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.

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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.

  6. Dvärghundspossen

    When I first learned the term Mary Sue, I was told it means “over-candied self insert” (it wasn’t explained to me in exact those terms, obvs, but that was the gist of it).
    As you say, self insert in itself isn’t problematic at all, and high-brow, well respected fiction can have self insert main characters with no one thinking less of them for that reason. Over-candied characters, on the other hand, are inherently problematic. But when you COMBINE an excess of candy with self insert, it becomes SO ridiculous, worse than too much candy on its own.

    Still, I absolutely see the sexism problem with using “Mary Sue” to describe this phenomenon. Like, look at the male hero in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium books (“girl with the dragon tattoo” and sequels). He’s an OBVIOUS self insert (he’s a journalist, like Stieg was in real life, he works at a magazine that’s very similar to the magazine Stieg worked at etc), and he’s got SO much candy (for starters, all women, even hot women half his age, keep throwing themselves at him), and yet, this is somehow not a common complaint about these books?

    To sum up: I hear you.

  7. Spamonyga

    Thank you for this article. I really despise the term, “Mary Sue.” It feels vague, hateful, non-constructive, and frankly insulting to hear, and not to mention quite sexist. I noticed more often than not, the people who complain and whine about “Mary Sues” tend to actually be the most guilty of “Mary Sue-ism,” and write extremely poor quality characters. I’m starting to think it’s more of a projection thing in most cases. I don’t defend characters with too much candy, and hate certain ones just as much as anyone (This is a huge problem in the anime scene.), but I can’t help but argue against the whiners for their hypocrisy, either. Again, thank you for this wonderful and enlightening article. I’ve been linking it any time I see the dreaded phrase pop up.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yay, I’m glad you liked it! For me, calling a character a “Mary Sue” just isn’t helpful, it’s about as specific as saying they’re a “bad character,” and then there’s the sexist context.

      • Roger

        A longer in-depth explanation of why someone considers X a bad character is indeed more helpful… most of the time at least you learn what other people’s tastes are.

        Then again, I’m more than able to write an in-depth character analysis of 20+ long bulletpoints while not making this analysis any less hostile and hateful than a “OMG kill the XYZ Mary Sue” one liner comment.

  8. Roger

    It is an interesting article, thank you for writing this. One curious thing that the article points out is the sex bias of, which is not something I previously associated with the “Mary Sue” term (perhaps because the most obvious and sisliked characters of this sort that I recall are male – Lord Vetinari from T.Pratchet’s universum case in point).

    I strongly agree that “Mary Sue” is an ambiguous buzz-term and is in fact often used as a stick to hit the author with. I would however strongly disagree that changing this to “candy/ spinach” is an improvement. That is exchanging one buzz-word for another.

    I’d myself say the term “Mary Sue” is a bit confusing, as it refers to two separate “problem-character” types.

    1. “Overpowered characters”. Unusually competent, smart, knowledgable, fierce etc, without effort and/or a believable reason behind it. They are able to do things that otherwise similar characters in the universum cannot do.
    2. “Overly-liked characters”. Liked/loved by everyone in the universum (especially popular canon characters), other characters are in awe or admire them without believable reasons.
    3. Finally combination of 1 and 2.

    Last point I want to make: Mary Sue-style characters (especially type 1) occur all the time across many ancient myths. Ṣàngó of the Yoruba, Sun Wukong, Maui or Väinämöinen come to mind. For some reason they are predominately male in myth, some also contain trickster characteristics (eg. Maui, Sun Wukong, Hanuman).

    People of all times and cultures apparently have a need to create and listen to stories about characters who have a mysterious past, are descended from great heroes/Gods, own special magical items/weapons and have unreasonable powers for no reason that put them above others in a specific mythology.

    At the same time, I think what makes said mythological characters more tolerable and appealing is that they are obviously not self-inserts of the storyteller (even if they can be seen as a power-fantasy). I’d say the self-insert intention is thus important in the creation process and has a big impact on the end-result-character.

