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Heroism Is Not Gendered

It was at a fannish gathering--at my house, I think--that I first heard the term "Mary Sue". Some large person with a beard was using it to put down the work of a female writer. I protested. I didn't see anything wrong with the very competent female character he was taking exception to.

Oh no, he said, it's not because she's female, it's because the author has inserted an unrealistically idealized version of herself into the story. It's bad writing, he said. The character isn't interesting and is too perfect and that hurts the story.

Well, ok, I thought, reluctantly. It's kind of like a deus ex-machina critique, but about a character rather than the plot. But it didn't sit well that the critique was given a woman's name, instead of something descriptive of the alleged fault. Why make the critique inherently gendered? Oh, well, I thought, whatever. A name is just a name, and the definition isn't gendered at all.

But over and over, I've heard that particular critique aimed at a woman writer who created a competent woman character. The critic was nearly always male. And the critique was leveled at all very competent female characters, not just the ones with a demonstrable resemblance (beyond gender) to the writer. I have even heard that complaint when the writer wasn't female. The term came, more and more, to be just a generic complaint about very competent women being "unrealistic".

But wait--our genre has a long history of unusually competent protagonists. When the world is at risk and the odds are against you, you need a very competent protagonist. The stories we tell demand one. And we've loved many super-competent characters. No one ever, in my hearing, called Luke Skywalker a "Larry Stu". Or Valentine Michael Smith or Superman or Paul Atreides or Ender Wiggin or Gandalf or James Tiberius Kirk or Dr. Who. In fact, although I am aware of the alternate term to use when applying that critique to male characters, I can't remember ever hearing someone bring that complaint against a male character except in the context of having been asked why it's only women characters who are so labeled.

Now, I certainly have not been a party to all conversations about characters in speculative fiction! But I've been an active party to a lot of them and have overheard or read a lot of critiques of fiction as well. So I think it's safe to say that overwhelmingly the term "Mary Sue" is the term in active use, and that it is exclusively used to belittle and dismiss kick-ass female characters and the female writers who created them. (If the term truly applied to any character, why would someone coin a rhyming term to use when the character is not female?)

The more I think about it, the more I think this isn't due to a change in how the term is used. I believe the term arose out of the unconscious conviction that women are not exceptional. All of the big names in science and politics and engineering (and religion and literature and, well, everything) have been men, right? Certainly that's the impression my textbooks seemed designed to give. The rare woman mentioned was presented as the exception that proved the rule.

But I know better. A lot of women are exceptional. I find more and more of them when I look, both in history and in today's world. Periodically I share a story about one of them on Facebook. I could share a dozen a day and not run out of exceptional women to talk about, if I wanted to post that much. Many of them have had men take the credit for their work, crediting them only with the status of "assistant" and characterizing their work as merely "clerical" or "supportive". Other women were given credit at the time, but quietly and briefly, their presence glossed over as soon as practicable. Others, like Joan of Arc, were discredited or even punished for daring to surpass the roles approved for women. But one way or another, exceptional women have been--and are too often still being--consistently and systematically belittled and dismissed.

I look at all those male heroes in fiction and in history--men who are loved and admired and celebrated. Little boys are encouraged to take them as role models and to attempt to emulate them. Never mind that they are arguably aspiring to more than they will ever achieve, they are still encouraged to dream and to work hard and to excel. They and their heroes are not belittled and dismissed; instead they are praised.

The contrast is pretty obvious.

It's time for us to discard the term "Mary Sue". It carries with it a heavy baggage of sexism, regardless of what an individual critic means to convey by it. If there is a valid critique about authorial insertion or poor characterization, then let's use non-gendered terms for those things.

And above all, let's stop complaining every time a female character is exceptional in a genre which has always focused on heroes. Instead, let's embrace and celebrate all of our heroes, regardless of the gender of the author, the character, or the reader.


( 35 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 21st, 2016 07:24 pm (UTC)
Personally I look at it this way: what are the threat levels the characters are fighting? Mary Sue/Marty Sue are what happen when the characters are *too* competent for the enemies to matter. Maybe they have psychic powers, maybe the enemies are incredibly stupid, whatever the case, it just drains away all drama when every conflict is resolved as soon as it happens.

Some people might think of Honor Harrington as a Mary Sue, but despite her 'ubercompetence' and the presence of a Special Psychic Friend (treecat), for most of her books she has *extreme opposition*. She's outnumbered, her ships are smaller than the enemies', she'd better be bringing something special to the table to be able to handle it.

