A Mary Sue is a type of fictional character, usually a young woman, who is portrayed as unrealistically free of weaknesses. Originating in fan fiction, a Mary Sue is often an author's idealized self-insertion. Mary Sue stories are often written by adolescent authors.
The term Mary Sue was coined by Paula Smith, as a character's name in the 1973 parody short story "A Trekkie's Tale", which satirized idealized female characters widespread in Star Trek fan fiction. A male character with similar traits may be labeled a Gary Stu or Marty Stu.
The term Mary Sue comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 in the parody story "A Trekkie's Tale", published in Smith's and Sharon Ferraro's Star Trek fanzine Menagerie. The story featured Lieutenant Mary Sue ("the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet—only fifteen and a half years old"), and satirized idealistic female characters widespread in Star Trek fan fiction. The full story reads:
"Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky," thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. "Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet—only fifteen and a half years old." Captain Kirk came up to her. "Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?"
"Captain! I am not that kind of girl!"
"You're right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us."
Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. "What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?"
"The Captain told me to."
"Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind."
Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.
But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies, Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.
However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday on the Enterprise.: 94–96
In 1976, Menagerie's editors wrote:
Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.
Smith and Ferraro created the character to parody a recurring pattern found in author submissions to Menagerie, in which a young woman would arrive on the Starship Enterprise and quickly win over the established characters. While the Mary Sue character did not originally have a specific gender, these submitted stories tended to be written by women. According to Smith and Ferraro, women made up most of the Star Trek fan base, unlike the larger science fiction fandom.
The term Mary Sue can also refer to the fan fiction genre featuring such characters; these stories feature female heroines who are young, attractive, and exceptionally gifted, and serve as the author's self-insertion into the story. They often resolve the conflict of the story, win the love of the other characters, and die a heroic death at the end.: 53 Mary Sue stories are often written by adolescent authors. An author may create a new character based on themselves, or they may alter an established character's personality and interests to be more like their own.
The Mary Sue character has acquired a negative connotation in fan communities: 53 as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting. They may excel at tasks that should not be possible for them. Smith and Ferraro had initially considered other (male) names such as "Murray Sue" or "Marty Sue". Comparing the character to male proxies such as Superman, Smith later said, "It was OK for [men] to have placeholder characters that were incredibly able."
According to folklorist Camille Bacon-Smith, the label is "the most universally denigrated genre in the entire canon of fan fiction": 94 and may represent "self-imposed sexism" by limiting the qualities allowed for female characters.: 97 Author Ann C. Crispin described the term Mary Sue as "a put-down, implying that the character so summarily dismissed is not a true character, no matter how well drawn, what sex, species, or degree of individuality".: 98 As the term has gained in popularity, male fans have often used it to denigrate any capable female character.
The two characteristics of idealization and self-insertion are usually cited by fans as hallmarks of a Mary Sue character. Angie Fazekas and Dan Vena write that such characters "provide an opportunity for teenage girls to write themselves into popular culture narratives as the heroines of their own stories". According to Jackie Mansky in Smithsonian, some critics argue that "Mary Sues opened up a gateway for writers, particularly women and members of underrepresented communities, to see themselves in extraordinary characters".
According to Bacon-Smith, Mary Sue stories are "central to the painful experience of a female fan's adolescence", especially for those who could not or would not remain intellectually or physically subservient to their male peers; they represent a combination of active protagonist with "the culturally approved traits of beauty, sacrifice, and self-effacement".: 100–101 In fan-fiction versions, the protagonist traditionally dies at the end of the story; Bacon-Smith says this expresses the "cultural truth" that to enter womanhood in a male-dominated American society, one must kill the "active agent within [herself]"; Mary Sue thus embodies a "fantasy of the perfect woman", who exists to serve the needs of men while minimizing her own abilities.: 102
Smith commented in 1980 that her intent was never "to put down all stories about inspiring females".: 96 However, Bacon-Smith argues that fear of creating a "Mary Sue" may be restricting and even silencing to some writers. She quotes an issue of the Star Trek fanzine Archives as identifying "Mary Sue" paranoia as one of the sources for the lack of "believable, competent, and identifiable-with female characters".: 110–111 In this article, author Joanna Cantor interviews her sister Edith, also an amateur editor, who says she receives stories with cover letters apologizing for the tale as "a Mary Sue", even when the author admits she does not know what a "Mary Sue" is.
