Monday, June 30, 2014

Just Enough Trope to Hang Myself: There’s Something Else about Mary Sue

Is the term “Mary Sue” sexist? Well, obviously it never occurred to me to consider this angle of the trope. Pesky Y chromosome. I was looking at it purely as a creative exercise, but the question is a valid one, especially in these days of angry loud-mouthed tiny nerd boys behaving horribly because they don’t want no icky cootie fangirls in their clubhouse.
I was pointed to a couple of blogs that tackled this criticism. The Adventures of Comicbook Girl’s post, “Mary Sue, what are you? or why the concept of Sue is sexist, points up the double standard of how a tragically orphaned character who grows up to be an attractive, wealthy, genius, Olympic-level athlete who rights wrongs, is always right, is ten steps ahead of all foes, and has the unreserved admiration of everyone is a Mary Sue. Except when it’s Batman. The point being that these characteristics are okay for a male character but are subject to scorn and ridicule when applied to a female character.

Batman can defeat anyone, given adequate prep time. Here, he has a bat-anti-Darkseid bullet in his utility belt.

Meanwhile, Feminist Fiction argues that there should be more Mary Sues and points out that there is only one female Avenger in the movie and she is one of only two members with no super powers. Again, the male characters—Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk—are all unapologetically powerful while the Black Widow has to make due with … well, actually I disagree with the author on that point. The Black Widow is pretty much awesome every time she’s on screen from the interrogation she conducts while tied to a chair to being the one who shuts down the stargate in the final battle. She can basically do anything Captain America can do, only without the shield and the super soldier formula, plus she’s a master spy. That’s why everyone on Agents of SHIELD is all “Even Romanoff couldn’t have escaped from this” and “Only Romanoff ever beat that.”

No, I’m Batman
Those points considered, it’s important to go back and have a look at the time, circumstances, and intent under which Paula Smith created the character Lt. Mary Sue, the main character of “A Trekkie’s Tale.” It was 1973; there was no Internet or desktop publishing. If the Star Trek fan community wanted to share ideas or stories, it had to be through hand-made, hand-mailed fanzines created using typewriters and mimeograph machines. These fanzines, which usually contained ads for other fanzines, could be mailed to subscribers or traded, passed around, or sold at Star Trek conventions, the very first of which had been held only a year earlier.
 You kids have it so easy with your new-fangled "Internet."

Smith described these early days of handcrafted fandom and the creation of Lt. Mary Sue in a fascinating 2010 interview (Walker, Cynthia W. 2011. “A Conversation with Paula Smith.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0243):
It all goes back to the early 1970s, when Star Trek fandom was just breaking away from mainstream science fiction fandom. I went to a lot of conventions around that time and I bought every zine I could lay my hands on. It was just an explosion of mimeograph and hectograph and ditto; very few zines were even photocopied back then. I read everything. Some of it was pretty good. Some of it was extremely good. But an awful lot of it was just plain awful.
As Theodore Sturgeon said, 90 percent of everything is crap. The amazing thing was, the crap had so much of a pattern. I’m very much a pattern seeker, and you could see that every Trek zine at the time had a main story about this adolescent girl who is the youngest yeoman or lieutenant or captain ever in Starfleet. She makes her way onto the Enterprise and the entire crew falls in love with her. They then have adventures, but the remarkable thing was that all the adventures circled around this character. Everybody else in the universe bowed down in front of her. Also, she usually had some unique physical identifier—odd-colored eyes or hair—or else she was half-Vulcan. The stories read like they were written about half an hour before the zine was printed; they were generally not very good.

It was the type of story that begged for a parody, so for the second issue of her Star Trek fanzine, Menagerie, Smith…
… tossed off “‘Gee, golly gosh, gloriosky,’ thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise.” Lieutenant Mary Sue—that’s what I called her just to give her a name. And the piece was—what? Probably two hundred words. It was half of one of our reduced columns. It wasn’t very much. I really just retold the story of that quintessential Mary Sue. It was a parody. … it might have died right there, but I began doing LoCs—letters of comment—and reviews of zines in other zines. Anyway, because this was still the early 1970s, there were still a ton of these stories coming out. So, when we wanted a shorthand to refer to them, Sharon and I began to call them “Lieutenant Mary Sue” stories. We explained why the first couple of times we used it, but the term caught on …

So, Lt. Mary Sue was a parody of a poorly written character. Why a female character? According to Smith, 90 percent of Trek fandom at the time was female. That’s who was writing the stories.
“Trek fandom was the mirror image of science fiction fandom. I would say 90 percent of science fiction fandom at the time was men and 10 percent was women, and there was a reverse 10-to-90 men-to-women split in Trek fandom.”