    • Cay Reet

      I wouldn’t call Lord Vetinari a Mary Sue, because he’s neither a main character nor a viewpoint one. He might have a host of very interesting and specific skills – and he wouldn’t make a good viewpoint character for a full novel -, but he’s by no means over-liked or over-powered (or a combination of both). He is a seasoned politician with a lot of experience and a natural talent for strategies and tactics.

      It’s a simple fact that a male character can get away with a lot more candy (as we call it here) and a lot more amazing skills and talents than a female one, before they’re in danger of being called a “Mary Sue” (or Gary Stu or suchlike). That means that the term and its use are sexist, because female characters are accused of being one much more often. Or, to put it the other way: a male character has to be much more over-powered and over-liked to be considered as a “Mary Sue.”

      • Roger

        I know that some people are sexist and thus use it in a sexist way. But the term itself does not appear to any innate sex bias of its own.

        Example: I’m male and to me Vetinari (male) is clear Mary Sue. Ticks all the boxes, save not being the main character and not having a major love plot. For you he is not and by your username I’d guess you are more likely to be female.

        Maybe its me, but in most fantasy and SF universums I see many more male Mary Sue characters than female ones. To give a few relatively well known sf and fantasy worlds:

        1. Tolkien. I’d say Beren is the only serious Mary Sue candidate. Eärendil and Gandalf could take a very distant 2nd/3rd place (I don’t think these are true Mary Sues, though they have some traits common to that archetype). All male.
        2. Star Wars first trilogy. Only Luke would qualify (though at least he does get some character development and actually works/trains to get from nobody to superhero)
        3. Shadow of the Apt series. Salme Dien and Tynisa would be the obvious Mary Sue characters, Tisamon a distant 2nd place. Two males, one female. Though as in the previous example, at least they train and work hard to get better at what they do.
        4. Not really SF/fantasy, but Ann from the Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (type 2). And yes, a female this time.

        I want to up one interesting example in this debate that most people will recognize – Uncle Tom (potential type 2). He is a superhuman paragon of virtue, everyone except the main villain love him or are in awe of him. Nobody ever makes him change his opinions, while he can outtalk and convince almost everyone else. The two henchmen who kill him end up admiring him so much that they totally turn their life around.
        If he would survive and somehow go to a “ran away and lived happily ever after”, then imho he would be 100% Mary Sue.

        My 3 favorite writers Stanisław Lem, P.K Dick and J.Dukaj have not created a Mary Sue (at least in my humble opinion).

        One pattern I may see coming out of this discussion is that male characters tend to be type 1 “overpowered” while female characters often type 2 “overliked”. I think this might be because men are more prone to “power-fantasies” while women to “popularity-fantasies”. This seems to be a constant though most cultures I’m familiar with.

        • Cay Reet

          Actually, any female character with enough powers not to need a male protector can end up being called ‘over-powered.’ Although I give you that female characters are more likely to be ‘over-liked’ by the people in the story. Howerver, that can very much be down to our understanding of male and female traits. Men are supposed to be powerful, whereas women are supposed to be likable, so they can ‘find a husband.’ Not all women are that much into popularity fantasies, but it’s the only thing they’re given in media. To see power fantasies, they have to turn on that ‘conversion app’ in their minds and watch movies with a powerful male lead. True story.

          I know quite some women who love characters like Xena, because they’re not about ‘being super popular,’ but about being very powerful and a badass fighter. Such characters are very rarely female and by now they could and should be. A character who is, like Rey, is quickly called out for being a Mary Sue. A character who dares to be female and competent can quickly be accused of being a Mary Sue as well, even though a male character with the same level of competence would just be considered a competent guy. Women don’t like Wonder Woman because she’s popular, for instance. They love Wonder Woman for kicking ass and taking names while being female.