Jan. 21st, 2016 07:52 pm (UTC)
I certainly agree that a story is poorly written when the protagonist is not meaningfully challenged by the threats in the story. Absolutely. It's hard to care if fixing things is too easy.

But we can say that without using a gendered phrase that has repeatedly been used to attack and dismiss female characters that are appropriately skilled for the challenges they must overcome.

I think that the term Mary Sue is inherently sexist by etymology and also that it has been repeatedly used to denigrate female writers and female characters when similar male characters written by male authors are praised.

That is not the _only_ way the term has been used, of course, but it has been used that way so often that I think we should stop using it completely. Even if you don't intend the term to be sexist, you can't take away the sexist associations that the term has from the way many other people have used it. To use an analogy, I think using "Mary Sue" and expecting people to not hear the sexism in the term is like using "gay" anywhere but in a traditional Christmas carol and hoping people won't think "homosexual."

(edited--dang typos!)

Edited at 2016-01-21 07:53 pm (UTC)
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Jan. 21st, 2016 08:29 pm (UTC)
It's also fascinating to watch the verbal and logical gymnastics required to explain how a Luke Skywalker's talents and abilities make natural sense within the setting but a Rey's don't. I was just watching a gymnastic display of this sort over on another blog and kept thinking, "Do you have any idea what you look like when you do that?"
Jan. 21st, 2016 08:33 pm (UTC)
I've gotten to the point where I don't enjoy those calisthenics any more. When I was a kid, I thought video conference by wrist watch (a la Dick Tracy) was total fantasy and equal pay for equal work would be real by the time I finished growing up. Well, you know how that turned out!
(no subject) - ex_hrj - Jan. 21st, 2016 10:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jan. 21st, 2016 08:45 pm (UTC)
when my war correspondent narrator urinated in Hemingway's face,
she squatted down to do it.

Wait, does that make me, as an author,
a pissy cunt?
Jan. 23rd, 2016 06:10 am (UTC)
You are a unique snowflake.
Jan. 21st, 2016 10:20 pm (UTC)
Jan. 23rd, 2016 06:08 am (UTC)
*waves hi*
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 22nd, 2016 04:53 am (UTC)
You know, I usually focus my thoughts on how to write well, rather than on good and bad critique techniques or the terminology said critique use. For this post, I was focused on that one term, and why I think it is not a valid critique.

Yet so many of the responses diverge back to my primary interest--how to write well! Is that because I (quite on purpose) have so many writers on my friends' list? Or is it because critique of terminology is twee and just too nerdy?

As to "Gary/Larry/Marty Stu", I strongly suspect that the masculine forms were was coined after somebody heard a complaint that this critique was being applied solely to women characters and women writers, and that wasn't fair. Rather than admit to sexism (which is, after all, a Bad Thing), they cast about for a male character they could similarly denigrate. But then--it would be _terrible_ to call some male a "Mary Sue", so they made a masculine version of the term to use instead. In my mind, the fact that people thought it necessary to re-gender the term to apply it to a male character just underscores the sexism. After all, no one talks about female sleuths as the new "Sherry Holmes", they call them "Sherlock" just like a new male sleuth.
Jan. 22nd, 2016 04:46 am (UTC)
I'm not involved in organized fandom, and never really have been. The first time I was exposed to the term "Mary Sue" (a long time ago!), it was explained to me as an artifact of fanfic - specifically, a female fanfic writer has a crush on some major fictional character (usually male, e.g., Spock), and writes herself into a story, making her character not only a thoroughly idealized version of herself (beautiful, intelligent, capable, brave, physically strong, etc.) who just happenes to be irresistable to the character she has a crush on, so that she can write a romantic/sexual encounter between herself and that character. There were implications that the author was an unattractive teenage girl - fat, pimpled, glasses-wearing - who imagined herself as sexy and capable enough to win the attention of the Second Doctor or Han Solo.

It didn't always include a romantic interest, however - sometimes it was purely the idealized self per se: "All of Heinlein's male leads are Mary Sues to some degree, but Lazarus Long is the biggest Mary Sue of them all!"

