Ladies Ladies Ladies
I have heard a bunch of discussion going around about the term "Mary Sue" -- a term often used by reviewers to dismiss characters that they feel are too perfect, too awesome, and too favored by their author. Zoë Marriott gives a really good breakdown of its definition and a point-by-point analysis of the problematic way she's been seeing it used over on her journal. I thought it was a really great post about a very overused term and made me consider the Mary Sue a bit more. Then Sarah Rees Brennan made a fantastic post about flawed characters and female identification with awesomeness and her call for flawsomeness.
One thing that I believe is a big part of the Mary Sue problem is the origin of the term -- in fanfiction, Mary Sue was used specifically for an original character, often closely resembling an idealized version of the writer, who was inserted into a world and caused the world turn upside down and reconfigure itself around her center. As in: Spock gets a long-lost daughter with purple eyes who's an even better doctor than McCoy and when she arrives, Kirk instantly falls in love with her and makes her captain in his place. She takes them to the planet of the Sparkle Ponies where she defeats Khan with her beauty and that of her new glittery equine friends.
The problem with using this term outside of fanfiction is simple: the world of a novel has always configured around main characters. They are at its center and, often, they are the best at stuff. Kirk is, for example, is the best with romancing the green-skinned ladies. He's also the best at leading. Spock is the best at being smart. Scotty is the best at keeping the Enterprise from being blown to pieces by the actions of both Kirk and Spock. Their skills are important and it's unlikely that anyone is going to come along and be better at those things than they are.
So when a book is about a girl who is the best at something and about the boys (and/or girls) that love her and how she defeats the bad guy, well, that's because she's the protagonist. It is good and right that she be at the center of the story.
For example, I have seen complaints that the protagonist always wins the love of the main male character. What's problematic about that is, well, of course she does, because if she's the protagonist then whoever she loves becomes the main male character by virtue of his connection to the protagonist.
Hence, applying the term Mary Sue to original characters in an original story requires a great deal of care, because some of the hallmarks of the Sue only make sense in the context of her being inserted into a world where she's not the protagonist. The Mary Sue warps the story; the female protagonist is the story.
Still, I understand why Mary Sue is such a popular term. It's a convenient piece of shorthand, usually used to indicate any or all of the following (Zoë's post includes her slightly different list, but the point remains the same):
- The reviewer believes that the novel is the writer's personal self-insert fantasy.
- The reviewer believes that the female protagonist of the novel is so perfect as to be unrelatable.
- The reviewer believes that the female protagonist of the novel is so flawed as to be unrelatable.
- The reviewer believes that the female protagonist of the novel is too powerful.
- The reviewer believes that the female protagonist of the novel is too powerless.
- The reviewer believes that the female protagonist of the novel is getting in the way of the boys' story.
- The reviewer believes that the female protagonist is too stupid to live.
- The reviewer believes that the female protagonist has no reason to be so darn clever.
I am not going to give examples about specific female characters, because in every single post on this subject I've read where someone did give examples, the comments were full of "I don't think BLANK and BLANK were Mary Sues, but BLANK totally was!" That will make me crazy, so you must forgive me for avoiding it and for requesting you avoid debating the Sueness of specific characters in the comments.
What I would like to say is this:
- We can't keep applying the term so broadly if we want it to mean anything at all.
- We can't hold female characters to totally different standards than the ones we hold male characters to, or we ladies are going to back be in the kitchen making jello surprise before long.
- We can't hold female creators to different standards or speculate about their relationships to their own characters or discuss their appearance or (a) we will make proponents of New Criticism cry (b) jello surprise again (c) we will be in danger of believing that we can peer into the dark heart of another -- and who can assert that, truly?
Let's not do this with male creators, either. In fact, ideally, let's just leave the author's intentions out of it. Many an author has thought they were writing one thing while critics have interpreted their work as being something else (ie, "Milton was of the devil's party without knowing it") entirely, so whether or not an author has succeeded created a sympathetic, well-rounded female character, I think it's fair to assume that it was his or her intention to do so.
- We need to criticize female characters and female writers, sure, so long as we're not criticizing them first and foremost for being women.
If you're reading this and you agree and it's been bugging you too, please tell me. If you think I am up a tree, please tell me. And if you're near Grand Rapids, Michigan, this week, you can come tell me in person.