auronlu: (Lucretia)
[personal profile] auronlu
I propose that we make 2014 the year of the Mary Sue. This is the year where women writers take our women-driven fandoms and unapologetically write our own wish-fulfillment fantasies, our idealized, heroic characters, our self-inserts and our ways of escaping from the reality of our less-than-ideal lives. I propose that we take the term Mary Sue and treat it just like the name James Bond: A cool, kickass character that all look upon with adoration or fearful respect, who gets to go do exciting things, meet cool people, look fucking hot and awesome all the time, kick people in the face and go back to the hotel for a drink and a fuck. Because female fans, female fandoms, and female characters shouldn’t have to gain permission to be badasses.


~ skadi-again-again

[personal profile] vieralynn has been writing good stuff about (a) the validity of reclaiming Mary Sue and (b) the way a lot of fandom escapism doesn't speak to her because it tends to suit the tastes of white / straight / anglo-american fans.


In that post, she asks, "Is Mary Sue actually an encoding of a middle class protestant able-bodied cis-gendered straight white anglo-american female fantasy? And how else might she look?"

I pondered this, years ago, when I first ran across the concept of Mary Sue that was circulating around fandom in the nineties. Back then, I heard that "Mary Sue" was a female self-insert in a Star Trek fanfic. The character was beautiful, had exotic features, saved the Enterprise with a hairpin, and died tragically with all the male characters in love with / pining for her. That was the rumor. But I never tracked it down to verify. Surprisingly, it looks like the fic that started it all was a triple drabble (in a small-time Trek fanzine, the equivalent of small local fansites today). It reads like a parody, and I wonder if that's what it was.

Even secondhand, I always found the description of the perfect, beautiful character whom everyone loved to be...not an interesting form of escapism.

I support the idea that Mary Sue can be a form of self-empowerment: why not fantasize about being amazeballs? Why is that so awful? Why do we constantly stomp down any girl who dares to dream of being superwoman or Arwen or Lt. Mary Sue? Why do we discourage young girls from wish fulfillment fantasies?

But for me, the standard Mary Sue character didn't work. It wasn't appealling to me. Being smart? Okay, I'm pretty smart, but that doesn't help. Beautiful? No, my escapism was more of a Cinderella-archetype: the scruffy, ordinary scullion girl whom everyone overlooks, but she has hidden depths.

The OFC I identified with most strongly as a child was a Lessa of Pern type: she was scorned and hated and had some serious anger problems (which I was taught to suppress -- she let me vicariously express anger and ill-temper and aggressiveness and downright rudeness), and she was a survivor and a slave. She was my Mary Sue of choice through junior high up into college. Kids work out a lot of emotional turmoil through fic.

Around the time I hit 21 or so, my Sue changed. She was a peasant. Plain upbringing. Ordinary Person Making Do While Surrounded By Awesome People. A female Bilbo or Sam Gamgee. This is a form of privilege-escapism: "imagine what it would be like to be successful despite not having a silver spoon advantage. NO GUILT, she EARNED IT HERSELF."

That Sue got the Elf. It was wish fulfillment, but also kicking over a major theme in Tolkien that I thought was a crock of shit: in his mythos, (a) only elites are able to win the love of Elves, (b) only men win the love of elf women, and (c) the elf woman has to give up immortality for love. Screw that. My Woodsman's daughter -- Jane Q. Ordinary -- won an Elf's love, and when she was an old woman she made him promise to get on the flipping boat to the Undying Lands and live another life, because love wasn't worth dying for, only worth living for.

And then there was the escapism fantasy of being able-bodied: my Mary Sues aren't usually strong, but they've got the plucky fighter thing going on. (See: Pippin vs. the Nazgul.)

My Mary Sues are NEVER tall. They're short like me. (Or even shorter; in college and grad school, my self-inserts were always under five feet tall so that I could be taller than somebody).

Sometimes Mary Sue escapism is making characters have advantages you don't. And then sometimes it's about giving them the same disadvantages you do, yet they still succeed.

Or fail. Angst, hurt/comfort -- oh yeah, I still love it, primarily for the comfort side of things, because when you have arthritis you fucking hurt and wish you had someone to coddle you. As a young writer, I played with the tragic death trope, too. (It's still in some of my writing, but subdued; it's shifted to meaningful death, another huge but separate escapist fantasy).

Some Mary Sues get love. Some get families. Some get acclaim. Some just let the author vent.

My later Mary Sues earned respect.

More recently, my Mary Sues have been mothers or protective of family, siblings, children, nieces and nephews, none of which I've got.

When I write FFXII fic (not often enough), I'm mentally self-inserting into Penelo, because I see her as like me. She's my old wimpy-Sue peasant trope.

Yet when I write FFX fic, I'm mentally self-inserting into Lulu, because she's what I'd love to be. Including, especially, unapologetically grumpy. And dangerous. And Mama Bear. Not the protag, but a guardian of the protag.

Which is another escapist fantasy that seems to inform a lot of my video game self-insertions: Defender of the Sue. Often, my POV character is not the character I consider to be the true hero of the story, but her guardian, which is how I played and enjoyed FFVIII (unlike most people, I thought Rinoa was the hero), FFX, FFV (I adored Lenna, who resembles my wimpy Sues, but I wanted to be Faris her swashbuckling protector), XIII-2 (I self-identified with Noel), Suikoden V (I self-identified as Lelei to Lucretia).

What other Mary Sues are there?
I'd love to see more answers to vieralynn's question. I'm not straight, not fully abled, but I'm certainly stuck in cis / white / anglo-american / privilege land, and I have a hard time stepping outside of it.

