For the unititiated, “Mary Sue” is a fandom term for original female characters that pop up in fan fiction and who are too ridiculously perfect to be believable. A Mary Sue is often incredibly beautiful and talented, with an incredible singing voice, and back when I started out in online fandom (circa 2005), she often seduced Legolas or the Phantom of the Opera. Mary Sues are reviled in fandom because they are signs of bad writing. However, I have recently realized that this hatred for the Mary Sue character type is sexist, especially since I’ve seen the term applied to two mainstream aspirational heroines: Rey and Captain Marvel.
Why is fandom’s hatred for the Mary Sue sexist? Firstly, it’s an extension of our society’s hatred for anything that teenage girls like. In her video about the societal backlash against Twilight, Lindsay Ellis points out that “We, and by ‘we’ I mean our culture, we kind of hate teenage girls. We hate their music, we hate their insipid backstabbing, we hate their vanity, we hate their selfie sticks, we hate their makeup, we hate their stupid books and the stupid, sexy actors they made famous, and their stupid sparkly vampires. And then we wonder why so many girls are eager to distance themselves from being the object of societal contempt.” I bring this quote up because this quote is 100% true.
For instance, Mary Sues happen in fan fiction because the teenage girls who write them are usually writing the first stories they will ever write. If you’re a professional or aspiring fiction writer, you’ve probably heard the adage that you have to write badly before you can write well, and ultimately, that’s what a lot of teenage Mary Sue writers are doing. But back when I was a teenager, after I read a bunch of them and realized they were all so similar, I would leave comments telling the writers their stories were terrible. I’d also hang out in fanfiction.net forums where people would back Mary Sue stories. I was a dysfunctional teenager, and I wasn’t always very nice back then. Thankfully, I grew out of that awful phase, and now, at age 30, I wonder why Mary Sues are so reviled. Why can’t teenage girls write out their fandom fantasies and share them with each other? Why are teenage girls’ fantasies somehow so much worse than teenage boys’ fantasies? Really, I think sexism is the only answer: we’re all conditioned to see the things that women and girls like as other and as lesser, so we decide we hate them on site. Then we end up hating things that really aren’t that harmful in the long run.
This leads me to how people on the internet lob the term Mary Sue at Rey and Captain Marvel. For example, I rewatched the Wonder Woman 1984 trailer earlier this week, and I found this comment: “Unlike Rey or Captain Marvel where I feel I am force fed to believe they are amazing and unstoppable I don’t get that from Wonder Woman. A strong female protagonist I can get behind.” Another user replied: “As much as I love Star Wars and Marvel, I agree with the CM and Rey statement, they are total Mary-sues, Wonder Woman is just, awesome!” Oddly, I remember that when James Cameron slammed Wonder Woman because he apparently portrays women better than that movie does (spoiler: he doesn’t), people in those articles’ comments agreed with him and claimed they disliked Wonder Woman and claimed it wasn’t very good or just pandering to women. Yet now, Wonder Woman is the ideal female hero, and Rey and Captain Marvel are seen as usurpers who ram their awesomeness down our throats.
I think people (and particularly men) pit Wonder Woman against Rey and Captain Marvel because Wonder Woman fits more neatly into boxes that allow her to appeal to men. For example, Wonder Woman’s battle outfit is inherently physically revealing, and it’s been that way since her creation. In fact, her creators deliberately set out to give her an outfit that was as revealing as the outfits of other 1940s comic book heroines while also being “as patriotic as Captain America” so she’d be more appealing to readers (Cap debuted about a year before Wondy did). You can read more about the history of her creation and her character design in The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. From the beginning, even though her creator, William Moulton Marston, wanted to Wonder Woman to espouse feminist ideals, he still filtered her through his own weird male gaze (which includes his polygamy and his bondage fetish). Additionally, Wonder Woman always has a romantic arc with Steve Trevor (or sometimes with Superman or Batman), which makes both men and women feel comfortable, since we’ve been conditioned since we were young to expect women to be part of a romantic story arc.
Now that we’ve outlined why people now gravitate towards Wonder Woman, let’s examine why people in fandom want to reject Rey and Captain Marvel. Part of it, I believe, has to do with the fact that they wear relatively modest outfits. Go back and look at women’s action movie garb over the last several decades, and you’ll see how revealing they used to be. (Two of the three big-screen Catwomans’ outfits come to mind.) But now, we have two major female action heroes who cover up while fighting the bad guys, which might be jarring to viewers who expect women to wear something designed to appeal to male viewers.
