was making fun of trends she saw in the fanfiction of the age, and to do this she crafted a parodic protagonist: Lt. Mary Sue. Mary Sue is good at everything, loved by everyone, and dies tragically in Kirk’s arms at the end. Since that fateful day, the term Mary Sue has taken root and flourished in our discussions of pop culture. It has crossed the boundary from fan fiction into the mainstream, where it’s used to describe characters from Hermione to Rey.

It has to go. This was not a decision arrived at lightly; we’ve used Mary Sue a few times here at Mythcreants, but it’s the right thing to do. We put out a comic about this a few weeks back, but like most complex subjects, this one benefits from some long-form explanation. Without further ado, let’s look at why Mary Sue must go.

There Is No Consensus on the Meaning

The first problem you run into with Mary Sue is that people don’t agree on what it means. It’s obviously grown beyond the original usage as a Star Trek fan-fiction term, so what is it now? There is no good answer.

I always assumed it meant a character who was too competent, either because their competence was unearned or because they were so competent that they have no serious problems. But then I looked up the Wikipedia definition and found it refers to a “perfect character.” The article also mentions author-insert characters and wish-fulfillment characters.

That’s certainly not what I thought the term meant. So, does a character need to be perfect in order to qualify? Do they need to be a representative of the author? Do they need to be part of a wish-fulfillment story, which would include everything from Harry Potter to Stranger Things? Or do they have to be all of those at once?

No one really knows, which means Mary Sue has little value as a shorthand term. No joke, I have actually seen Mary Sue purists get into arguments with other commenters, insisting that the term should be reserved for characters who are proven to be stand-ins for the author. Those arguments were probably outliers, but there’s no denying that the exact meaning of Mary Sue is constantly in flux, which limits its use as a term of critical analysis. Before you can decide if a character is a Mary Sue, you must first decide what Mary Sue means in this context.

The Term Is Inherently Gendered

Assuming you can nail down what exactly Mary Sue means, you’ll then run up against how sexist the term is. The fact that it’s literally two female names mashed together might give you a clue. Plus, it originally referred to female characters exclusively.

It’s no secret that female characters are an order of magnitude more likely to be called a Mary Sue than their male counterparts, even when they have similar qualities. Consider Captains Kathryn Janeway and John Sheridan, from Voyager and Babylon 5 respectively. Both are extremely competent, far beyond what their backgrounds would suggest. Both have numerous stories where they are doubted by other characters and then gloriously vindicated. They even have stories where they (temporarily) die so that other characters can talk about how great they are.

Can you guess which character is more likely to be called a Mary Sue? If you guessed Sheridan, you’re not even trying. Janeway is overwhelmingly the Mary Sue favorite. This pattern repeats over and over again. It even happens within the same franchise, as people compare Rey to Luke and the 2016 Ghostbusters to the original team.

There’s no getting around the fact that Mary Sue refers to female characters first and male characters a distant second, if at all. What’s more, because the meaning of Mary Sue is so vague, it often gets blurred into “competent female = bad.” At this point, the term shuts down any useful discussion because its sexist connotations are so well known. No matter a person’s intent in using it, their arguments are shadowed by the specter of bigotry.

Variations like “Gary Stu” don’t help, because they are clearly variations and will be secondary for the foreseeable future.* Using Mary Sue in reference to male characters doesn’t work, either. That’s exactly like using “bitch” as an insult against men. You can do it, but it will never have the same cutting power as it does against women, except when it indicates that the man is feminine in some way. There is no good-faith way to use gendered slurs like this, and trying only legitimizes their use by bad actors.

The Focus on Author Stand-Ins Is Misplaced

Even though the meaning isn’t consistent, Mary Sue is still often used to mean an author-insert character. Sometimes this is based on what the author has said about the character; sometimes, it’s just guess work. Either way, this is a waste of time. It does not matter if a character is a stand-in for the author or not.

Despite what you may have been told, an author’s inserting themself into a story is neutral to the story’s quality. It has a negative reputation for two reasons. First, people only discover a character is an author insert if they already disliked the character. Few people dig into the background of characters they like. Second, author inserts are mostly associated with women. I have no idea if there’s actually a statistical difference in how likely male and female authors are to put themselves into a story, but it’s certainly perceived as something feminine.

Consider Kvothe, protagonist of the extremely popular and critically acclaimed The Name of the Wind. Many people love this character because of his wit and daring deeds. Many others hate him because of his arrogance and extreme competence. Does it make a real difference to either camp that Kvothe is based off the author’s D&D character? Of course not. All the traits that made people love or hate the character are still there; they haven’t changed because of this tidbit about the author’s process.