          Yes, there’s a lot of male power fantasies around. Conan the Barbarian, if you want it simple. Many others in every type of media, including several comic book characters and computer game heroes. They are not called out for being that, though, because it’s pretty normal in media to see a male character who serves as power fantasy for the male audience. If you have the same character, but female, she must be a Mary Sue and completely unrealistic, bad writing, only there because of the SJW crowd, you take your pick.

          You can go through media, look at all the main characters, and put up very strict rules for a Mary Sue and you will find enough male ones as well. They are not called that by the majority of people who consume media and are prone to accusing characters of being a Mary Sue, though. A male character has to be extremely over-the-top to be called that, whereas a female character often just has to be more than a stereotype and dare to have actual skills which do not magically disappear the moment she meets the hero.

      • Roger

        “any female character with enough powers not to need a male protector can end up being called ‘over-powered.’

        I strongly disagree, because that depends entirely on the setting and the world depicted. Historical fiction examples (I’m not giving fantasy example to avoid talking about worlds only one of us read about and knows):

        1. Any “regular” (non-foreign, non-priest) Athenian female from the classical Greek city-state era “with enough powers not to need a male protector” would be highly unusual in that culture and be doign things 99% of other female characters can’t. So a very likely Mary Sue.
        2. The overwhelming majority of female characters won’t be a Mary Sue just because they have “enough powers not to need a male protector”, if the story is set in set in modern USA.

        In fantasy settings (especially “action/heroic” ones, with real danger to the protagonists) pretty much all believable characters will need external support for someone at some point. A character powerful enough never to need any help is likely overpowered, regardless of the sex of the person offering said help.

        Xena and Conan are both power fantasies. Though it has to be said neither of them is the smarest or most lovable character in their specific universum. They are both in some way too simplistic to be a “textbook” Mary Sue in my view, they clearly do have Mary Sue traits though. Side note: Conan was at least somewhat original in its own 1930s time and spawned the whole superhero barbarian theme. Doesn’t make him any less of a Mary Sue.

        I’m not familiar with Rey I’m afraid. My Star Wars knowledge ends with the first trilogy and some expanded universe stuff from the 80s and 90s. By my standards Luke can be legitimately called a Mary Sue, thus if she a female version of him of sorts than she would fit too.

        Wonderwoman and Superman are type 1 Mary Sue, at least from what little I know about them (Caveat: I never liked that universum and am not too familiar with DC or Marvel).

        “you take your pick”
        My pick is: “bad and copy-paste writing”, regardless of the sex of the character and author. Male authors can produce female Mary Sue characters and vice versa.

        The core thing is that “Mary Sue” itself is a term that can be and is applied to male characters freely. I remember (many years ago) a male-only RPG group where people used that term twoards male characters and using it in no way suggested that the character in question is feminine. Just that he is too powerful/liked/smart/whatever for no sensible in-world reason.

        Again: sexist people will use language in a sexist way. I dont think the majority of fantasy/SF fans are sexist, if this is what you suggest.

        I do see this problem more in specifically “hard/realistic SF” fandom, as that community is overwhelmingly male (that alone means more potential for anti-women sentiments) and also dominated by “math minds” and “strict science” people, who on average tend to be more condescending/elitist than for example say a fan of “Shadows of the Apt”.

        • Cay Reet

          I’m not suggesting that the majority of SF or fantasy fans are sexist. Because the majority of them doesn’t go around shouting “Mary Sue!” at every other character. It’s a specific sub-set, many of whom (but not all) are white men (but not all white men are in that sub-set), who are quick to shout “Mary Sue!” whenever a character gets to be stronger or better than average (which is actually the point about many heroes) and doesn’t confirm to their idea of a hero (usually also white and male). The large majority of fans of any genre doesn’t do this. If they don’t like the hero in question, they don’t consume their stories. If they like the hero, they do consume their stories and call themselves fans of that character. Just as audiences everywhere.