So, no sexism in the original intent. However, through use and misuse over the years, the term “Mary Sue” has gone from a call out of a thinly developed character to an insult leveled at a female character that has any agency in a story whatsoever. That’s stupid. And annoying, because I wanted to explore this archetype without getting caught up in a lot of messy gender politics. Nonetheless, names have power and there are legitimate reasons to find the name “Mary Sue” off-putting. So let’s go with PC or “Pat Chris” as a gender-neutral alternative for the sake of this discussion. Besides literally being “PC,” it can also stand for a character that’s “Poorly Conceived” or perhaps the author’s “Pet Character.”

(In Dungeons & Dragons, there is no foe more fearsome than the Dungeonmaster’s Pet Character. I had one in high school: His name was Victor Anthony Kas. He was a paladin with a tragic backstory and was heir to the Sword and Armor of Kas, destined to become the evil Kas Dester. Eventually the whole campaign was about him. Despite that, I guess I had enough going on in that campaign that everyone was able to stay engaged and have a good time. The story arc was about getting Kas to his redemption, but in the end, the whole thing was about my Pet Character and the outcome was pretty much preordained, so, honestly, it was not very good dungeonmastering.)

It's Pat

So what makes a character a PC and what is it about PC that induces vision-distorting eye rolls? It’s important to remember that PC is a native of the fan fiction genre. A PC, in fan fiction, is often a new main character dropped into a defined setting with established characters. If that new main character is the center of attention, solves everyone’s problems, and causes the existing characters to start acting out of character (for instance, Spock weeping openly at the character’s beauty and goodness or Kirk suddenly becoming bi-curious), then it’s definitely a PC. Or as Paula Smith put it in the above-cited interview, “presence of a [PC] in a story is like a black hole, a neutron star, because it warps everything else out of their normal orbits.”

Your audience does not love your pet character.

Basically, Pat Chris is in the story more for the author’s pleasure than any would-be readers. This is charmingly illustrated in a seven-page comic called “Fan Fiction” by Shaenon K.Garrity and drawn by Phil Foglio. In it, a girl inserts a new character into a bedtime story about some famous heroes, much to the annoyance of her younger siblings. Luckily, Mom’s a bit more sympathetic.

Once we leave the genre of fan fiction, it’s a little harder to point to the new character that doesn’t belong and PC gets a little harder to pin down; that’s where the misuse of the term really gets going. The criticism is leveled, justly or unjustly depending on the story, that the main character is too good/competent/powerful/whatever. The implied and/or perceived follow-up “for a woman” isn’t always there in all discussions, but it’s there often enough and loudly enough that the accusation of sexism has some merit. Particularly given that a male character displaying the same properties tends to get a free pass.
Seriously, why does one young, attractive, charismatic, hyper-competent main character induce eye rolls and snorts of derision while another becomes a cultural icon? Take the Doctor. Or Sherlock Holmes. Most stories, they arrive on the scene and resolve the problem to the great admiration of those around them and then leave, usually with little or no character development on their part. How is it that no one labels either of these guys a PC? It’s not just because they’re men. Obviously, the answer is because they’re British.
What is it that makes these two interesting characters rather than PCs? Perhaps the key element lies in how their stories are structured. While Holmes and the Doctor are the main characters of their respective series, their stories are filtered through the points of view of their sidekicks, Dr. Watson and the various TARDIS companions, respectively. Imagine a solo Sherlock Holmes story or a solo Doctor Who story: The main character is brilliant, a step ahead of everyone else, and fairly smug about it. That’s when readers or views would start to get annoyed with him.
(The one solo Doctor Who episode that comes to mind is “The Deadly Assassin” from the classic series starring Tom Baker. In it, the Doctor returns to Gallifrey and gets caught up in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with his arch-nemesis, the Master. In this instance, going against the formula works and works well, but it’s a very different kind of story.)
On Gallifrey, being smug and brilliant is one of the entrance requirements.