Some authors enjoy putting themselves into their stories, and some do not. Most of the time, author inserts will slip by without anyone’s noticing because they don’t actually affect the character. At the same time, many characters are incorrectly said to be author inserts because people didn’t like them. There’s nothing productive here; characters should be judged on their own merits, not the process authors used to create them.

Even if you never intend to reference author-insert characters when you say “Mary Sue,” it’s an inescapable meaning of the term. Other people will hear it regardless of what you meant to say.

It Will Help Level the Playing Field

I’ll hit you with a shocking truth: dropping Mary Sue will not eliminate sexism. While you’re reeling from that, you’ll no doubt be amazed to learn that not using racial slurs doesn’t eliminate racism either. And yet, most of us keep such slurs out of our vocabulary.

Respectful language is only one of many steps in eliminating bigotry. It’s easy to be extremely sexist toward female characters and authors without ever saying “Mary Sue.” And yet, retiring gendered terms from our vocabulary is still worth doing because it lets us start from a more even playing field.

In a world free of Mary Sue, people will still hold female characters to a double standard. These characters will be judged more harshly than their male counterparts, whether they have legitimate problems or not. But at least in that world, people will have to say what they mean. They won’t be able to simply dismiss any female character they don’t like as a Mary Sue. They’ll have to get specific, and perhaps they’ll even gain some self-awareness along the way.

There’s also the emotional burden to consider. Regardless of what anyone intended, Mary Sue is widely seen as an attack on female characters, and many women are simply tired of it. They feel these attacks the same way they feel all the other gendered insults floating around the English language. This does not imply any weakness or fragility – simply fatigue. Dropping Mary Sue is the decent thing to do.

What Should You Say Instead?

The big question whenever we drop something from our vocabulary is what to replace it with. In the case of Mary Sue, that will depend on the specific context. After all, one of the reasons we need to get rid of it is that’s a really vague term that can mean a lot of different things.

If you mean that a character is a stand-in for the author, just say that. But as we’ve covered, that’s not usually relevant to the character or the story, so it should probably only come up while discussing minor trivia.

If you’re trying to describe a character who doesn’t have enough problems, is too competent, is adored by the other characters without reason, etc., “over glorified” is a decent substitute. Most people will understand that “glory” in this context refers to all the various things that make a character seem cool.

If you speak Mythcreant, you can say “over candied.” “Candy” simply means anything that makes the character cool or admirable. A character with too much candy is so sweet, they’ll probably make you sick. You could also say a character doesn’t have enough spinach. Spinach is the opposite of candy; it’s anything that humiliates or humbles a character. In fact, the terms “candy” and “spinach” were coined partly to avoid imprecise options like Mary Sue.

If none of that works for you, the key is to drill down to whatever is bothering you about a character and put that into words. Is the character’s extreme confidence annoying you? Do you feel it’s unrealistic that the character could learn sword fighting in just a few hours? Describe whatever the problem is. It takes a little more effort than a term like Mary Sue, but your discourse will be more productive and less sexist.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. K.J

    Most characters, of every distinction generally have a central role in a community, often in our rush to paper we forget to show even an inkling of how our characters earned gold in their friends or their enemies.
    we all understand the role a central character must play but we sometimes forget that even if you aren’t showing the process of becoming that person they must have aspects that imply that past. something they still have that earned them passage and got them this far. and yes your aloud to like those quality’s as an author. I guess the main thing is letting a character have context.

  2. Cay Reet

    Thanks for the in-depth discussion about the problem, Oren.

    Also thanks for providing other ways to discuss the problems which might lead to people considering a character a Mary Sue. As a regular here at Mythcreant, I do really love the candy/spinach thing, because it’s pretty self-explanatory to me: candy=sweet=good, spinach=bitter=bad. A character needs to eat their spinach first before they get their candy. Over-glorified is also a good way of putting it and easy to understand for everyone.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks Cay Reet, I’m glad you liked the article! I’m also a big fan of Chris’ candy/spinach terminology. It filled a hole I didn’t realize was there, and I aim to spread it far and wide.

      • Leon

        Dude, I love this website, but you lost me when you brought up Ghost Busters. The leads in the remake were fantastic but no amount of talent will turn a turd into a fruit tart. It was just a bad movie; the vilain was boring, there were no side stories with characters for the heroes (or the audience) to care about & the director (although this probably had more to do with sound design) never established a feeling of menace or threat.
        Now. If some guy had invented the term Mary Sue, and applied it to… well, Mary Sues, that would be sexist. What you are doing is dumping on a womans contribution to the zygist.