          Yes, a female character in ancient Greece not needing a protector is unusual. But the point about many male heroes also is that they are unusual for their time period. That doesn’t make them Mary Sues, either. Unless you’re doing a historically correct slice-of-life story, you will not operate with the standard model of an inhabitant of any place and/or time, because the standard model doesn’t lead an adventurous life. You will choose the unusual one who will do unusual things, challenge the status quo or the authorities. That is part of writing a story. Without a conflict, there’s no story. And without a character prepared to act against expectations, there’s no conflict.

          And yes, any action hero in modern tales will need help at some time. Mythological Hercules needed help with the hydra, too, someone burning the head stumps so the heads wouldn’t regrow, so it’s not just modern tales. Which means female heroes would be much more likely than they are in the media.

          Take, for instance, “The Meg.” You have an enormous shark which can’t just be beaten to death by a human, but only be defeated through technology (same as with the shark from “Jaws”) or desperate measures. To the meg, every human is just a delicious snack (barely worth the effort, but that’s another topic). Yet, you have a male lead. Why? Not because the lead’s strength is enough to defeat the danger, but because everyone expects a male lead – because nobody thinks about a female lead. Taking down that shark (or the one in Jaws) is not something for one person, but we do get a male hero.
          Compare that to the 1999 version of “The Mummy.” It’s shown early in the movie (as soon as the mummy has come back to life – sort of) that pure strength can’t conquer the mummy. It’s immune to weapons, because it’s not really alive and thus can’t die. And while Brandon Fraser plays a very fun male lead, the actual hero of the tale, if you look at it closely, is Evie, not Rick. She is the one set up in direct conflict. She is the one who frees the mummy, who insists on taking responsibility, and who kills it in the end (because without her breaking the spell and rendering it mortal, Rick could stab it for eternity without effect). And that version of “The Mummy” is clear adventure yarn, rooted in B-movies and pulp, where male heroes are the default.

          Yes, Rey is in many ways a female Luke Skywalker. Which just proves my point: Luke was rarely, if ever, called a Mary Sue (although I agree with you that he would fit the mould). Rey is constantly called one. Why? Because she’s a female character.

          Look, it seems that we are not on the same page about why the “Mary Sue” term is bad. I agree with you that there are a lot of over-powered male characters, too. I agree with you that both over-powered and over-liked are traits of a Mary Sue character. The problem is not that you can apply the ‘Mary Sue’ mould to both male and female characters. The ‘Mary Sue’ is a too-perfect wish-fulfilment character and those happen in both sexes (although what is considered wish fulfilment might vary, see over-powered vs. over-liked). The problem is that the very vocal fans (who are just a small sub-set of all fans) apply the term “Mary Sue” mostly to female characters and mostly in order to disqualify them. They are not ‘worthy’ of being heroes of the story, because they are Mary Sues (and Mary Sues are bad characters who only happen to bad authors). And that is why the term should be retired.

          Alternatives, as mentioned here are terms like ‘over-candied,’ which are not specific to any gender (whereas the term “Mary Sue” is based on a female wish-fulfilment fan-fiction character). It’s perfectly okay to discuss whether a character is over-powered, over-liked, or both. It’s perfectly fine to criticize a character for that. But by now, the term “Mary Sue” has taken a very specific and very negative meaning by itself and that makes it a bad one to use. Saying ‘I find Rey over-powered and I even think she’s over-liked’ or ‘Rey has far too much candy and not enough spinach’ is perfectly fine and might or might not be justified (I guess it somewhat is). There are articles about ‘over-candied’ characters on this very side and the characters mentioned in them would qualify as Mary Sues (and are male as well as female). It’s not carrying the same negative implications as saying ‘Rey is a Mary Sue,’ even though it means the same. It’s simply a less-judging way of discussing characters than sayin ‘X is a Mary Sue.’

  9. Roger

    Cay Reet: “The problem is that the very vocal fans (who are just a small sub-set of all fans) apply the term “Mary Sue” mostly to female characters and mostly in order to disqualify them.”

