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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