    • Tiberia

      I too like the candy/spinach terms. They are very useful.
      My only issue with them is that they can subtly shift one to a very specific mindset; That of thinking flaws are an absolute requirement, and consequently losing sight of why flaws are good to have. I am of the strong belief that flaws are advisable in most cases, but not absolutely essential. For example, Atticus Finch. He has a lot of candy going on. He is kind, smart, tolerant, honorable, courageous, he’s Clark Kent with a law degree. But he doesn’t have much if any spinach (“Go set a Watchmen” didn’t happen). Despite appearing to be over-candied he is a beloved character. Part of it is that he isn’t universally loved in the community, and doesn’t always win. I don’t really consider either of those spinach, as they are external to the character himself.

      so what I’m saying is that over-candied, may be about more than just lacking spinach, and its good to keep that in mind.

      I do like the terms XD
      I critique because I love

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        What constitutes being overcandied is often sensitive to context, just like any other character quality. In that context it’s not really any different than the term “character flaw.” Some characters can get away with more candy than others.

  3. Sneaky_Commenter

    Interesting article, I think you are right that the term Mary Sue is outdated and mostly used as a shorthand dismissal without explanation.

    a Mary Sue is not a ‘perfect’ character, it is a black hole made from condensed author appeal that eats the story. The author’s pet character is usually just the most noticeable symptom.

    Writing stories solely for author appeal is like writing porn. It limits your audience to the people who share your specific kinks.

    I do however disagree with the idea that the concept has a gender bias, or at least one based on sexism.

    Fanfiction, as a whole, is a majority female hobby. if you look at a majority male fandom like My Little Pony, you see the fandom talking a lot more about “Gary Stus” then “Mary Sues”. In the MLP fandom, most of the bad OCs that get deconstructed and ridiculed by the fans are male.

    the way I see it, you can’t really talk about toxic author appeal completely divorced from the authors who write it.

    Not that I’m saying that male and female characters are held to exactly the same scrutiny, whatever authors do with their female characters will be seen as a larger statement on women by a lot of people on both sides.

  4. Vinnie the Reuben

    Minor point, and slightly pedantic, but if you actually care about these things: “Candy” is also a woman’s name (at least in the USA).

    • Cay Reet

      As someone not from the US, I can’t fight off the feeling that every word is a potential woman’s or man’s name in the US.

      • American Charioteer

        We rewrote the dictionary just to be different from Britain, then kept Britain’s Imperial units to be different from the world, so it shouldn’t be surprising that American parents love to give their children quirky names just because

        This could be one of the reasons that so many male given names have migrated to become almost exclusively female names (Ashley, Kelley, Madison, Hillary, Dana, Alexis, Bailey, Brook, Cassidy, Lauren, Lesley, Lindsey; probably a hundred more). I’m curious to know if this happens with German names, too.

        • Michael Campbell

          Yeah, keeping the names but changing the values was a “brilliant” move.
          Under imperial weights and measures there are 2240 pounds in a ton not 2000.
          Also there are 20 fluid ounces in a pint not 16. It turns out under imperial, a pint isn’t a pound of water.

          BTW, there’s no such thing as metric tons.
          The word you’re looking for is tonnes which is a weight of 1000 kilograms.
          Trouble is, American shipping uses a system of taxation at some ports (but particularly the Panama Canal) that uses Gross Metric Tons.
          Gross Metric Tons are not a measure of weight; as whether or not the shade cloth covers the seating on your passenger ship will change the gross metric tonnage of the vessel. Also, a hydrofoil ferry that usually runs in Hong Kong harbour will finish up having a high number of gross metric tons than a bulk iron ore carrier.

          Gross Metric Tons has caused the term Metric Tons to slip into usage but the correct S.I. unit is Tonnes.

  5. O.Mendes

    I’d love to setup an experiment. Get a large number of people who’ve never read the Kingkiller Chronicles and separate them into two equal groups. One group gets to read Name of the Wind, unedited. The second group gets the same book except the main character, Kvothe, is changed to be female, referred to with feminine pronouns, and that’s it. Then see how much more likely people are to like or dislike the character or how much more they focus on or talk about Kvothes’ arrogance or competence based on gender.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That would be amazing. Why won’t they give us grant money for this?

    • SunlessNick

      That would be interesting.

    • American Charioteer

      This is a cool idea! I think we know how it would end; Denna is essentially the female version of Kvothe and most readers hate her.

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