    – I entirely agree, this is exactly what I meant previously that I said that sexist people will use language in a sexist way. Its a problem with the actions of specific people, not the language. Prejudiced people will use the term “Muslim” in a hostile way, does that make the term “Muslim” prejudiced in itself? No. Would exchanging “muslim” for example to “mahometan” change anything as far as prejudice goes? No.

    Cay Reet: “Alternatives, as mentioned here are terms like ‘over-candied,’ which are not specific to any gender”

    – Will retiring the term for another really change anything? The same sexist people will then proceed use the new term ‘over-candied’ mostly to female characters and mostly in order to disqualify them. The problem lies with the individual users of the language, not the word itself.

    I’m more than able to write a super-hostile and entirely unfair critique using the term “Mary Sue” that would lose none of its unfairness or hostility when exchanged with “spinach / over-candied”.

    Now something about characters “being unusual” and how the limits for female and male characters are now always the same (long post, sorry):

    Being unusual alone does not constitute a Mary Sue. History is full of unusual people. A story may need an unusual or very powerful character to fulfill a plot role. Even realism itself often stipulates that some positions will likely be filled by smarter-than-average people. You can create a character who starts out as a common man and creates a company that makes him a millionaire at the end of his life (historical Andrew Carnegie for example). It would be unrealistic if that character is sloppy, lazy, dull and also lacks social skills. Then the readers would start askin: “Ok, so how did this loser manage to make this great company?!”

    But even that unusual character needs to conform to the internal rules of his universum and setting. A male “Andrew Carnegie” character is possible in a 19th century US setting, he would not be possible in an 19th cenatury British setting. And a female “Andrew Carnegie” would be impossible in both, as neither society at the time allowed women to act as directors of companies of that sort.

    A Mary Sue is a character that “bends the rules of her world”, for no believable reason allows that character to do things other characters with their social background/sex/age/education couldn’t or wouldn’t be allowed to do. Or wouldn’t be alowed to do without clear negative social consequences.

    In most human cultures (and also in many fantasy worlds), this line lies in drawn in a different place for each gender. A male character cannot believably be a Roman Vestal, a woman can’t believably be a Roman Senator. Both could be a gladiator, but for a female gladiator you would need to have a much more specific and clearly defined background to be believable, the range of interactions she is allowed would also be different from a male gladiator.

    So following up that specific example: Not to be a Mary Sue, our female ex-gladiatrix should encounter characters (other than just the bad guys) who dismiss her skills and treat her as a “curiosity of the feak-show type” or Equites and Nobles who won’t even talk to her because they consider female fights to be something “vulgar, fit only for the plebs”.
    A male ex-gladiator can be spared such difficulties and not be a Mary Sue. A female character cannot – the line is drawn differently, depicting the actual inequality in status.

    Depicting actual difficulties that arise from social conventions/sexism/specific cultural beliefs about each sex does not make tha uthor himself sexist. Some of the best female ‘progressive’ writers do that. The trick is to do it in a believable manner. If the character brakes some social conventions, there should be a price to pay of the same sort that other characters would pay. And somewhere might also be a glass ceiling that no female character in said universum can brake in a realistic manner.

    • Cay Reet

      Female gladiators were actually pretty normal in Rome until they were forbidden by a law (after, so legend has it, an Emperor faced off against one, lost, and was annoyed people were laughing at him – but that, as said, is a legend, not a historically proven truth). Most of them, like their male counterparts, were slaves taken during conquests, often women who had already proven a certain tendency towards fighting. They were trained just as strictly as their male counterparts and had the same chances as those. An ex-gladiatrix would face no more troubles in society than an ex-gladiator – Roman gladiators were celebrities of their time, at least those who lived long enough to make it far in their profession.