According to Edith Cantor, while Paula Smith's original "Trekkie's Tale" was only ten paragraphs long, "in terms of their impact [...] those words [Mary Sue] have got to rank right up there with the Selective Service Act".: 96 At Star Trek fan convention ClipperCon in 1987, during a discussion by female authors, one author stated, "Every time I've tried to put a woman in any story I've ever written, everyone immediately says, this is a Mary Sue.": 110–111 Bacon-Smith writes that "Participants in a panel discussion in January 1990 noted with growing dismay that any female character created within the [fan] community is damned with the term Mary Sue" [emphasis in original].: 110
Less commonly, male characters may be used to personify the same wish-fulfillment functions. Called Marty Stu, Gary Stu, Gary Sue, or Larry Stu,[a] these characters are typically discussed in fan culture as adjuncts to the Mary Sue trope. For example, fans have argued that in Star Trek, the character James T. Kirk is a "Marty Stu".: 97
In a 2012 interview, Paula Smith said that the male alternative is rarely pointed out, citing James Bond and Superman as popular "Marty Stu" characters. She argued that male Mary Sues benefit the male audience's coming of age: "[W]hat gets focused on in the culture is defined by boys and young men. Psychologically, there's a turning point in men's lives. There's a point where they need to break away from women in their youth, and then later they come back to women as grown men, but many men never make it, never quite come back to a world that includes women as human beings."
According to Bacon-Smith, the stories that represent the "pure" form of the Mary Sue character are "found in the Star Trek section of any bookstore".: 98 In the 1986 Star Trek novel Dreadnought! by Diane Carey, for example, the protagonist, cadet Piper, beats a training test using a maneuver from a girls' adventure novel; is told that she is the first person to ever pass the test honestly; is recruited for the Enterprise by Captain Kirk, with whom she feels a "subliminal connection"; becomes central to the plot involving a hijacked ship; must free Kirk from captivity by distracting his guards; takes command of the ship during the story's climax; is promoted first to Lieutenant, then Lieutenant Commander; becomes the youngest to receive the Federation's second highest award for her ingenuity in "helping to save Star Fleet"; and in the closing of the novel, makes a date with Kirk to go sailing.: 98–99
The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Superstar" has been analyzed as being a deliberate satire of Mary Sue/Marty Stu type of stories. In "Superstar", a minor series character, Jonathan Levinson, casts an augmentation spell that makes him popular and hyper-competent.
The character Arya Stark from HBO's Game of Thrones series has been labeled a Mary Sue for her heroic role in the show's finale; frustration with this characterization inspired a response on the feminist website The Mary Sue, which took its name as an effort to "re-appropriate" the term.
Twitter users have debated whether the Star Wars sequel trilogy features a Mary Sue in its protagonist, Rey, on the basis of Rey's seemingly natural skills as a mechanic, a fighter, a pilot, and a user of "The Force", which draw admiration from the film's other main characters. Writer Caroline Framke of Vox contrasts these points with similar aspects of the character of Luke Skywalker, concluding that Rey's realization of her abilities was not necessarily any more impressive than Luke's. Framke argues that fans' "instinctive" criticism of characters like Rey reflects a double standard, in that "seemingly perfect" male heroes are rarely so criticized. Tasha Robinson of The Verge writes, "We wouldn't be worrying about Rey's excessive coolness if she were Ray, standard-issue white male hero". While Robinson states that Rey is "kind of a Mary Sue character", she suggests enjoying the character's "flawlessness", rather than seeing it as a problem.
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- Paula Smith's alternative name is "Wesley Sue"
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