Mary Sues and Our Fear of Capable Women

SPOILERS for many works, including Star Wars, Hawkeye, Loki, and other things.

I wrote a blog in the first half of 2020 about how Rey and Captain Marvel aren’t Mary Sues. Since then, I’ve seen people call other recent female characters Mary Sues. This is particularly true for Sylvie in Loki. I think this phenomenon goes on because our society is afraid of capable women and we want to separate ourselves from fans who like those characters. Also, I think many of us just can’t wrap our heads around the concept that female characters can fulfill fantasies for women, not for men.

I began thinking about this topic again after I watched the first two episodes of Hawkeye. During those episode, I found myself really enjoying the character of Kate Bishop. She’s wealthy, pretty, clever, funny, and extremely capable in combat. All of sudden, I began to worry: Are people going to slap the term “Mary Sue” onto Kate Bishop and use that term as an excuse to dislike her?

Once I actively started thinking about whether or not Kate Bishop is a Mary Sue, I decided that she isn’t one. From what I remember during my fanfic writer days, Mary Sues tend to get everyone’s approval immediately. In the first two episodes of Hawkeye, we meet multiple characters who disapprove of Kate’s behavior: her mother, her university’s campus security, and Clint Barton himself, to name a few.

Also, if I remember correctly, Mary Sues tend to get through dangerous situations unscathed and can talk themselves out of anything. Kate doesn’t do that. While she’s a very skilled archer, fencer, and martial artist, she’s only ever done those things in controlled environments like practices and competitions. When she gets into fights with the Tracksuit Mafia, she gets some good hits in, but it’s hard for her not to get overwhelmed. Street-level fights are a new thing for her, and she’s not very good at them in the first two episodes of the series.

If parts of the MCU fandom label Kate Bishop as a Mary Sue, it will most likely be because she’s wealthy and has a lot of combat skills. But the thing is, we’ve met characters in the MCU like Tony Stark, who inherited his wealth and his super-genius from his father. We’ve also met Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing, who become dangerous martial artists thanks to their abusive father (and their good-hearted late mother) and inherit a criminal empire full of money. I don’t think any of those characters have received the label Mary Sue or its male counterpart, Marty Stu or Gary Stu.

I think viewers label certain female characters as Mary Sues not because they possess a stable set of character traits, but because their competence and their respective demeanors make those viewers uncomfortable. For example, Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel got labeled a Mary Sue because she wasn’t extremely perky and was a capable Air Force pilot. Those character traits are fine when they exist in a male character, like Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, but not when they exist in a woman. Why? Because of socialization and who controls the narrative around these characters.

Me giving sexist fans major side-eye.

So who controls the narrative around female characters? Most of the time, it’s men. And that’s true even in spaces that aren’t male-dominated, like fan fiction sites. Most fanfic writers are girls, as TV Tropes tells us, but when I was an active fan fiction writer (from about 2005 to 2013), we all spent a lot of time policing fan fiction and making fun of Mary Sues. Why? Because we’d been socialized by a male-dominated world not to accept female fantasies as legitimate. So we rejected over-the-top female fantasies written by our peers.

However, it wasn’t just socialization in a male-dominated world that made us reject Mary Sues. We also did this out of the misguided notion that if we recognized Mary Sues, we were Good Writers, and the people who wrote Mary Sues were Bad Writers. We had to reject the Bad Writers to show that we were not one of them. Never mind that we could have helped the Mary Sue writers get better by giving them construction criticism. Or we could have left them alone with their self-insert fantasies. After all, in the long run, those writers weren’t really hurting anyone.

But this idea of “spot the Mary Sue and reject it wholeheartedly” definitely migrated from fan fiction writing circles into wider usage on social media (usually still in fandom circles, though) in the last decade. Why? Well, you know what else proliferated in the past decade? Female protagonists who are capable and competent at what they do. And they do what they do while wearing non-skimpy outfits. In short, we started getting more female characters, and particularly female protagonists, who are cut from the same cloth as many male characters and protagonists. The audience is supposed to root for them to succeed, not for them to get a guy or be someone’s prize.

That change was welcomed by some people (like ME!), but not by others. That’s to be expected to a certain degree. No change is ever met with 100% approval. However, the phrase “Mary Sue” went from meaning “a poorly-written self-insert character written by a young woman” to meaning “a female character who is very capable, but not irreparably damaged or broken.”

A lot of complaints about characters like Captain Marvel, Rey from Star Wars, and Sylvie from Loki are that they are “too awesome” or that their awesomeness gets “shoved down our throats.” (These phrases come from YouTube comments that I have seen over the past few years.) Rey and Sylvie particularly get criticism for being good at things without a lot of training.

*heavy sigh*

In the case of Rey, fans seem to dislike that Rey is a very good mechanic when we meet her, and she doesn’t spend a lot of time with Luke Skywalker when she tries to train as a Jedi. But…Luke Skywalker also does both of those things. We see him fixing up C-3PO and R2-D2 as soon as his family buys them, and he appears to spend just a couple of days (maybe a week or two?) training with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back*. Apparently, it’s okay to be a competent mechanic and a great Jedi with little training when you’re a man, but not when you’re a woman.