I mentioned Batman earlier. Very early in his career, Batman got paired with Robin, and that was purposely to make him more accessible to readers. Batman goes long stretches without a sidekick, but inevitably the writer or editor will come to decide that it’s time for him to have a Robin again. I haven’t kept close count in recent years, but there are at least a half-dozen characters who have taken on the role of Robin.

Robert Langdon, the main character of The Da Vinci Code and other best-selling novels by Dan Brown, is described as a fit, rugged Harvard professor all the hot young coeds are in love with. Beyond that, there is not much that’s memorable about him, even with Tom Hanks playing him in the movie. That actually works to the story’s advantage. Langdon’s discussed a bit in the comments thread of Laura Miller’s article of April 21, 2010, “A reader’s advice to writers: Beware of Mary Sue." Miller speculates that “Since Brown’s books are all treasure hunt and chase scenes, Langdon isn’t that intrusive. His character or personality isn’t ever a focus, and a lot of Brown’s readers can’t even remember his name. So I think he’s close, but not really a [PC]; he just doesn’t take up enough of the book’s attention. However, it’s true that certain kinds of very plot-driven genre fiction seem able to get away with pretty flagrant [PCs].” Brown doesn’t invest a lot in his main character. Would it have been better with a stronger main character? Sure, but that’s not what drives these stories. What drives these stories are the cryptography, keys, symbols, codes, and conspiracy theories. Langdon’s function is to prevent the novel from being a long essay.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension, gets away with having an improbably competent main character who’s a brilliant inventor, brain surgeon, rock star and adventurer by hanging a lampshade on the trope; it’s presented with a wink and a nudge. Buckaroo Banzai’s associates have worked with him long enough that they’ve all become pretty jaded about his exceptionalism. Jeff Goldlbum plays team newbie New Jersey to be the POV character. The other thing that gives the movie a free pass is that 1980s Peter Weller is just that awesome.

"No matter where you go, there you are."
Let’s look at a few female characters now: For example, here’s one whose name is actually Mary and she’s practically perfect in every way. It says so right on the label. She too sweeps in, is much beloved, solves everyone’s problems, and then leaves at the end with little or no character development on her part.
I don't have character arcs. I cause them.
However, Mary Poppins is more of a plot device than a main character. (I refer to the Disney movie here.) She’s something that happens to the other characters in the movie. Specifically, even more than to the children, she happens to this guy:
However, “Saving Mr. Banks” would not be workable as a movie title until many, many years later.
The story is all about Mr. Banks’ character arc. So, Mary Poppins is no PC. Besides, she’s also British.
Here’s another one: She’s the one girl in all the world with the power to fight the vampires and demons. Although her backstory is not as tragic as the trope usually calls for, it does feature her parents’ messy divorce, a brief stay in a mental institution after trying to convince people that vampires are real, and pretty much being run out of her home town. Fortunately, she’s got a couple of broody vampire boyfriends to help distract her from her troubles. So what is it that makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer so successful? Unlike Holmes or the Doctor, Buffy is the POV character throughout most of the series. She’s got her sidekicks/supporting characters, but they’re not there for the purpose of making the main character more accessible to the viewer. Buffy’s plenty accessible as she is. Being a young, strong, attractive chosen one doesn’t necessarily make a character a PC; those are things we look for in our heroes. However, a hero, as opposed to a PC, has one other key ingredient: In her interview, Paula Smith called it “headspace … you have to give the reader somewhere to fit into in the character.” Buffy has real flaws and doubts with which viewers can identify; she has the headspace that makes it easy to see the action through her eyes. Even though it’s series television and you know she’s going to survive the episode (or in those instances where she doesn’t, it will still work out somehow), the stakes still feel genuine. There’s no guarantee that her supporting cast will come out unscathed or that she’ll save the innocent bystander or that the bad guy will get away and later return as a fan-favorite regular.
Buffy’s relationship with her supporting characters works textually as well as meta-textually as seen in the season three episode, “The Wish.” Buffy without her friends is cold, humorless, scarred, and ultimately gets chomped on by the Master.

