Presenting Trope Anatomy 101! In which we introduce a new column, and Carlie St. George breaks down beloved and not-so-beloved tropes.
Trope Anatomy 101 is a monthly column in which familiar tropes, particularly in speculative fiction and pop culture, are broken down and discussed by new regular contributor and author Carlie St. George. For her inaugural column, Carlie tackles one prickly topic:
Learn to Love Your Mary Sue
Here’s what happened: in November, Ana and Thea asked if I’d be interested in writing a column here at The Book Smugglers. In a calm, professional manner, I agreed to said column. In a less professional manner, I gleefully danced around my apartment and came up with a plan: every month I would pick one trope commonly found in pop culture and, lovingly, analyze it to death. And the best thing about it was that I already knew what trope I wanted to hit first: Mary Sues, because there’s such a weird stigma against them, despite the fact that, like flag burning or the California condor, I rarely actually come across an instance of one in the wild. I thought to myself, “You know, I think I can bring an original perspective to this.”
And then The Force Awakens came out, Max Landis posted his petulant dismay on Twitter, and it all went to hell.
Writing about the Mary Sue trope now feels a little like saying, “Oh my God, I just found this new show, Game of Thrones, and you guys HAVE to check it out.” But I’m going to do it anyway, because I like the sound of my own internal monologue, and because I want to discuss in detail the problems with defining a Mary Sue. I also want to examine a popular feminist character who I absolutely would qualify as a Mary Sue, and finally propose that, perhaps, Mary Sues aren’t necessarily the death knell to good storytelling that we’ve been taught to believe they are.
As plenty of others have noted, Mary Sue is a problematic term because not only does it have multiple definitions, those definitions are very much open to interpretation. I first heard the term roughly fifteen years ago when, as a bored teenager, I first discovered the joy of fanfiction. At the time, a Mary Sue was defined as an OC, or original character, who was an obvious author-insert. Of course, fanfiction is, almost by definition, wish fulfillment (writing scenes you never got to see, for instance, or shipping characters you’d like to get together), which is actually one of my favorite things about it. Some people talk about wish fulfillment like it’s something you ought to be ashamed of, but really, fanfiction can be this awesome place where people come together with their own desires, theories, and interpretations, and use them to expand a known universe into something even bigger that everyone can engage in. Still, Mary Sue fanfic is generally much less fun to delve into because they read like someone else’s very personal and usually romantic fantasies awkwardly shoved into your favorite fandom. It’s a bit like when your friend goes on and on about a dream they had last night: it’s really interesting to them, but not so much to you.
Eventually, people started accusing characters of being Mary Sues outside fanfiction. Bella Swan of Twilight infamy is a very common example, possibly because multiple characters seem to fall instantly in love with her before she’s even finished crossing the school parking lot. From what I remember (it’s been roughly a decade since I read the book and five years since I watched the film adaptation), Bella has virtually no personality traits whatsoever: she seems self-involved, not that anybody in the story calls her on it, and she’s very clumsy, an endearing idiosyncrasy dressed up to look like a character flaw.
Another example: Shuya Nanahara from Battle Royale. I have long considered Shuya to be the boy version of Bella Swan (thus making him a Gary Stu, but we’ll come back to Gary Stus in a little while). I enjoyed the novel (well, as much as you can enjoy something that makes you want to repeatedly weep into your pillow), but four separate girls have crushes on Shuya, despite the fact that there’s very little in the book to suggest what could possibly be so enticing about him. It’s even worse in the film, where Shuya is considerably whinier and, somehow, even more useless. His survival, though predictable, is unfortunate and depressing.
This is where the definition of Mary Sue starts becoming muddled because the primary problem with Shuya and Bella both is that everyone else in the story treats them like they’re very special snowflakes, despite the fact that there’s virtually nothing special about them at all. But that’s almost the exact opposite of our current understanding of a Mary Sue, which we now generally define as a female character who is ludicrously special, a woman who is unreasonably perfect in every way. And that’s a whole other problem, of course, because everybody has wildly different ideas of what constitutes “unreasonably.”
Take Rey from The Force Awakens, for instance. Obviously, there were those who found it unreasonable that a person could be a mechanic and a pilot and a girl all at the same time, that she could speak more than one language and that she picked up on the Force very quickly. On the other hand, plenty of other people (including myself) did not find any of that particularly unreasonable, given that no one would cry out, “Poppycock! Preposterous!” if a character were a mechanic and a pilot and a boy all at the same time, not to mention that several characters from the original trilogy speak more than one language, and that previously shown Jedi training has mostly consisted of a) an old guy saying, “Stretch out with your feelings!” and b) jogging around a swamp with a muppet on your back for, like, an afternoon.
