Let’s look at the original text of “A Trekkie’s Tale” by Paula Smith. Seriously, go read it right now, it’ll take you maybe five minutes – it’s neither deathless prose nor is it particularly long. “Tale” is actually astonishingly short – a mere 309 words, it doesn’t even qualify as flash fiction under modern definitions. Lieutenant Mary Sue was never intended to be a wide-spread condemnation of power fantasies involving female main characters and written by women; she was a way of gently chiding Trek fan writers – most of whom were women – for writing characters who were blatantly wish fulfillment to the point of warping the universe.
Whatever Paula Smith’s original intentions for writing “A Trekkie’s Tale,” however, people connected with the Star Trek fandom (which is a politely gender-neutral way of saying the same kind of men who themselves write power fantasies about their male characters inflicting violence that is entirely out of character with the Star Trek universe) latched on to the name of fifteen-year-old Lieutenant Mary Sue and turned it into an epithet toward any woman, in any story, who has the temerity to be distinguished in skill or utility from a piece of set dressing in a short skirt.
This story is now forty-one years old. 300 words written 41 years ago have been used ever since to control and channel the ways in which women interact with fan culture. Mostly by people who have never even read the original story.
While these two articles contain reasonable attempts to define Mary Sue, I would argue that the term “Mary Sue” is itself problematic because even its masculine counterpart (“Marty/Gary Stu”) is formed by reference to it, and very inconsistently applied. The definition of Mary Sue would be well-applied to many of the world’s most beloved male fictional characters, but isn’t. “Poorly written”, in particular, is a poor definition of a Mary Sue character because we can easily see that different standards of poor writing are applied to male characters vs. female characters.
So, there’s this girl. She’s tragically orphaned and richer than anyone on the planet. Every guy she meets falls in love with her, but in between torrid romances she rejects them all because she dedicated to what is Pure and Good. She has genius level intellect, Olympic-athelete level athletic ability and incredible good looks. She is consumed by terrible angst, but this only makes guys want her more. She has no superhuman abilities, yet she is more competent than her superhuman friends and defeats superhumans with ease. She has unshakably loyal friends and allies, despite the fact she treats them pretty badly. They fear and respect her, and defer to her orders. Everyone is obsessed with her, even her enemies are attracted to her. She can plan ahead for anything and she’s generally right with any conclusion she makes. People who defy her are inevitably wrong.
God, what a Mary Sue.
I just described Batman.
Mary Sue stories are a necessary form of women’s fiction. They are stories in which female characters are truly presented on an equal level with male characters, both for good and for ill. Yes, a Mary Sue is very frequently poorly written – but there are many poorly-written, inexplicably omnipotent male characters in published stories, too, and they don’t get the same kind of criticism.
One of the most particular illustrations of the unequal way in which women’s writing and men’s writing, and women and men as characters, is seen is to look at Honor Harrington. Now, I’m a fan of the Honor Harrington series (in spite of what we will be charitable and call some uneven writing, as well as the most recent installments being direly in need of a new editor – I’m looking directly at you, A Rising Thunder), but if David Weber were instead Diane Weber, the character would have the label slapped on her very quickly. She is loved by good characters in the series and detested by evil ones. Even among the villains, the more sympathetic ones regard her with the grudging affection and respect due an honored enemy. She hardly ever makes actual mistakes unless she’s given a choice with no clear right answer, an early exception being her decision not to pursue and destroy MNS Thunder of God in The Honor of the Queen when she had the opportunity to do so without exposing HMS Fearless to Thunder‘s full power.
Even given a male author, Honor herself is actually rather restrained by comparison to the Dahak trilogy’s Colin MacIntyre, wish fulfillment character extraordinaire (he starts as an astronaut in the peak of physical condition and is cybernetically rebuilt to have superhuman strength, stamina and perception and to be able to interface with electronics by touching them), and yet she’s the one who gets the more aggressive criticism. Some of this is, of course, because the Honor Harrington series has a volume count in the mid-twenties now counting sidestories, short-story anthologies and prequels and as a result it’s achieved more than a little bit of Protection vs. Editors (the property of a long-running story to start rambling because of a combination of increased prominence of the author and the editor of the work becoming a fan). Yet there is controversy over whether Honor is a Mary Sue or just that good – and I don’t believe there would be if she were written by a woman.
Consider Celaena Sardothien, the main character of the Throne of Glass series. Celaena is impetuous, not particularly well liked (except by her suitors), and makes several critical mistakes through the narrative of the first book that lead to her near-death in the arena. Her writing, also, is a bit uneven in spots. She is, predictably, attacked as a Mary Sue in several critical reviews and many reader reviews. Despite definitely not being omnicompetent, despite having deficiencies that are plot-critical, and being, yes, arrogant as hell – her arrogance is exactly the thing that damn near kills her! – she’s treated as if the author holds her up as a sort of paragon character when in fact all she is, is the main character. But she is a female main character, written by a woman, with whom girls are supposed to identify. And that’s all that some writers need to savage her as being supposedly unrealistic and idealized. For being tough, cunning, and arrogant.
Given the relative controversy about applying the label of “Mary Sue” to even highly unrealistic characters written by male authors, the defining characteristic of the Mary Sue is not her high degree of competence in fields traditionally dominated by men, though. If that were true, no female protagonist in a work of adventurous fiction would be safe from the label. Neither is it that she is well-liked, widely accepted, and honored. Poor writing is also not a defining characteristic because there are legions of poorly-written male characters who are not labeled “Marty Stus.” Mack Bolan/the Executioner (and his thinly-disguised Marvel Comics equivalent, Frank Castle/the Punisher) is another blatant wish-fulfillment character who evades that label. The true defining characteristics of the Mary Sue are that she is as competent as a man, and written and to be identified with by women.
So, let’s deconstruct Mary Sue, and build a better idea from her remains. Both theoretically and functionally. Let’s have women characters written by women who not only kick ass, but who love and are loved unashamedly. And let’s treat them with the respect – and yes, that includes criticism when they are poorly written – that they’re due, too.