Female friends: the untapped resource for fixing ‘Mary Sues’ in fiction

I just read this piece on why Comic Book Girl considers Mary Sue sexist. Here, a Mary Sue is defined, explained, and the controversy is outlined:

Wish fulfillment characters have been around since the beginning of time. The good guys tend to win, get the girl and have everything fall into place for them. It’s only when women started doing it that it became a problem.

TV Tropes on the origin of Mary Sue:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment.

Notice the strange emphasis on female here. TV Tropes goes on to say that is took a long time for the male counterpart “Marty Stu” to be used. “Most fanfic writers are girls” is given as the reason. So when women dominate a genre, that means people are on close watch, ready to scorn any wish fulfillment they may engage in. This term could only originate if the default was female.

In fact, one of the CONTROVERSIES listed on the TV Tropes page is if a male sue is even possible. That’s right, it’s impossible to have an idealizied male character. Men are already the ideal.

As woman who writes fiction, I’ve come across this term. The Mary Sue term is why I refer to Stephanie Meyer as ‘the richest fanfic author in the world.’ Her character, Bella, is Meyer’s wish fulfillment writ-large. I think, though, female wish fulfillment is worth talking about in fantasy and sci-fi. What do women really want? Even in good fantasy, women’s wants are often seen through a male lens.

Usually, women are described as wanting love or wanting to settle down. There is nothing at all wrong with a women being in a relationship or being a love interest, but the problem is women are usually reduced to this single trait. It’s over looked that male characters also want a lover, but they’re allowed to pursue other interests and be more than the Love Interest. Women, however, usually have to take the one dimensional role. The problem is, women are also humans who have multiple identities as they go through life. Women can’t relate to just being one thing. Yes, women want love, but so do men because they just keep getting in relationships with women! Women who want love also want other things, and to keep them as Love Interests just makes for a boring story.

In the interest to move away from women only being portrayed as a love interest, authors tend to make her a ‘modern woman’ who is independent and wants a career over anything else. The 180 swing away from the love interest is also problematic for a whole host of reasons. Usually, the woman wants lots of unattached sex instead of a relationship. She embodies a lot of masculine traits, and she often has no female friends because she’s described as being ‘better’ than other women. Do you see the problem yet? This version of a woman character is still a male wish fulfillment, but just a different type. Men want ‘exceptional’ women, so she can’t just be any woman. While this version of a character is typically cooler than a woman who is strictly a love interest, she’s off putting to women readers because women cannot relate to her.

What would ultimate female wish fulfillment look like? I would say it looks nothing like the hyper-modern woman or the love interest. These are just examples of male wish fulfillment for what they want women to be like. I would say that female wish fulfillment is embracing some level of femininity. I don’t mean you should have your action hero sitting around and applying nail polish before a battle, but I do think she should have female friends. Women liking women is one of the under rated ways women characters become real and fully realized in fiction. One of the greatest ways to strengthen female characters and your credibility with writing for women is to have your female characters be genuine friends with other women. Don’t have them competing all the time with other women and don’t have them focus on men all the time. Women who like women may be the greatest way to break down the Mary Sue stereotype. No one is too perfect or too flawed to have friends. Hell, even Avatar’s crazy princess Azula had two female friends, and part of the reason she went crazy was because she lost her friends. One of the reasons I adored Azula’s character is that it shouldn’t have worked. The pretty, super villain princess has been done so many times. It’s the worst form of the hyper-modern women, but give her some female companions, and she doesn’t seem like such an exception, even if Azula is still the most powerful of her companions.

Is Mary Sue a sexist concept? Is there a heroine version of Azula that exists? I think the idea of Mary Sue isn’t going away, but we should take it out of the wish fulfillment realm and have it mean “an idealized version of the author or an unrealistic character.” I think men can be Mary Sues, but we accept that version of male characters in our culture. (Should we? That’s another post all together.) I think there are many super heroines who already exist that could be even more epic if they had friends. Wonder Woman can still be the most powerful woman around, make love to super sexy heroes, and defeat the bad guys. But she’d be a better character if she worked with some other women to get the job done.