Another thing that makes Buffy work where a similarly situated PC might fail is her relationships with the other characters and, more importantly, theirs with her. Willow, Xander, and Giles are each fully realized characters who have their own problems and motivations. Said problems and motivations do not exclusively revolve around Buffy. Likewise, Buffy is not the solution or necessarily even involved in the solution to their problems. Each character from stalwart allies to vampiric love interests to the Big Bad of the season to minor villains has some headspace to latch onto.
At the other end of the spectrum, let’s have a look at the girl voted most likely to be called a “Mary Sue” by people who find the term “Mary Sue” demeaning to women, Twilight’s Bella Swan. Bella is attractive, very much the focus of other characters’ attention, largely pure of heart, and the creation of a first-time novelist housewife, so she certainly hits those PC tropes. However, if writing a PC is wrong, then Stephenie Meyer’s bank account doesn’t want to be right. How does Bella Swan succeed where so many others like her fail, and so many others wish she had failed? Her character has been described as lacking, passive, irritating, and the descriptors get less charitable from there. The one thing she does have though is headspace. In fact, Bella is mostly headspace; she’s a pair of eyes to check out and react to the hot-looking vampire and werewolf competing for her affection. It’s not a new formula; a Bella Swan is the main character of a good many of the paperbacks in the Romance section of the bookstore or airport newsstand.

You tolerate me because my boyfriends are so, so pretty.

For my last two character studies, I’m going to turn to the world of web comics. The first is Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius. Agatha Heterodyne starts out as an ordinary university student who discovers that, in fact, she’s the latest in a long line of brilliant (and mostly evil) mad scientists, or “sparks.” Her father and uncle, both mysteriously missing since she was a child, were the legendary and heroic Heterodyne Boys. Her mother was the villainous Lucrezia Mongfish, also known as the Other, who started a war that nearly enslaved/destroyed all Europa. By the thirteenth volume of her adventures, she’s mastered her powers of mad science, been trained as an expert hand-to-hand combatant, is reclaiming her ancestral castle and homeland, has an army of loyal monsters at her command, along with a town full of adoring minions, and her suitors are two of the most powerful and brilliant (and handsome) sparks in Europa (and they’re also princes).
"Mary Sue?" Why, my three consecutive Hugo awards and I would be delighted to have that conversation with you.
Put that way, it sounds like a checklist for PC; you can hear the eyes rolling across the floor and down the hall. The thing is, Girl Genius is excellent. It’s funny, it’s smart (selected as one of Mensa’s top 50 web sites), and boasts three Hugo awards in a row for Best Graphic Story (after which the Foglios voluntarily took themselves out of the running) along with shelves full of other awards.

Stories of improbably exceptional characters predate actual literature. We love them. The take away here is that there’s nothing wrong with writing about an improbably exceptional character as long as you write her well.
Finally, let’s bring this long discussion full circle to the adventures of Ensign Mary Amethyst Star Enoby Aiko Archer Picard Janeway Sue by Claire Moseley and Kevin Bolk. Ensign Sue Must Die! is a parody of PC tropes that opens with the arrival on the Enterprise of a lovely young new medical officer. Spock Prime is familiar with her type and makes the logical decision to make himself scarce.
Ensign Sue proceeds to make herself the center of attention, much to the annoyance of the hapless Enterprise crew despite their efforts to get rid of her. Like any good satire, Ensign Sue Must Die! and its sequels, Ensign Two: The Wrath of Sue and Ensign3: Crisis of Infinite Sues, has a point underneath the laughs. As the story goes on, Ensign Sue begins to develop as a character, becoming not just someone to laugh at, but someone you feel for.
Here. Here is where it starts happening.
That headspace Paula Smith was talking about comes to Ensign Sue as she realizes the people she loves don’t love her back and doesn’t know what to do next. That’s something a reader can latch onto. Personally, I’ve come from enjoying the Enterprise crew’s futile attempts to get rid of Ensign Sue to actually rooting for her.
So, maybe there are no bad characters, only badly written ones. Who knows? Maybe even the fall and redemption of Victor Anthony Kas is a story that deserves to be told. Even a PC has a story to tell; it just needs to be told well.
References Cited:
Adventures of Comicbook Girl. “Mary Sue, what are you? or why the concept of Sue is sexist.”
Feminist Fiction. “We Need More Mary Sues.”
Foglio, Phil and Kaja. Girl Genius.
Garrity, Shaenon K., and Phil Foglio “Fan Fiction.”
Miller, Laura April 21, 2010. “A reader’s advice to writers: Beware of Mary Sue”
Moseley, Claire, and Kevin Bolk. Ensign Sue Must Die!
Sims, Chris. October 7, 2010. “Ask Chris #28: Robin, Robin, Robin.” Comics Alliance.
Walker, Cynthia W. 2011. “A Conversation with Paula Smith.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0243. 

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