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Why “The Mary Sue?”
by Susana Polo | 1:09 pm, February 27th, 2011
The Mary Sue may seem like an ordinary (if outdated) female name, but in the fanfiction community it describes a particularly common cliche, and not a very good one, either. Here’s the most summary-ish part of a very long and detailed entry from the final word in all matters cliche, TVTropes.org:
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. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing…
Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.
A Mary Sue can have all or a few of the above traits, but the one of primary importance is that the plot and the actions of the other characters immediately begin to revolve around the Mary Sue upon her appearance, regardless of how much sense it makes. While the existence of a Mary Sue in a story is generally considered to be bad writing, professional writers are certainly not immune from creating them.
Some examples of a Mary Sue that you might be familiar with would include Bella Swan, the perfectly ordinary (and yet somehow special) heroine of the Twilight Saga; Mary, from There’s Something About Mary; Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz; and a good number of the Disney princesses.
So why take what is essentially a pejorative term and use it as the name of our website? Well, if I wanted to give you a total cop-out for an answer and go play World of Warcraft for the rest of the day, I could say it’s not much different than calling your women’s site Jezebel and leave it at that. But that’s not really the whole story. So here’s why:
A Mary Sue is relevant to everybody, because if you haven’t created one for yourself, our culture certainly has. My favorite example of this is that of Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant scientist whose colleague, frustrated with her personality, showed her work, without her permission, to another researcher who left her uncredited when he and his partner used her data to discover the structure of DNA.
Why were Franklin’s colleagues willing to share her research with rivals? Oh, simply because of her “habit of intensely looking people in the eye while being concise, impatient and directly confrontational.” Or maybe her “habit of leaping into passionate argumentative debate, or her unusually serious, uniquely stubborn and even abrasive style at work.” Franklin’s problem was that she did not have the desire or capacity to quell her male colleagues fears by remaining reassuringly feminine and demure to make up for the intellectual threat that she posed. She was being held to an impossible standard, expected to be a mythical version of a woman who had all the same abilities, but who everybody immediately liked and would never think of betraying.
My point is, if you’ve ever striven to live up to an impossible standard, you’ve wanted to become a Mary Sue. This doesn’t just apply to women, it’s safe to say that our advertising slathered culture places unrealistic expectations on everybody. So when we feel pressured to be an impossible thing it’s important to remember that it’s just a kind of Mary Sue. And if society expects us to be a Mary Sue, well, we can certainly try, but in the meantime we’d like to giggle while we point out how silly the whole thing is.
We feel that encountering or creating Mary Sues is an experience that a lot of geek girls can relate to. Whether you wrote fanfiction, read fanfiction, or simply made up stories in your head, chances are, somewhere in your teenage years, you invested some brainpower in a Mary Sue. And instead of being ashamed of it, we think every one should pull those wish fulfillment characters out, dust them off, and have a good friendly laugh at them, much in the same way you can have a good friendly laugh at the younger version of yourself who thought that by the year two-thousand and eleven there would be jet cars and you would totally have life all figured out.
In this spirit, allow me to go on a tangent and list some of the Sues that I created when I was in my early teens, all of which, until now, have stayed safely in my head:
Redwall!Sue, who was a wildcat. Indiana Jones!Sue, Indy’s daughter. Tintin!Sue, who had a tragic past and was Tintin’s true love. StarWars!Sue, who was an alien dinosaur. Sherlock Holmes!Sue, who was a Holmes sister who became a British spy. Animorphs!Sue, Jake’s twin sister. X-Files!Sue, Mulder’s daughter.
But Mostly, It’s Funny
We think it’s kind of funny to re-appropriate a cliche that is closely but only circumstantially associated with femininity on a website for geek girls. There’s so much that’s expected of the female geek: that we not be geeks, that we be conventionally attractive, that we put up with the assumption that all geeks are male because, after all, we’re just the minority. A woman who can manage all of that? Now she’s a Mary Sue. And like I said before, we’d like to laugh heartily and point out the hipocrisy of the whole thing.
And then go back to writing, reading, playing, making, surfing, filming, or coding… just like any other geek.
If you’re wondering why we decided to do a site for female geeks in the first place, you can find out here.