Jesus Christ are we really having this discussion again?
Twitter exploded last night because a self-proclaimed professional ghostwriter, Joshua Lisec, tweeted an extremely long thread bemoaning the state of film and television storytelling because of what he considered to be a preponderance of “Mary Sues.” His initial tweet begins like this:
He then goes on to define a “Mary Sue” as a “a female protagonist who can overpower foes with ease — but without the backstory to explain her personality, values, agenda, or those abilities.” And then proceeds to say that making your female protagonist a “Mary Sue” botches the Hero’s Journey because it makes them unlikeable and therefore they are actually the…. Antagonist. And you can’t have a good story when you’re following an antagonist, amirite boys? The tweets quickly gained thousands of quote tweets and replies, with some other male writers agreeing with his analysis but most quickly eviscerated his thread with many delicious many dunks.
Because he was wrong. Actually hilariously wrong on many levels.
What actually is a Mary Sue?
First, let’s remind ourselves of what a “Mary Sue” actually is. “Mary Sue” is a pejorative term coined by female fanfic writers to describe a protagonist (of any gender) that was clearly the author inserting themself into their favorite stories in order to achieve some sort of wish fulfillment. The Mary Sue is usually unique or powerful, in a way not normal for the established universe, but more importantly the other canon characters would become immediately enchanted or obsessed with the Mary Sue and their journey would become the central plot of the story regardless of whether or not it made sense with the actual lore.
Basically what makes a Mary Sue a Mary Sue is not their powers but their similarities to the author and the impact they have on the characters around them. And there are lots of Mary Sues in some of our favorite pieces of entertainment! Bella Swan of Twilight? MarySue. Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz? Kind of a Mary Sue!
Luke Skywalker, the geeky young mechanic who grows up on a rural farm on a desert planet (ie the Modesto of the Star Wars universe) who somehow becomes the only one capable of blowing up the Death Star? Baby, that’s George Lucas’s Mary Sue right there! His name is Luke S. Lucas!
Mary Sue was used mockingly but was not necessarily bad, and certainly had no impact on the Hero’s Journey structure as applied to storytelling. I mean Star Wars is one of the most popular Hero’s Journeys in all of pop-culture after all!
Why do so many get the meaning of “Mary Sue” wrong?
So how did we come to associate Mary Sues with “unnaturally” powerful female characters only? Well we can blame Hollywood’s worst nepotism baby Max Landis for that. In 2015, after the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Landis took to Twitter to bemoan the new movie and described Rey as a Mary Sue. Misogynists went wild.
Is Rey a Mary Sue? Kind of. The biggest issue with both The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker is that they are essentially just JJ Abrams’ Star Wars fan fic. If Rey is a Mary Sue it is only because Abrams is only interested in getting to play with his favorite characters and retread his favorite beats from the original trilogy. Rey is his Luke. And Luke is a Mary Sue!
But to go back to the other characters on Lisec’s list. Galadriel? She’s a powerful elf general who has been alive for thousands of years. According to Tolkien himself she is one of the most powerful beings on Middle Earth. So yes, she can take down a troll that lesser elves like Legolas and co. could not. Captain Marvel? She’s trained fighter pilot who then develops super powers after exposure to Tesseract energy. She’s had years of intense combat training before she even gets exposed and then she joins an elite Kree fighting team which involved more training! Bo Peep. I can’t even. It’s too funny.
The answer is always misogyny
Because the real issue here is the misogyny that says strong women are unlikeable. That strength is somehow anathema to femininity, that confidence and stubbornness and stoicism are qualities that are only allowable in our male heroes. That women somehow do not possess any of these qualities in the real world. Strong female characters are their own trope damnit! And writing one has never been the sole indicator of wish fulfillment and Mary Sue-dom.
Because for the love of god, it’s 2022. I know we are seeing a lot of horrors circle around again, but please can we not let these rigid and misogynistic enforcement of gender roles be one of them. We put this to bed in 2015! Please let us never have to speak on this again.
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