Reclaiming Mary Sue

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Mary Sue: An idealized character based on the author of a literary work, most commonly used by female authors.

The term Mary Sue is quasi-loaded. A writer might be insulted if someone claimed a character they created was a Mary Sue and because of awful drek, like anything related to Twilight, Mary Sue has become synonymous with trite writing and tired, boring women living out their unhealthy teenage fantasies via vampires. To anyone who gives money to the Twilight franchise (even people who say they like it because it’s so bad and let’s be honest, you’re not fooling anyone), stop now. Not only is it awful but it has made one of the driving forces of female literature a spoof.

“Mary Sue has become synonymous with trite writing and tired, boring women living out their unhealthy teenage fantasies via vampires.”

Mary Sues have existed before the term was coined. The original Mary Sue was created by Paula Smith who, in 1973, wrote a Star Trek fan fiction called A Trekkie’s Tale in which she put herself on the bridge of the Enterprise with the name Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest Star Fleet graduate. Relax everybody, this was pre-Wesley Crusher so yes, that is accurate. Before it was so specific and well before it was something awful, there were authors like Kate Chopin and Louisa May Alcott, both creating characters believe to be versions of the authors themselves in The Awakening and Little Women respectively.

The original Mary Sue is at least an impressive young lady, one who graduated from a prestigious school and serves on a highly decorated exploration vessel at a very young age. In recent history, Mary Sues have become nothing more than strange adolescent fantasies centered around high school and boys. Paula Smith wrote herself into a story where she was intelligent and driven while other authors use their avatars to make themselves boring and pretty. Writer Anne C. Crispin once said of Mary Sues, “The term ‘Mary Sue’ constitutes a put-down, implying that the character so summarily dismissed is not a true character, no matter how well drawn, what sex, species, or degree of individuality.” The word needs to be reclaimed.

The reason an author creates a Mary Sue is because putting herself into her stories and crafting worlds around a character she wishes she could be is what most writers have done for all of time. No one read the The Bell Jar and told Sylvia Plath her character was too idealized or too much like her. Writing was expected to be semi-autobiographical. The difference with how Mary Sues are now seen is the frame of desperation, the sad clawing of a woman who could never possibly achieve what her “perfect” character does.

Thanks to websites like The Mary Sue, the word is finding a positive light again. The Mary Sue is a website targeted to women, but certainly not exclusively for them, that covers a variety of weird pop culture from comic books, Dr. Who, Venture Brothers and zombie movies. It honors the creator of the Mary Sue and sees the concept of her existence from an optimistic angle. At one point, a Mary Sue was a character a girl desired to be because of what she accomplished, not because all the boys wanted to have sex with her. Edna Pontellier of Chopin’s unbelievably beautiful work The Awakening has a very strong sexual aspect to her but it is not passive. She is not some wistful teenager waiting for a man to come along. She is a tragic and repressed character who has the guts to take what she desires, something Chopin herself admitted as being as failing of hers. Before women’s lib and civil rights, Mary Sues existed without a name because this was how women made their statements. It’s a sad day when the statement being made is “if you’re pretty and don’t argue too much, all the boys will like you.”

Mary Sues can be as positive as the author wants them to be, though it seems like the more positive ones get less attention than the ones that sell movie tickets. Some critics say Mary Sues could silence some authors but it comes down to the source. If an author makes a Mary Sue to be the powerful person they aspire to be rather than the internalized fears and inadequacies of society, then there will be no silence.