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7 responses to “Female friends: the untapped resource for fixing ‘Mary Sues’ in fiction

  1. I’m currently writing a YA novel and I love reading posts like this. They are very helpful to me, giving me a lens to look at my story through. I think showing strong female friendships are a fantastic way to flesh out female heroines. Nice blog.

  2. You know, you make an interesting point – I’d never thought of it before. I read all sorts of books – in fiction, across many genres; and non fiction covering many subjects – even some online fan fic (sadly, I have little time for books these days, at least fan fic is short – usually). And it only occurs to me belatedly that most of the fan fic writers are women. And that indeed, the ‘wish fulfillment’ type character is an old one. Thus the ‘Mary Sue’ label does come across as dismissive of women writers.

    Although, ‘wish fulfillment’ characters can work in literature – it depends much on the skill of that particular writer.

    I won’t comment on S. Meyer now. All I can say -shudder- is the underlying Mormon patriarchy and religious falderaal gives me the heebie jeebies.

    • What I hadn’t really been aware of until I read Comic Book Girl’s post is the controversy that the male equivalent of Mary Sue couldn’t exist. In the particular communities I had been a part of, writers critiqued both Mary Sue and Gary Stu type characters, although, I admit that the ‘Gary Stu’ was usually aimed at criticizing characters already in the canon who were being glorified by the author to a point of absurdity. The sexist nature of an original character ‘Mary Sue’ and the relating TV Tropes controversy made me think about if the term was sexist or not. Comic Book Girl did an update post in which she said that males were taught that writing power fantasies was a viable career option, and women were taught that writing power fantasies meant you were writing a ‘Mary Sue.’ When you think of it like that, the concept is a gender insult, but I’m think the term has meaning when you’re talking about author-avatar type characters in fiction. There can be perfect, unrealistic type characters that aren’t author power fantasies, and I think those could work. I just can’t think of an example where a character that is an author power fantasy has been done extremely well.

  3. I’ve heard it suggested that the defining point of a Mary Sue (in fanfic, anyway) was not wish-fulfillment specifically but a warping of the plot and hijacking of the other characters to make it all about the Mary Sue. I.e. the problem isn’t her perfection (though that has its issues) but that she saves everyone and sees through the villain’s schemes and the other characters lose their personalities and even competence in favor of liking her, loving her, deferring to her, being saved by her, et cetera.

    Of course this kind of Mary Sue, by definition, cannot exist in original fiction, but in practice the definition would expand to original fiction which displays that same pattern of everything revolving around the protagonist. If she’s the only competent character, the only one who gets anything done, the focus of everyone’s attention to the point of absurdity, or is orbited by everyone and everything in the book to the detriment of their own personalities and development, that’s a Mary Sue too.

  4. I know that Gail Simone had brought Etta Candy back to the Wonder Woman comics, is she gone again with the reboot? And before Amazon Attacks came around, Wonder Woman was Themescura’s Ambassador to the United States, she had a whole supporting cast, and I think all but two of the people in it were female.

    I’m pretty sure that the runs of Wonder Woman that get referred to as the better ones typically have a larger female cast.

    • I know the early incarnations of Etta Candy focused on how she was fat and liked to eat sweets all the time. I remember an io9 post on how terrible she was in the 1940s/1950s Wonder Woman comics, but at least she was secure and okay with being fat, although her entire character was about being fat. She’s been reincarnated as an Intelligence agent, but she has an eating disorder now. I’m not up-to-date on the newest reboot, although I heard positive reviews about the Greek pantheon and Greek mythology playing a larger role. I couldn’t understand the backlash when Wonder Woman got to wear pants. Who fights in a bathing suit? *sigh*

  5. I read a lot of fanfiction, and it’s basically brought to my attention that Gary Stu’s are allowed to be canon while Mary Sues are to be mocked. Not to offend anyone, and hey, I really did/do like the Dresden files for some things, but Harry is a big Gary Stu. James Bond? Gary Stu. A lot of superheroes, especially in their earlier incarnations, are also Gary Stu’s. But because they’re men, it’s cool…we all have to have heroes to look up to, right? But not heroines, apparently.

    Gary and Mary’s are kind of like what people say about art and porn; I can’t give you an exact definition, but I know them when I see them.

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