*If you look at my first post about Mary Sues, you’ll find a comment from a guy claiming that Luke is better than Rey because he spent a really long time training with Yoda. And he kept insisting on that point. Dude, if that was supposed to be a really long time, then The Empire Strikes Back didn’t pace that sequence very well.

With Sylvie, I know I’ve seen claims that she’s a Mary Sue because she shows up, is awesome, and has the protagonist fall in love with her. While it is true that a lot of Mary Sues have a male character fall in love with them, but Sylvie is much messier than Mary Sues usually are. She is a badass, but she also lets her anger and revenge interfere with her ability to connect with people. Also, she gets her revenge on He Who Remains at the end of Loki Season 1, but her reaction shows that getting revenge often leaves the revenge-seeker feeling empty once they’ve achieved it.

Oh, and she unleashed the multiverse on the MCU, making way for many variants of He Who Remains (including Kang the Conqueror) to take power. Maybe I read the wrong fan fictions when I was a teenager and college student, but I don’t remember Mary Sues ever messing up that badly. In fact, they usually don’t because they’re a projection of the author’s fantasies. I don’t know that Sylvie is a projection of the show’s creators’ fantasies.

Now, I know there’s a trope called the Anti-Sue, which is when an author or creator gives a character (often a female character) only flaws and no positive traits. However, I don’t think that’s Sylvie either. She has both good and bad traits. I think, overall, Loki has some choppy pacing that may undercut Sylvie’s character, but I think the cries of “Mary Sue!” may have to do with fans’ insecurities about female characters and women in general.

All my blathering about whether or not these characters are Mary Sues may seem silly, but I think it’s tied to the misogynistic gatekeeping that has existed in geek and nerd culture for decades, probably since it first emerged in the mid-20th century. The urge to declare certain female characters “Mary Sues” seems related to the phenomenon of freaking out about the “fake geek girl” in 2012 and 2013.

The “fake geek girl” was a misogynist myth that ran rampant across the geeky and nerdy corners of the internet in the early 2010s. The fear was that geekdom was being invaded by women who were pretending to be geeky or nerdy in order to get men’s attention for…sexual reasons? That’s usually the point where the argument fell apart.

Yes, a lot of men yelled about “fake geek girls,” but women helped perpetuate the myth, too. For example, a woman named Tara Brown wrote the article “Dear Fake Geek Girls: Please Go Away” for Forbes in March 2012. In the article, she wants women to get truly obsessed with a subject before declaring themselves a geek or nerd. Because some woman named Tara gets to control our geekiness.

Women like Tara Brown remind me of this line that Gandalf delivers to Saruman in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (the 2001 film, that is): “There is only one Lord of the Ring, only one who can bend it to his will. And he does not share power.” Women like her want to get close to male power in geekdom and in many other parts of society. So they throw other women under the bus to get that power. But only men really have that power and bend it to their will without question.

I bring up the “fake geek girl” hysteria because it was a way to police women’s presence in geekdom, including fandoms. Similarly, the online users who cry “Mary Sue!” all the time are policing the representation of women in the things they like. If a female character teaches herself to do something (like Rey with mechanics or Sylvie with enchantment), she’s a Mary Sue. If she’s a badass without being irreparably broken, she’s a Mary Sue. If a male protagonist falls in love with her, she’s a Mary Sue. If she has no love interest (like Captain Marvel), she’s a Mary Sue. If she’s competent at the things she does, she’s a Mary Sue.

Overall, the declaration of “Mary Sue” is an arbitrary one. It tells you that certain fans feel uncomfortable when they watch female characters behave competently or in non-objectified ways. If they behave the way male characters do, it makes many fans uncomfortable. And that’s just something they’ll have to get over. Because representation should not step backwards to make them happy.

Also, some of the characters that disgruntled fans declare “Mary Sues” inspire girls and women. Take Rey. Grown men (or man-children?) may hate her, but little girls LOVE Rey. Just type the phrase “little girl disney world star wars” into YouTube’s search bar, and you’ll find adorable videos of little girls dressing up as Rey and feeling empowered. Like this girl who stares down Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and Darth Maul. And this toddler, who’s not afraid of Stormtroopers. (Okay, that second girl may be dressed as Kylo Ren or something, but she has Rey energy.) That’s who Rey is for.

Rey is also for me, the little girl who always wanted a blue lightsaber. The little girl who knew it wasn’t right that the only boys got to be Jedi in the original Star Wars trilogy. The little girl who didn’t like that there were only two girl engines (Mavis and Daisy) among dozens of boy engines in Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends. She’s also for every other girl and woman who was been told that the things she likes are decidedly male. And Sylvie is for those girls and women, too. So is Captain Marvel. And Kate Bishop. And so many other female characters.

You know what? Who cares if someone declares that your favorite character is a Mary Sue or that a show you enjoy is “just fan fiction” (oh HI, Loki detractors on YouTube). Those people do not control what you like. You do.

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