Let me make something clear from the outset: I am very sensitive to sexism. Possibly too sensitive. I am often told to “lighten up” when I get offended by those asinine sexist jokes some people just love to tell.
**Warning: there be Divergent spoilers ahead**
It seems to have become common practice for readers to refer to female characters they dislike as Mary Sues. The Mary Sue was originally referred to as an idealised insert of the author, found especially in fanfiction, where the original character was usually young, highly skilled for her age, gender, class or race, possessing an unusual eye or hair colour and loved by all but the most evil of other characters. These days Mary Sue is used to describe a number of characters from author inserts to overly perfect characters to characters a reader just doesn’t like. While there is a male variant, Gary Stu of Marty Stu, the phenomenon of Mary Sue is primarily a problem with female characters.
While some characters can be legitimately called Mary Sues – such as characters possessing only physical flaws which are not in fact character flaws (such as paraplegia or blindness) to generally evoke sympathy in the reader, or characters possessing 21st-century attitudes in a time when such attitudes were unacceptable – often readers will slap this label on female characters they just don’t like. I’ve seen this myself.
In a Goodreads discussion about whether or not people liked the novel Divergent, one person said they didn’t like it because Tris, the main character, was a Mary Sue. She is not. Tris, while brave and often selfless also has a bad temper and is too small to fight effectively in the competition she must enter for the chance to join the Dauntless faction. Yes, she has an unusual quality most of the other characters do not possess, but she is not the only character with this quality and she is not universally liked or universally hated. I also highly doubt she is an author self-insert. Therefore, by all possible definitions, she is not a Mary Sue.
It is the attitude that belies such statements that irks me, however. Why is a competent female character automatically called a Mary Sue? Why is this the standard insult for a female character one does not like? It is perfectly appropriate for male characters to be skilled, to swoop in and save the day, and they are rarely accused of Sue-ish behaviour. I see the accusations of Sue-ish behaviour from both male and female readers, but how did this become the norm in the first place?
I write strong male and female characters, yet it’s only the female characters I am worried about being accused of Sue-ish behaviour. In my NaNo novel my main character is not universally liked or hated, becomes disillusioned with her appearance but does display unusual magical and physical fighting ability. However, she also gets to butt kicked by other characters and has a hell of a temper. By all definitions, she is not a Sue, despite her unusual abilities. Chances are, however, that if the book were to be published, the first insult towards my character would be an accusation of her being a Mary Sue.
We as both writers and readers need to stop this ridiculous pattern. Rather than falling back on an old and overused insult, how about we give legitimate reasons why we don’t like a book or character? Accusing a character of Sue-ish behaviour is about as intelligent and thought out as calling an entire novel “stupid” or “boring”. Give reasons for your opinions, people! Either that, or get out of my internet :)