Monday, 28 July 2014

Why we all need a bit of Mary Sue

"That book? Oh, God. I couldn't stand that book. The main character was such a Mary-"

No. You are not allowed to finish that sentence.

Look, I get it, it's a useful term. People really do write chronically bad self-inserts. People - teenagers especially - construct idealised versions of themselves and let the relevant narrative world revolve around that character, and people do this a lot in fan-fiction and it's really very annoying, but for a moment, please, stop. Think about what you're saying.

Because, I know, in its original form it was a helpful term. The Mary Sue as a specific "self-insert in a wish-fulfilment fan fiction which disrupts the established rules of that universe" sense has its uses. And, to be fair, even when it's used as a term for 'really shoddy character writing' it has its functionality, although it's kinda imprecise. But language is defined by usage, and what most people really mean when they say Mary Sue is, "A (generally female) character who I don't much like, and therefore find implausible."

So, yeah, I'm talking about sexism again.

Because it is just such a gendered term. In a world where the generic tends to be masculine, it's telling that some blokes get described as a 'sort of a male Mary Sue'. And, oh, there is a male equivalent, of course - our Gary or Marty Stu - but seriously? Mary Sue is a name complete in its sing-song mockery. It sounds real, it sounds naïve, it is a name as bland and goody-two-shoes as they come. It smacks of a mundane world self insert into a world where everyone else has dynamic, one syllable names. It is a kitsch name, a young name, a child or little old lady name. Where a more demure, self-aware adult would just go by Mary, it sounds like a teenager's desperate attempt at idiosyncrasy. I know people with names like Mary Sue.

Gary Stu? Not so much. From a fictional perspective it's hardly got the caricature element of Jim-Bob, the pretensions of Jean-Jacques. It doesn't even scan. Who the hell abbreviates their middle name?

So, no, the male term is not as well conceived, not as convincing, not as immediately recognisable as a derogatory term. What's more, the application of the feminised form is so much more prevalent. Pick up any significant female character or love interest and - sooner or later - the name will get hurled: Bella Swan, Mary Sue. Katniss Everdeen, Mary Sue. Ginny Weasley, Mary Sue, Even, *gulp* Lizzie Bennet, Mary Sue.
 (NB, I do not advocate any of these links, I merely wish to show their prevalence. Suffice to say that these were all found on the first page of a google search. A similar search with male names throws up very few articles or discussions that use this as their main thrust, and a lot more articles where people say, "If you use that definition, there's a case for James Bond as a Marty Stu". )

Fact is, fictional men are allowed to be world-bendingly brilliant. Oh, people might complain about the way the Doctor is so intelligent and powerful he can defeat an alien invasion fleet by talking at it, but we don't have quite such a pat cultural term for it. Men - or at least, the men whose stories we hear in the genres where the Sue originates - are supposed to be unique, to have a sense of destiny, of innate worth. And yes, people do mock them, people do tear them down, but there  is no discourse through which this is facilitated. Each case of a hero who crosses the line of, "Oh, come on!" is an isolated case. Each heroine who does so is a symptom of a wider, social malaise.

And, of course, it is a charge any female character who sticks her head above the parapet must answer. "What's so special about her?" we might ask - or else, "Oh, dear. Has the author made her too special."And, yes, she might be cleared of all charges but she is immediately suspect simply by virtue of being female, of there being a handy, catchy term through which we can describe her shortcomings. Besides, she is unlikely to be cleared of all charges. These things tend to involve the desperate quoting so beloved of rabid fans: This one can't be a Mary Sue because x, y, z.

The more the term spreads, the more it becomes the brand of dishonour upon a writer, upon a fandom. The more that writers worry about making their (particularly female) characters "flawed" and "realistic", on being, "not too extreme", the blander, more understated and less ideal these female characters will become. And when writers set the standard for exceptional femininity so low, the harder it becomes for new writers to make a female character interesting, intelligent, talented without calling down the question, "Is she a Mary Sue?" This trend serves only to drive deeper the assumption that female characters cannot be 'special', but only the self-deluding 'speshul'. 

This is not to say that there isn't some chronically bad writing out there. This isn't to say that there aren't badly designed, plot-hijacking authorial dream-darlings out there, messing up their fictional worlds. This isn't to say that junk-fiction doesn't rely too often on step-into-these-shoes-dear-reader-and-become-perfect character types. It is to say, why be so aggressive towards the female examples?

It is to say, what the hell is wrong with that anyway?

You know what's hard?

Growing up.

Oh, don't call "teenage angst" on me - it was awful. Everything changed. You could no longer get any real comfort from childish things yet the adult world - even the adolescent world - was bloody terrifying. Your body, your interests, your abilities and intellect were held up against some illusory set of ideals defined by your teachers, your parents, your classmates. You didn't know what you were doing with your life. You weren't even sure who you were.

Into the bad body-image, the moodswings, the bewilderment, the frustration, the intellectual anxiety, you would dream that you were special, that you were going to go somewhere, that you would be somebody who made a big impression on the world. You felt like you had a destiny. And, yeah, maybe the world around you didn't actually treat you like shit, but sometimes it felt like it did. Sometimes you felt like the one person who didn't have friends, felt that nobody knew the true heart of you, that you were the one being singled out for punishment. Yeah, maybe you grew up, got over it, but you know what?

I bet stories helped with that.

You could open a book, or turn on a film and slip into a world where your feeling of persecution was justified, where you were proved to be the hero after all. You could use this to work out what you were, what you wanted to be - it offered dreams, escapes. It offered you possibilities, heroisms, romances.