      That aside, does it make a difference what word is used? Yes, it does. Because “Mary Sue” has a negative connotation and a term like ‘over-powered’ or ‘over-candied’ does not. A word can get a bad reputation and it will no longer be acceptable to use it. It can become a slur of sorts (although “Mary Sue” isn’t quite that far along). Just as the word ‘gay’ is not used in its original meaning (happy or cheerful) today, because it has taken on a different meaning, ‘Mary Sue’ is not just saying ‘this character is over-powered (etc.),’ but saying ‘it’s a bad character for being over-powered.’ ‘Over-powered’ or ‘over-candied’ are less judgemental terms for a character than ‘Mary Sue’ as it is today.

      There are wish-fulfilment characters and those can often be called Mary Sues (although many of those accused of being one are a good deal less ‘world-breaking’ than the original Mary Sue of ST fan fiction). The point of this article is that they shouldn’t be called that, because the expression has a negative connotation. That ‘Mary Sue’ for many is simply an ‘over-powered and over-liked female character who is bad, because it’s not a male character, who would be fine that way.’

      I agree that a female character can’t take every role – the same goes for a male character, a gay character, a character of a specific ethnicity, or a character with a specific disability. However, a lot of gendered approaches do not stem for physical impossibility for a character to be something else than a white man. They simply stem from the idea that only a man (and only a straight, white, and able-bodied one) can be a suitable hero. It’s not that those stories wouldn’t work with a female, black, gay, or blind character, but it’s that the authors don’t even consider such a character.

      • Tifa

        Hear, hear!

        *clap clap clap*

        So very well said, Cay.
        I enjoy reading your posts.

  10. Roger

    Cay Reet: “However, a lot of gendered approaches do not stem for physical impossibility for a character to be something else than a white man.”

    – Aye, strongly agreed.

    Cay Reet: “They simply stem from the idea that only a man (and only a straight, white, and able-bodied one) can be a suitable hero.”

    – I entirely agree, such an idea is not just stupid – it is also not realistic and unhistorical. Teresa of Ávila, Joan of Arc or Catherine the Great are historical characters.

    That was really my argument – things should stay realistic and historical. Authors shouldn’t be pressed to remove strong and intelligent female characters from books in a medieval setting. At the same time they shouldn’t be pressed to remove all weak or silly female characters either. Or they should not be pressed to somehow include at least one black character into a story in a medieval Lithuanian setting.

    Avoiding the absurds of both extremes and giving room for artistic freedom and realism – that is what I call for.

    Cay Reet: “Mary Sue” has a negative connotation and a term like ‘over-powered’ or ‘over-candied’ does not.”

    – Well, I guess we stand in disagreement here (I of course accept and respect that, I hope this comes through my posts). For me both terms have a negative connotation and I certainly use them as such. When I say that a character is “overpowered” or is a “Mary Sue” I am in fact suggesting that this is detrimental to the narrative and that the story would benefit if this was changed. This is criticism. It can be constructive criticism if one follows up with details on what exactly is wrong, why, and how it might be adjusted – but in the end it is still criticism.

    When it comes to female gladiators – They did have a different status and social perception. They are less common and appear usually in larger shows, often exotic like ones held at night or against dwarfs. Let’s see the period sources:

    1. Cassius Dio writes it off as a luxurious novelty, writing that “He would often conduct the games at night, sometimes he would even pit dwarfs against women”.
    2. Petronius mocks the idea itself in Satyricon.
    3.Tacitus writes that women who fight in the aphiteathre have “disgraced themselves”.
    4. Suetonius offers a dry neutral statement and also refers to a larger, more exotic set of games: “he gave hunts of wild beasts, gladiatorial shows at night by the light of torches, and not only combats between men but between women as well.”

    Granted, these are all comments coming from Noble commentators. Still, every period commentator either disapproves of the practice or at best does not offer neitehr a positive nor negative opinion. Thus we know that female gladiators would have to face some such sexist opinions.

    If I were to write a story set in this period, I would certainly have at least some noblemen be dismissive or condescending towards an ex-gladiatrix, because we have several period Noble sources that express such an opinion.