It’s obviously true that Rey has a very fast learning curve in The Force Awakens; it’s just not true that this is somehow unusual for any chosen one/hero in a fantasy, science fiction, or action film. Maybe if Rey made no mistakes whatsoever, if she didn’t initially struggle flying the Millennium Falcon or if she got the Jedi mind trick right on the first try instead of the second. Maybe if she hadn’t shown considerable fear when faced with the prospect of destiny, if she hadn’t literally run crying in the other direction instead of easily taking her newfound visions in stride and bravely accepting her fate. Rey is extremely competent, yes, but unreasonably perfect? I, personally, can’t find evidence for that.
So let’s talk about a female character who I actually do find unreasonably perfect: Miss Fisher of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
(Personally, I think it’s a spunky and terribly bold approach, criticizing a wildly beloved feminist character on your very first column, particularly when you know your editors adore that character. But as I’m only mildly spunky and have never once been accused of being bold, this is where I’m going to beg anyone who’s come this far to keep reading instead of turning away.)
Here’s the thing: for the most part, I enjoy Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. I’ve watched all three seasons of it on Netflix, and there’s a lot to like: the humor, the fashion, the smoldering chemistry between Phryne and Jack. I love that Phryne is a sexually liberal woman who often and unapologetically engages in casual sex. I wish the men themselves seemed a little less skeevy and off-putting sometimes, but nevertheless it’s great to have a detective show that’s both sex positive and led by a woman.
That all being said, allow me to list some of the things that Miss Fisher is not only knowledgeable of but quite proficient at:
- Multiple types of weaponry (including firearms and dagger throwing)
- Martial arts (specifically judo)
- Fluency in multiple languages (Mandarin, French, Russian, etc.)
- Nursing wounds (which she did in the War)
- Breaking and entering (including lock-picking, shimmying up and down drain pipes, and climbing over rooftops, all whilst clad in high heels)
- Stage and radio acting
- Film directing
- Magic tricks (specifically escape artistry)
- Dancing (including tango, fox trot, fan dancing, etc.)
- Driving (including racing)
- Piloting planes
Besides all that, Phryne Fisher is intelligent, rich, and extremely progressive for the time period, both with her own sexuality and her tolerance for others. She can basically go undercover as anything, and naturally looks perfect doing it. She’s also possibly some kind of supernatural creature drawn to violent death; this is not canon, of course, but a personal fan theory based on the fact that she basically cannot step outside her own house without tripping over a dead body somewhere.
I don’t believe there’s anyone out there who would argue that this is a particularly reasonable skill set for any one person to have. Possibly someone might cultivate this many interests, but to be so highly skilled at so many things does seem rather absurd. And I’ve rolled my eyes at this show more than once, not just because of Phryne’s never-ending list of talents, but because it sometimes feels like you know how every single scene is going to play out. Obviously, she’s going to get her man and solve the case; that’s how detective shows work. But I get irritated at times because Phryne comes out on top in virtually every obstacle, every debate; if she disagrees with someone, then the other person is wrong. If she wants something, she’ll have it in her hands by teatime. It gets a little boring, because it really minimizes potential emotional stakes.
Which, I believe, is why I was so delighted when, late in the series, Phryne was revealed to be arachnophobic. I’ll admit, this is not so very different from Bella Swan being clumsy: Phryne’s fear is primarily used for comedic effect, rather than as a serious character arc or obstacle she has to overcome, so I personally would love to see her face more actual physical and emotional challenges. That being said, Phryne’s arachnophobia is frankly the closest we’ve come to her having any kind of weakness at all, so I was grateful to see it, especially because it allowed other characters to, occasionally, get the upper hand, like when Jack successfully gets Phryne to move off his desk by calmly pulling a spider from his drawer. That kind of thing makes for a more interesting dynamic and, in my opinion, a better show.
So, yes, I definitely think Miss Fisher is a Mary Sue, and I do think Mary Sues can potentially make for less engaging stories. The problem with that, though, is the gender double standard. As previously mentioned, a boy Mary Sue is generally called a Gary Stu, and presumably they would be every bit as reviled as Mary Sues are. Are they? Not a chance.
For your consideration, here are just a few male characters who could easily qualify as ludicrously skilled and unreasonably perfect: James Bond, Patrick Jane (from The Mentalist), Sherlock Holmes (any and all versions), and, of course, Batman.