Another big issue with Rey and Captain Marvel is that neither of them are designed to be The Girl in any group they work with. They’re also not designed to be love interests. They’re on equal footing with their male colleagues and counterparts. For example, Rey shares a kiss with Kylo Ren at the end of The Rise of Skywalker, but he becomes one with the Force right after that. Additionally, they always had an interesting dynamic that wasn’t every fully romantic or fully platonic. She also never showed romantic interest in her friends Finn and Poe. They’re her friends, and that’s all. Rey’s character arc doesn’t end with her getting a boyfriend. It ends with her walking off into the double-sunset on Tattooine with her droid friend, BB-8.
Captain Marvel, on the other hand, has no love interest at all. The emotional center of her character arc is reconnecting with her best friend and fellow Air Force Pilot, Maria Rambeau, and her daughter, Monica “Lieutenant Trouble” Rambeau. That’s very different from what most movie fans expect from a superhero movie. They usually expect a romantic plot to show up somewhere, where the love interest is a damsel in distress. Also, friendships between women usually don’t get a lot of focus in this genre, so that focus might have seemed strange to some male moviegoers. Interestingly, my sister told me that when she saw Captain Marvel last year, one of her friends told her, “Oh, you know you wanted a love story.” My sister replied that she really didn’t want a love story in that movie. However, she thinks her friend really like Captain Marvel as a character, and that’s why she wanted a love story in the movie. So both male and female moviegoers might not know what to do with female protagonists who have no love interest at all.
Really, I think the “Mary Sue” claims aimed at Rey and Captain Marvel aren’t genuine criticisms of the characters, but are rather signals of frustration that come from the fanboys and fangirls who call them Mary Sues. The people who accuse them of being overly idealized likely don’t know what an inspirational and/or aspirational female character looks like, so they have to tear that type of character down. For example, some people don’t like that Rey can use the Force and knows a lot about spaceship mechanics. That doesn’t make her a Mary Sue, though. She’s a great spaceships mechanic because she grew up scavenging parts from a Star Destroyer and living in a defunct AT-AT. She’s been surrounded by mechanical parts all her life, and she figured out how to use them. Also, how is a scavenger from Jakku becoming a powerful Jedi any less likely than a farm boy from Tattooine becoming a powerful Jedi?
What’s interesting about Rey and Captain Marvel is that they’re designed to be aspirational and inspirational heroes* just like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter and many other male protagonists. The thing about these two heroines that threatens fanboys is the fact that they fill this aspirational and inspirational hero role while being female. Think about it: if you’ve gone through your whole life and every hero looks like you, reminding you that you are strong and capable and amazing without having to do anything in real life to affirm that belief, how do you feel when people who don’t look like you have that opportunity to see themselves reflected in onscreen heroes? You feel threatened.
*Meaning people look up to them and want to be like them.
And that’s the real problem: because they feel threatened, fanboys and the fangirls who want to align themselves with that part of fandom reject two female heroes and declare that another heroine is the “right” heroine to root for. This phenomenon happens a lot where works with female or minority protagonists are concerned: after Frozen came out, I saw people online claim that Disney already made a great movie about sisters, and it was called Lilo and Stitch. Similarly, when Black Panther was released, I saw memes on Facebook claiming that Blade was a better black superhero than Black Panther. It seems that in fandom, we’re only allowed to have one real female superhero, black superhero, or Disney movie about sisters. Except that’s not true at all. We’re allowed to have all of these characters and their respective works, and we’re allowed to enjoy all of them.
Finally, I’ll say this about the people who spread these toxic ideas throughout fandom: those people are generally pretty unhappy. Maybe that’s a generalization, but I’ve participated in online fandom since 2005, and I have found that the people who are most critical and cynical usually aren’t very happy outside of fandom. The same is true of people who live through their favorite works. So the fanboys who despise Captain Marvel (and by extension, Brie Larson) are offended because she’s invading the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is their safe space. Before she showed up, they could bury themselves in a film series that only had, with the exception of Black Panther, white straight male heroes who reinforced their own sense of masculinity and feeling of superiority. Captain Marvel disrupts their feeling of safety just by existing. Luckily, I’m pretty sure these fanboys are a minority of people who saw the film, and they have very little control over the MCU. They can kick and scream about change, but change will still come.
Essentially, I’m sick of people lobbing the term “Mary Sue” at heroines who are making up for a lack of female equivalents to the like of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. These characters are allowed to exist. They’re fun to watch, and I love both Rey and Captain Marvel. I love Wonder Woman, too. Because we are allowed to love the characters and works that we love. The internet and its most toxic denizens cannot stop us.
Also, to all the geeky and nerdy teenage girls out there: love the books/movies/TV shows/music/anime/manga/anything else you love. Read and write the fan fiction you want to read and write. Feel no shame about any of it. You are amazing and smart and talented.