Picking up these books, identifying with these so-called Mary Sues let you try out paths through life. Maybe you would be the kind of person who valiantly sacrifices yourself for your friends and dies in a way that is clearly written with a cinema bio-pic in mind. Or maybe you'd become a crusader for justice and kick ass while averting the apocalypse. Maybe, who knows, maybe you'd just marry that millionaire and go and have a life of moneyed luxury where the biggest worry was not embarrassing yourself in front of said millionare's bitchy relatives.

Or maybe all those were just fantasies. Maybe you knew that. But those fantasies had a function; they gave us some idea of the kind thing we wanted to do, the kind of person we wanted to be. They gave us a chance to experience things that - in our life - were probably only going to be encountered on a much smaller scale. Yeah, okay, most of them weren't written in deathless prose, but that wasn't exactly the point. Sometimes we don't care how shakily something is written if it speaks to our better selves.

 The Mary-Sue and the ideal self:

And that's what this is abut, the better self. One of the big complaints about Mary Sues is that they are not merely an authorial insert, but rather an idealised authorial insert. This is not just you, it's you with the blemishes removed and that annoying 2 stone lost. It's you with those sparkling green eyes you always wanted and... oh, wouldn't jet black hair look cool? And, of course, not only is this girl beautiful, she is the best: at everything, always, effortlessly. And she's nice, too! She's kind, caring, compassionate. Everybody loves her, and those who hate her are just jealous...

And, I'll admit it, a case of the Sues this advanced can be pretty nauseating to read, especially if it's not in a genre you like, or you know someone who won't shut up about it. But, but...

Adolescence - and I will say especially for teenage girls because I have no experience of having been a teenage boy - is a time of remarkably low self-esteem. The media is there, relentlessly undermining every aspect of our personal appearance, we have family groups yelling at us to stay kids and peers yelling at us to grow up. There are schools telling us how important it is to 'be ourselves' provided we get all our work in on time and don't contravene the dress code. Having a relationship is everything. It doesn't matter if your queer or asexual, everybody in your life will have some opinion on your immanent heterosexual experiences, whether that be forbidding them or nagging you to begin them. Because of this, we are bombarded by endless relationship advice which drives home the message that we are not to be too smart and that if we are we should hide it, that boys' egos must be flattered at all costs, that boy's desires should define what we wear, where we go. We are told we must not be 'easy' or 'frigid' and we have...

Look, we have patriarchy, alright? It sucks.

Yet, despite this, miraculously despite all this, we have a little core of self-esteem the bastards haven't taken from us yet. We have little moments of, "I got 100% on that test. That's pretty good, isn't it?", we have the races we win, the 'okay' pictures we draw, the moment we 'get' quadratic equations. We have those evenings where we discover, "Hey, if I tie my hair like that, I really don't look too awful." We have feature that we pick out of our faces so that we can say, "I'm not properly pretty, not actually, but my lips are quite nice."

And a Mary Sue - or perhaps, more accurately, an idealised, central character - comes from that place. It reaches right into that last little touch of the egotism of childhood, that final spark of, "No, I am brilliant" that the dominant cultural discourse implies adult women aren't allowed to possess. It pulls it out of us, lets use revel in it with the full weight of adolescent narcissism. We are the agents, the heroes of our own stories, a shout in the dark of the endless culture of negativity, low self-esteem, eating disorders, self harm and self abnegation. When we step into the shoes of a 'Mary Sue', every now and then, we see our ideal self. Not who we are, but who we'd like to be, and we begin to see that the two are perhaps not so different after all. They give us strength.

You know what else is hard?

Being a grown-up.

Seriously, chaps, don't try it, it rubbish. Because when you're a grown-up you no longer have the excuse of youthful self-obsession. The world expects you to know who you are, and by that it means "who it expects you to be, and that includes not contravening the dress code". All those voices that were shouting at you during your adolescence are still yelling and although they may have got a bit quieter, they've also got a lot more dull.

And again (sorry-not-sorry MRAs) the burden of this so-called maturity is heavier on women. This is because the second we hit 35 (or drop a sprog, whichever comes first), we don't get the spot-light any more, we don't have that flexibility of role - even if the only roles we were offered in the first place were 'sexy sidekick' or 'Mary Sue'.

Wonder why 50 Shades was so successful as 'mummy porn'?

My theory is that mature women got fed up of being told they weren't allowed to be sexual. Got fed up of the fact that daring to be matter-of-fact about our bodies and desires led us to be shamed, made people tell us to put it away, that nobody wants to see. And faced with that, who wouldn't want to slip back into that endless possibility of the early twenties, when one was free, single, childless?

Well, actually, no. Most of us wouldn't do that. But that's the nice thing about fantasy.

The thing about fiction is that it lets us take on roles we might like to try or - better still - would run a mile from in reality. That's the crux of this; fantasy, escape. The need doesn't die when we leave those formative years. It's nice, from time to time, to have a character doing things you'd like to be able to do, if you didn't carry the burden of too much realism. And, yeah, good writing is always a plus, but here's a little secret: When people go to that private, escapist place, they aren't doing it to please you. They really don't give a damn what you think about their dreams, their fantasies, their escapes. What gives you the right to reach in there and try to snuff out that little light, just because you didn't like a book, a film, a fanfic?

Sure, I can't stop you, not really. Freedom of speech is a human a right. But with that comes the responsibility of thinking about the effect of what you say. And do you really want to take this away from someone? Do you want to be that person?

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