What does Batman have in common with Mary Sue characters? More than you think!
This article was written by Jenn Lyons, and originally published on the blog ‘Rewriting Mary Sues’, I’m republishing it here with permission because I thought it was relevent to roleplayers.
I hate Mary Sues.
It’s not, however, for the reason that you might think. We’ve all encountered Mary Sue characters — a product of fan fiction (typically an author insert) who can do everything, fix all problems, knows everything and knows exactly how to solve any given mystery. In my experience, Mary Sues are often not perfect, but charmingly flawed (so clumsy!) and that flaw ensures she is always the center of attention. Everyone loves her because the author wants it that way rather than because she is, in fact, lovable.
But at some point (I’m honestly not sure when) the Mary Sue shifted away from wish-fulfilling author insert to a woman who was good at too much. Quelle horreur!
Here’s the thing though: I’ve had this feeling for a while that lurking underneath the ‘Mary Sue’ label is something kind of ugly. Here, I’ll give you some examples:
- The Shadow
- Doc Savage
- Iron Man
- Doctor Who
(There are plenty more out there. Pick one.)
I grew up on these guys and it honestly never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with these multi-talented, skilled men of action. Yes, they were virtual demi-gods, but I didn’t read pulps or comics to read about normal ‘realistic’ people. And I loved it when their strengths so often became their weakness.
So I have heard it said that these characters are the male equivalents of Mary Sues (Gary Stues) but honestly, it’s not an accusation that’s leveled very often. Most of the time, these characters are given a pass and a high-five by men and women alike.
Always be yourself, as the meme says, unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.
But the female equivalent of these gentlemen is invariably labeled a Mary Sue and denounced as unrealistic.
See the problem?
Now someone can point out that any character who has no flaws is boring, and I can’t argue with that. I totally agree. The characters I named above all have flaws, usually flaws of personality rather than physical or mental aptitude. They are tortured souls, whose skill, intelligence and powers can’t bring them solace, bring back loves lost, or ease the guilt of the crimes abetted. (Heavy is the head that wears the crown, or cowl, or sonic screwdriver.)
But how on earth is that a club that can’t include women? We take such care as writers to make sure our women are good…but not too good. If we don’t, someone makes sure to point out that our character is a Mary Sue.
Many years ago, I worked for a brilliant woman from New Zealand who introduced me to the idea of ‘tall poppies’ (which Wikipedia tells me is a gender neutral pejorative, but which she had insisted was, at least in her hometown, only applied to women.)
A tall poppy was slang for a person who was too successful, too pretty, too smart, too whatever.
A tall poppy stands out from all the other flowers, making them look short by comparison. And what do you do with a tall poppy?
You cut it down.
So I wonder, sometimes, if we have made the definition of Mary Sue so broad as to cover not only those character inserts from fan fiction to whom it originally applied, but any female character who wants to tread the same path as men have tread previously.
Are we too quick to levy this accusation? I think so. I think it’s worth a hard look at the fact that we’re quick to apply this label to women but we have to go all the way over to Superman to see it consistently applied to a male. If we really want to start addressing equality in science-fiction and fantasy, we need to become a little more comfortable with the idea that women too can fill these rolls.
We should allow our female characters to stand tall.
This article was written by Jenn Lyons, a published science fiction, fantasy & urban fantasy author.