OngoingWorlds blog

News & articles about play-by-post games, for roleplayers & writers


Is the term “Mary Sue” sexist & belittling?

Peggy carter is a strong female character, but that doesn't make her a mary sue
There’s an ongoing debate about the term Mary Sue, and what it means in the literary world. In roleplaying, we know that Mary Sue characters can ruin a game for others, but in a novel surely it’s okay for a protagonist to hog the limelight and display all the characteristics of a typical Mary Sue, right? (see the characteristics of a Mary Sue here).

So according to an article posted on iO9, authors are literally sick of hearing the term “Mary Sue”, as it belittles their characters. Author Seanan McGuire goes as far as saying that the term Mary Sue “is sexist, belittling, and reduces them in a way that is very rarely applied to their male counterparts”.

Another author adds that the term “Mary Sue” has “become a broad-brush catchall used to dismiss any competent female character who acts like a protagonist”.

Obviously take these quotes with a pinch of salt, and appreciate the context. Just calling a character a Mary Sue doesn’t make you sexist, but assuming that a female character in a novel is a Mary Sue just because they’re skilled, headstrong, likeable etc is ridiculous (even if they fit every criteria on this list). