Well-meant by Paula Smith in her satirical, A Trekkie’s Tale, the concept she codified, the “Mary Sue,” does not mean much, any more, aside from, “character who succeeded at something and I don’t like it.” Primarily an excuse to dismiss competent fictional women, it sometimes extends to men, often superheroes, based on an individual’s preference for another male superhero. But, let us pretend it has more relevant cache, as in a better world, it probably should.
The Use and Abuse of Mary Sue
by Travis Hedge Coke
The problems begin, because Mary Sue (or Gary Stu, for male characters, if the speaker/critic is afraid of calling a male character by a title with a girl’s name in it, as if we would not call a woman who held the “Herbert West Chair of Economics,” the “Herbert West Chair” or Rhodes Scholars, Rhodes Scholars; refer to women who fulfill a role on a team/book’s “the James Bond” or “the Batman”) – I’m delaying to make sure you focus on this – Mary Sue has no set, original concrete definition. It is presented to us, satirically, as an understood, as a piece of received wisdom. You know a Mary Sue when you see one.
In 1976, Menagerie, the fanzine in which the term was originated, qualified a Mary Sue as, “[T]he youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.”
Most importantly, the Mary Sue, then, while they may be the protagonist of a story, are a protagonist added into a preexisting fictional set of stories, such as the Star Trek canon. This has been, over time, mostly ignored and weathered away, probably because we tend to talk about long-standing characters created at the inception of a property, than late additions, especially late additions from fan fiction. More of us can have a conversation about Wolverine as a Mary Sue than about a teenager who appears in someone’s eight paragraph fanfic buried in a fic repository online. If you put it in a search engine today, the top hits are probably women in Game of Thrones and Star Wars.
During the time of Menagerie, Mary Sue became mostly associated with self-insert characters, especially idealized self-inserts, which can be expanded to a whole ton of hazardous supposition. I do not like Peter David’s “intelligent” version of the Hulk, for example, who seems to share David’s perspective on plenty of subjects, his sense of humor and wit, but is Professor Hulk a proxy for Peter David? Can’t say that. I – and you – do not know. I some respect, every character is something of their author, as the author rationalizes their perspective and agendas.
The Scarlet Witch has been called a Mary Sue before, and she is a character added to preexisting serials, most often a supporting character, but if you look at, for example, Brian Michael Bendis’ take on the character, how can she be a Mary Sue, except that she is immensely powerful? She lacks control over her own situation. She is confused and traumatized and gets things incredibly wrong. Many principle characters love her, but they do not like her. They are not pleased with her behavior in his stories. Not a Mary Sue. Can’t be.
Melissa “Merlin Missy” Wilson designed a thorough reference to calculate how likely a character is to be a Mary Sue, called, The (Original) Mary Sue Litmus Test. It is thorough. It is also presumptuous (“Does the character have a very good singing voice?”) and heteronormative (“A female with a male-sounding name?”) and fannish (“Does the character fall in love with and/or have sex with another original character?”). These issues do not originate with Wilson’s otherwise helpful work.
So, we will, in our definition, remove the restriction that a Mary Sue be added on, leaving us with a) the “tender age” at which they began rack up grand accomplishments, b) being top of their game in every aspect and with all skills, and, c) that they are beloved by all the main cast. Additionally, a Mary Sue has no flaws perceptible to other characters or to the author, that their weaknesses are, at best, superficial.
Captain Marvel has blown up in movies, and the idiots have been going for the character and actress nonstop (in the stupidest ways), but I have seen the character referred to as a Mary Sue almost as long as I have been alive.
Comics Captain Marvel may or may not have Brie Larson’s impeccable posture, but sitting tall still seems to offend some.
Captain Marvel is not a teenager, nor was she especially exceptional as a teen, but she does have many accomplishments under her belt. She is a superhero, though, and these are not unusual for superheroes nor even the top rungs of the absurdity ladder. She retired from the Air Force at a high rank, but not the highest. She has been an Avenger, but she did not join and take over the team. She is a great pilot, excellent leader, smart woman, but not the most smart, the best pilot, the greatest most admired person ever. Ever.
Weaknesses? Flaws? With all her heroism and accomplishments as perspective, Captain Marvel is alcoholic enough that she once nearly got her colleagues killed because she drank random containers of liquid made by aliens, hoping it would be alcohol. She does not make a cartoonish number of mistakes, but she does make mistakes. She does misunderstand some situations. She relies on friends and loved ones to keep her balanced and directed, even as she inspires them to fly straighter and truer.
The two most common criticisms of Wolverine are that he appears in too many comics, and that he is a Mary Sue. He has guest-appeared in a lot of comics, but as to the other?
Let’s take stock. Wolverine was sickly and incompetent as a child. That is out. And, he was introduced as a character who more than half of any room disliked. He sat wrong with people. He still sits wrong with many characters.
