Female Characters, Mary Sues and Sexism

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 :)

9 thoughts on “Female Characters, Mary Sues and Sexism

  1. Good post. I don’t think the problem is the term Mary Sue per se, though, it’s that people use it to mean a lot of different things, some of which are dumb and some of which are not. I do think it is fair to criticize an author for inserting him or herself into a book for self-aggrandizement, in that sense as long as that’s what someone means when they say Mary Sue, I don’t have a problem with it. Of course, the only reason why you even use the term then is to save space and time– but that assumes that there is only one standard definition, which obviously there is not.

    So . . . yeah. I just wasted a lot of virtual ink to basically come to the same conclusion you did. People should stick to legitimate criticism rather than vague, unwarranted attacks.

    • Yeah, the term itself is fine when used correctly to mean a self-insertion or legitimately poorly-written character, but using it as shorthand for a female character someone just doesn’t like is not acceptable.

  2. Interestingly, the term originated from FanFiction, and some would argue does not actually apply to original works. In Fanfiction, it meant usually a character who would warp canon around themselves so that everybody loved them, no one acts in character around them, only they could solve a problem–and they could solve ANY conflict that arose. The easiest way to think about it is that the problem with a Mary sue is how the pre-made setting reacts to her.

    But, when the phrase transferred over to original works, it lost a lot of the Canon-warping properties and became a “perfect” character. Then, it was also used as a synonym for author insert, since in fanfiction those two are correlated. With such a wide definition, it applied to a lot of terrible beginning writer’s characters, and so people used it online to refer to them without a rigorous definition. After that, I think it got such wide use that it became the go-to “Dirty word” about a character. (Mostly female, as true to it’s fanfiction origin.)

    • I probably should’ve included something about its origin in fanfiction :)

      The term of Mary Sue has been warped beyond its original definition. Some of the original Mary Sue qualities you described can be applied to original fiction, but it really has become a “dirty word”, as you wrote, some readers fall back on instead of bothering to pinpoint actual issues with the character or text.

  3. Pingback: Female Characters, Mary Sues and Sexism | Miss Represented | Scoop.it

  4. The Internet is a harsh place in terms of critics :D

    But I agree, the term “Mary Sue” does get thrown around a lot and as a result, when people legitimately used the term correctly, it carries little weight.

    Do you rely on online tests and stuff to determine your character is a Mary Sue, or just avoid common stuff that you mentioned (attitudes in a time where they wouldn’t make sense, or author self-inserts)?

    • I’ve used the online tests before, which cater to discovering a particular kind of Sue – the too perfect type. Some of them are quite good for that, but it does depend on the rules of your universe. I have a busty, fiery redhead who hand conjure fire (haha, cliché alert) and she generally gets too many Sue points, but I know she’s also quite catty and her “fiery” personality sometimes gets misdirected at people who don’t deserve it. So the tests aren’t always entirely accurate, but I’ve found them okay for most of my characters.

      Most of the tests ask questions about self-inserts, weird attitudes for the time, etc. so if you’re really good at being objective about your characters you might be able to work out whether he/she is a Sue or not :)

  5. I critique fanfiction and one of the things I critique for is Mary Sues. I’ve seen people throw the term around when they honestly don’t understand what the term means. It isn’t at all about having a perfect character, but a character that isn’t believably written.

    • Unrealistic characters are often so because they aren’t fleshed out properly (which you’d already know since you critique for Mary-Sues, lol), e.g. have no character flaws, a poor backstory, a focus on appearance rather than personality, etc. I think “perfect” characters are often seen as Mary-Sues because perfection is in itself unrealistic. Of course, using apparent perfection as a criterion can be problematic because nobody agrees on what is perfect and what is not, so looking for unrealistic characters instead of ridiculously perfect ones is probably less subjective.

      Reading over what I just wrote, I just realized how much university has affected my writing style already and it’s only been eleven weeks since I started…

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