Oh my God, Batman. I love Batman. I own Batman live action movies, animated movies, comic books, toys, pajama pants, T-shirts, socks, shoes. My cats are named after Batman villains. I play Batman video games, read Batman fanfiction. Batman is probably my favorite superhero of all time, and he is the biggest Mary Sue in the world.
In case you don’t believe me:
- World’s greatest detective
- Speaks a bazillion languages
- Apparently has mastered 127 styles of martial arts
- Stupidly strong
- Stupidly rich
- Has every gadget you can possibly imagine
- Can infiltrate any location
- Always manages to leave without being seen
- Routinely defeats enemies who are vastly more powerful than him
- Incredibly intelligent
- Master tracker
- Ace pilot
- Gets the ladies
Of course, there are people who don’t like Batman, people who insist that he’s a dumb hero or that it’s ridiculous to believe he would even stand a chance against somebody like Superman. (And, clearly, those people are heathens.) But what you don’t get is the same level of outrage that he exists at all, that he’s the worst superhero in the entire DC Universe because he’s so unrealistic. No one ever tweets their total contempt when James Bond manages to stylishly and impossibly save the day yet again, and no one whines when Sherlock Holmes can tell what any given person ate for dinner the week before merely by glancing at him for a nanosecond.
And maybe some people are thinking, “No, that’s totally different because these guys have character flaws. Sherlock, for instance, is a complete jerk. And Batman, he can never open up to anyone.” But I don’t think that will fly; after all, for a male hero, not being good with people or emotions is basically just par for the course. In fact, men are often considered less manly if they are in touch with their emotions, if they’re wasting time comforting people when they could be out getting the bad guy and saving the day. Comforting people is a sidekick’s role, and/or a woman’s.
Besides, audiences generally like an arrogant male hero. Sherlock’s superiority, for instance, is a big part of the appeal for many people. Arrogance might be a character flaw for a woman, as female heroes generally aren’t allowed to be too full of themselves, lest they be considered bitchy, but for a man, well. It’s kind of like Bella Swan being clumsy: it’s an endearing idiosyncrasy dressed up to look like a character flaw.
The reason people don’t hate Gary Stus like they hate Mary Sues is because Gary Stus are everywhere; we’re exposed to them so constantly that we’re conditioned to accept them as normal. Sure I know that Batman is a little ridiculous, but he’s a superhero, right? I’m not supposed to take it that seriously, it’s all in good fun, etc. etc. But a woman who is too perfect does stand out because there are so few of them. We didn’t grow up on their stories; we never learned that women can do anything men can do, not really, not by example. Incredibly talented women aren’t the norm in storytelling, so when they do appear, they aren’t just in good fun anymore. Suddenly, they’re a PC agenda being shoved down everyone’s throats, a ludicrous fantasy, bad storytelling. Suddenly, a woman is a Mary Sue, when a man would just have been awesome.
Look, all characters are better with fears and flaws. I was excited when Miss Fisher had arachnophobia, and I suspect I would be equally excited if Batman faced a new enemy and developed an unreasonable phobia of his own. (To be fair, in Batman Begins, Bruce is afraid of bats, which I always liked as a concept but never felt was a serious obstacle he had to overcome in the film.) Or it doesn’t have to be a phobia. Batman could encounter a type of martial arts he just isn’t good at, or mistranslate a language he’s still learning. It could even be a combination of these things; after all, most people have more than one Achilles heel, not 76 amazing qualities and one small weakness to counterbalance them.
I’d absolutely love to see Batman have more flaws, but I don’t expect them from his stories; I don’t demand them. And if I don’t demand them from him, is it fair of me to demand them from Miss Fisher? And how about Luke Skywalker; if he can destroy the Death Star with the Force after practicing with it one time against a little robot ball, shouldn’t the world be ready to accept that Rey can temporarily hold her own against a wounded Sith Lord wannabe?
Maybe we don’t need to get rid of Mary Sues. Maybe we actually need more of them, just like we need more women who are flawed and complex but are still totally badass heroes. We already have characters like that, but not nearly enough, and the ones we do have are often cast aside, marginalized and forgotten. Maybe we need to talk more about those stories, make their heroes more visible, while simultaneously creating new stories to add to the conversation, stories filled with women who aren’t a part of somebody’s else’s tale but are actually telling their own.
And maybe then, when we are everywhere, people will finally learn to accept awesome women as simply normal, rather than holding them to a standard that even the Dark Knight cannot meet.