The Wilson checklist gives a point towards Mary Sue if the character appears younger than they are, which he does, but also adds two points if there are scientific reasons and another point if those reasons are not immediately explained upon introduction of the character.
His weaknesses are, increasingly, ridiculously superficial. Wolverine returned from “the dead,” once more, just recently, and he can essentially survive anything. He was straight up walk away from almost anything. And, social situations that he flubs, tend to work out for him, regardless. He will never make enough people mad at him, at once, that anything really occurs to his detriment.
And, with Batman, we hit the hat trick of “They are superheroes.” Superheroes are super-competent. Superheroes are generally beloved.
Most often to be accused of Mary Sue status is Grant Morrison’s version, especially starting with his time writing JLA, where Batman had to keep up, in the field, with Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. The so-called, Batgod.
Batman, of course, was a brilliant and is a master of eight thousand disciplines. Everyone who does not love him, probably admires him. He is rich and powerful and incredibly successful.
But, his flaws are real, especially under Morrison. His Batman is a superhero, but his Batman also got poisoned, cracked on the back of the head with a golf club, and set on fire by a greedy actress with no notable combat training or superpowers.
Sally’s big crime is not giving Captain America the out of, “He is Captain America.”
Sally Floyd is a minor character, compared to the others we deal with here, tied to a smaller pool of talent, featured in a miniseries, Front Line, which ran parallel to the major crossover event, Civil War, in which Sally covered the events from her professional, journalistic perspective, but also from her non-professional human, depressed, tired af position. At the beginning of this story, she has some sympathy for Captain America’s side of the superhero “civil war,” and as we in the real world are, in their world, folks are trained to side with Captain America, sanctified celebrity hero and walking flag.
As her personal condition worsens, Captain America’s faction, engaging their opposing number, cause tragic, bigger than 9/11 damage to city blocks, to people. America accepts into his faction mass murderers, like the Punisher. America gives speeches. America does not care what it will take to be right. And, so, fair or unfair, Sally Floyd turns what could be a puff of an interview into an antagonization. She cannot file charges or hold Captain America responsible for his actions in the larger world, but within the interview, she can make him feel something.
This turn of events infuriated readers and audiences who only encountered her and her interview via websites reproducing panels or scenes. Sometimes the scenes were edited with new dialogue or other alterations. Often they were whole, intact, but incomplete without context. Many times, even with context, whole, intact, the people responding simply did not care. She questioned Captain America. She criticized America.
One of the first X-Men, Jean Grey has been appearing in comics since the mid-1960s, almost exclusively as part of ensemble casts. Like Captain America, Jean is a character I have personally seen called a Mary Sue for roughly thirty years.
Jean is one of the most powerful psychic mutants, to the point where she has been replaced by/possessed by/ridden by or has housed a cosmic universe-changing entity, the Phoenix. Jean does not have a particularly unusual eye color, she does not sing wonderfully well or play any instrument to a genius level. These are both factors often ascribed to Mary Sues in various checklists of attributes, if you are curious as to their invocation here.
This is how desperate to declare Mary Sues we are: Jean Grey could fail every listed factor on a list of one hundred items, except three, and that would be enough. Jean Grey, once, having won a battle against a villain, would be enough.
The most common motifs of Jean Grey arcs, are that she has more power than she can handle, that her romantic life is shaky, that she is both very accepting of hypocrisies and human weakness, and intensely prone to reacting poorly to hypocrisy and human weakness as soon as it affects her personally.
Squirrel Girl’s gag is that she is wins big fights and kind of easily. She is not an altogether serious character, but the joke is not her, but our responses. The generic fanboy despair cry at the young woman who can whup Thanos and drop Dr Doom.
Squirrel Girl is the big points of Mary Sue-ism, in terms of winning. She is not the smartest, best fighter, but she is super nice and very enthusiastic and friendly, and she wins. Squirrel Girl is superhero as a purified, un-shyly cheesy concentration of success in life. She is a cartoon.
Remember, when I said that the Wilson checklist gives a bad mark for unusual eye color? It also, like it does with looking younger than one is, gives more points towards that dangerous, hated status of Mary Sue, if there is a reason for the eye color.
There is always a reason for an eye color.
Eye color is genetic, or cosmetic. Eye color, in fiction, of wholly fictional characters, is a decided thing, decided by people. All these factors are decided by human beings. That, after all, is what fiction is.
I considered, for laughs, calculating for you the Wilson scores for each highlighted character, with adjustments to generalize the Gargoyles-specific points of reference. Though this could prove useful in highlighting trends in what kinds of characters qualify on paper and which ones register the complaints most in real life, I cannot find more value in playing along, even in play, than in not.