As fans grew more accepting of non-heteronormative relationships, and slash fiction became more popular, female "Mary Sues" also wrote themselves into relationships with female characters (e.g, Honor Harrington) and male "Marty Stus" wrote themselves into relationships with males (e.g., Legolas) and females (Princess Leia). As I said, I'm not even fainly fannish, but it seems to me that the gender factor in the term "Mary Sue" (and its parallels) is beginnning to blur somewhat.

Jan. 22nd, 2016 05:32 am (UTC)
But you know, the whole idea of calling any of Robert Heinlein's female characters a "Mary Sue" just underscores the aspect of the term in its "no woman is that competent and attractive" meaning. Heinlein, for all his flaws, was certainly not a fat, pimply, near-sighted teenage girl.

And I never heard Lazarus Long called a Mary Sue! I'm not doubting that you did, and given the whole twin female clones of Lazarus story line, that does at least come close to that original (i.e. rewrite a person as a smart, sexy female) thing, but in doing so, Heinlein twisted the Mary Sue thing on its head and made it a story about narcissism.

If you are right, and the term is (or was) intended to be limited to wish-fulfillment slash fan fiction, then applying it to people like Rey in the new Star Wars movie is a glaring mis-use of the term as well as sexist.

This perspective just muddies the meaning of the term still more, and adds several connotations to it that are just as problematic as the sexism. I'm not against people writing, enjoying, and sharing slash fan fiction, but it is a different endeavor than writing original characters in mainstream speculative fiction. If it remains acceptable to dismiss any very competent female character with a term that brings to mind wish-fulfillment sex stories, that just plays into the whole false and insulting paradigm that says the primary/best/only purpose for female characters is to be the sex interest of the (male) protagonist(s).

But what prompted me to write this post is that in the circles I frequent (which admittedly does not include slash fan fiction, with or without author-insertion), I do not see the gender factor in how that term is used blurring. I have not recently heard it used for male characters (or, for that matter, agender characters, aliens with different genders, enby characters, gay characters or masculine bi characters). I have overwhelmingly seen "Mary Sue" used to criticize female writers and female characters. Until people started discussing the problems with that term, I had not heard any of the male versions of the term from anyone for well over a decade.

The term "Mary Sue" applied as a criticism of competent original female characters, on the other hand, has spread since I first heard it (which was indeed quite a long time ago).

Clearly, the subset of fans you interact with is different than the ones I interact with, and your experience of the term is different.

Edited at 2016-01-22 05:35 am (UTC)
(no subject) - acelightning - Jan. 22nd, 2016 01:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jan. 23rd, 2016 03:20 am (UTC)
I've long thought that "Mary Sue" (or Gary Stu, but really, that one only shows up when analyzing MS or, sure, rarely about fanfic) should never be used except when talking about fanfic -- and that even there, it's far better to discuss the actual issues you have, if it's "this character is an authorian insert", say that (not actually a problem unless it's paired with others), etc.

Using it as a code for "this character is more competent, self-reliant, and less flawed than I expect female characters to be" is a good sign that the speaker is simply uncomfortable with female protagonists--and that the problem lies with them, and not the work.

Jan. 23rd, 2016 05:49 am (UTC)
I agree that author insertion can be done well or poorly, and that I am more and more disliking the idea that that feature, in and of itself, is a valid reason to put down a work of fiction.

After all, in art, a self-portrait is given as much respect as the portrait of somebody else, and it even has something of a special place in portraiture, like getting a window into the artist and zir's thoughts and perceptions that you wouldn't get otherwise.

I am, indeed, objecting to the use of the phrase as a euphemism/literary-sounding substitute for admitting that a person doesn't want to read female protagonists or feels challenged in some way by the mere fictional presentation of a competent woman.

Jan. 27th, 2016 09:47 pm (UTC)
Huh. I've never used the term Larry Stu. I've used the term Mary Sue, but over 90% of the time that has applied to male characters. Time to get to work on a gender-neutral term.
Jan. 28th, 2016 03:03 am (UTC)
Another thing that I find very interesting is that different commenters here found the term used with an emphasis on different things, making it an inherently ambiguous term as well as a gendered one. I am very intrigued that you have heard the term Mary Sue applied to mostly male characters, and I wonder which specific critique was indicated?

Perhaps in addition to non-gendered, we ought to find terms that describe or at least intuitively/etymologically link to whatever is being critiqued, so that we don't have to spend a lot of time on definitions to understand what the other person is thinking when they use that term.
( 35 comments — Leave a comment )


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