    If one wishes to write historical fiction, whitewashing history is the wrong way to do it. The progressive way of writing is to depict sexist or unjust treatement as such. Not pretend that it did not exist or that things were better in the olden days than they really were.

    This is also my stand on communism, nazism, racism etc, not just sexism. If it was evil, show it as evil, don’t ommit it.

    • Cay Reet

      Mary Sue characters aren’t all that plentiful in historical fiction, though, because in this case, you’d stay very close to whatever reality you can pick up through original material (such as works written at the time in question) or scientific material (such as works written by historians). And no, historical fiction is no excuse for whitewashing – or not giving minorities their dues. There were people of colour in medieval Europe. There were women with a lot of influence. They weren’t as many as the powerful white men, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

      And even though we disagree on the use of the term Mary Sue … would it really be so bad to retire it in favour of something else? Would it be so bad not to call a character with those traits a ‘Mary Sue,’ but simply what they definitely are: over-powered, over-candied, over-liked, over-hyped, or world-breaking? Because, honestly, as a woman, I simply can’t stand hearing (mostly) men call female characters a ‘Mary Sue’ simply for not following the usual routes of female characters. Or for displaying talents, skills, or traits which are often considered male, but can in real life be found in women just as well. There is the occasional character (male or female) which is so much of a wish fulfilment that they break the story – making them a true Mary Sue. But a lot of the time, people use it for characters which do not, broadly speaking, fall under that heading at all and are just not what they want to see. And it’s not just used in a discussion, it’s used to discredit the character in question. The very often female character.

    • Cay Reet

      In addition: what is a better criticism for the author of a work: ‘This character is a Mary Sue’ (which can mean over-powered, over-liked, over-hyped, world-breaking, or any combination of those) or ‘This character is over-powered?’ What would make it easier for you, were you the creator, to see where the character fails? I know that I, as a writer, would find the second one more helpful, because it shows me where the problem lies: The character in question, be it female, male, or non-binary, either has too many or too strong powers and breaks the story because of that. If it’s about criticising a work – which is perfectly legit -, how do you criticise it well? By using an umbrella term with many different meanings or by being more precise and use a term which is specific to the problem at hand?

  11. Roger

    “Would it be so bad not to call a character with those traits a ‘Mary Sue,’ but simply what they definitely are: over-powered, over-candied, over-liked, over-hyped, or world-breaking?”

    – Not bad, rather an exercise in futility and a slippery slope. If we retire “Mary Sue” in favor of “over-candied”, then tme same people will start to use “over-candied” in a sexist way. Then we will need to retire “over-candied” in favor of something new, say: “nobash”. But then sexists start using “nobash” and we will need to retire that…

    Its a never ending process that expends effort without brining any results. You can see this in real life examples of words for people of different faith etc.
    The most obvious examples are in the English language. In my native language we have an example of this futility with words for people with development or learning disabilities. We went from very hostile terms such as “cretin” through equivalents of english “mentally retarded”, “mentally handicapped”, “intelectually disabled”, “people with special care/needs” to the equivalent of something like “able-minded-in-a-different-way”.

    None of this had any positive results. In fact the most soft terms (“special” and “able-minded-in-a-different-way”) had the exact opposite effect. Kids in my generation and younger started using these soft terms as insults far more often than the old terms. This was because in addition to being insulting the soft terms had an added appeal being linguistically clumsy or unintentionally-humorous. None of this did any good for the people with actual disabilities.

    Do I support insulting others by calling them mental-health-related names? Of course not!

    But the solution is to change the way people think. As opposed to artifically changing the words they use in vain hope that somehow this will change what people think. It is a lazy reaction that also has a nasty tendency to backfire and make things worse.

    “Mary Sue” is a far less serious topic than mental health, but the underlying mechanism is the same. Changing the language will not automaticaly change the way people think, often it will just make things worse.

    Maybe this is why I stick up for the “Mary Sue” term, despite the fact that it is just a storytelling word. Because this issue goes from storytelling to very important topics of language use and inclusion.

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