Date: 2014-02-10 11:44 am (UTC)
samuraiter: (Default)
From: [personal profile] samuraiter
(When it comes to Star Trek Mary Sue legends, you might be thinking of this cycle of stories, too. They are helpfully MST'd at that link, and are genuinely awful, not empowering.)

One of the first things I was taught upon entering fandom – in the late '90s, during the heyday of anime / manga fandom – was that self-inserts were the absolute devil, but I have since learned that they have their uses, and, indeed, I have been involved with several comms that specialize in writing them. I suspect that they need to be thought of as a sub-genre all to themselves.

Then again, in many of the fandoms I have inhabited, if you write original characters of any kind, you can expect your readership / review count to drop by up to 90%. :-|

As for my own experiences, any time I have put a character into a story, be it original or otherwise, that embodies any aspect of me, it tends to be a negative aspect, especially if it was something I wrote during the sensitive years you describe. Several of them evolved into characters who were flat-out despicable. (Ironically, one of the only ones who did not was the one who was specifically written to be a villain.)

Date: 2014-02-10 05:44 pm (UTC)
flonnebonne: (Default)
From: [personal profile] flonnebonne
My Mary Sues always have spaekly magic powers. Always.

Date: 2014-02-11 12:51 am (UTC)
sarasa_cat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sarasa_cat
Brief response because I'm currently deadlining on work (can someone clone me? better yet, can someone make a Lieutenant Mary Sue of me who is sparkly and magical and able to accomplish a week's worth of hard intellectual grinding with the snap of her fingers, *AND* win acceptance into the Vulcan Order of Gallantry?!)

Conversation over lunch sparked on the LJ version of my post. It is over here and puts a little more form into what isn't sitting quite right with me in this whole act of conflating "Mary Sue" with the variety of female-focused escapism and power fantasies: http://vieralynn.livejournal.com/203279.html I'm pretty certain Auronlu has access to my LJ but if anyone passing through wants to read these f-locked posts, ping me here (DW is my main home) or on LJ (where I cross post on rare occasion). I'm a snarky geekgirl currently working in academentia, been in and around fandom since the 90s.

Date: 2014-02-11 01:34 am (UTC)
heavenscalyx: (Default)
From: [personal profile] heavenscalyx
I'd love to be able to read your post -- I've the same name on LJ as here.

I'm a cynical comic/anime/RPG gamer dyke writer, and I've known Auronlu since, um, er, 1985ish.
Edited Date: 2014-02-11 01:35 am (UTC)

Oh wait! Adding this:

Date: 2014-02-11 12:59 am (UTC)
sarasa_cat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sarasa_cat
You said: Sometimes Mary Sue escapism is making characters have advantages you don't. And then sometimes it's about giving them the same disadvantages you do, yet they still succeed.

If we cross out the word "Mary Sue," I like this as a broad-based starter definition for escapism that isn't loaded down with Mary Sue's baggage.

To keep it female-specific, we could replace "Mary Sue" with "female-centered."

Something like:

Female-centric escapism is about creating female protagonists who sometimes have extra advantages you don't have, and often have at least some of the same disadvantages you do have, yet they still manage to succeed when facing similar if not far greater challenges.

Date: 2014-02-11 06:42 am (UTC)
melchar: medieval raccoon girl (Default)
From: [personal profile] melchar
Minor nit - it was Merry & Eowyn - not Pippin - who took down the Nazgul king

As for Sues? IMO a 'Sue' is better, more sparkly, more magical - has a more tragic back-story, cuter [etc] than anyone else and has no real flaws.

I have better the the norm character fantasies, but O Gods, do they have -flaws-! To my mind flaws help make the character and a 'Sue' won't have that type of development.

Date: 2014-02-11 04:36 pm (UTC)
crankyoldman: Running up that hill [Final Fantasy VIII] (rinoa wings)
From: [personal profile] crankyoldman
You mean Rinoa isn't the hero of FFVIII? XD

probably a long response

Date: 2014-02-14 09:51 am (UTC)
zen_monk: (Default)
From: [personal profile] zen_monk
I think that when I start to contemplate my own sort of self-insert or OC, they are not only the people who would most look like me, but is greater in being and in performance. Not 'being' as in something supernatural or spiritually ascended, but that happens too. It's more like this wish-fulfillment would have this amazing dynamic with the world, where anybody can be their partner in crime or dastardly villain to flip the bird against, to be competent in wit and social standing to the point she would flip that kind of familiarity on its head into a kind of Marx Brothers' level of flippancy while getting away with it slyly.

And my wish fulfillment self-inserts is going to be racialized because these people are not only going to look similar to me but also bear my ethnicity and cultural indicators. It'll also be specifically a diaspora narrative, because it's not going to be just this person living in their country of ethnic origin but someone aware of the shaky balance between wanting to be a part of the cultural mindset of their country of birth and finding the identity in their country of ethnic origin because it's so tied into family and their own historical personal narrative. This person won't have to be misidentified or to have their placement be questioned due to being othered, or to be diminished in her gamut of emotions and desires.

Also, as much as I think the image of the Asian Model Minority is harmful and othering, a lot of those attributes are things that I want: super good at studying and being fluent in Chinese along with native English and to be talented in musicality and martial arts. But my Mary Sue is going to transcend that because she's going to play with the world with all the candor and aplomb that a Marx brother could have, flaunting away the social norms in order to rise up in competency so that they are not so much going about their fictitious lives unquestioned, but to be accepted as a kind of force of nature with a distinct type.

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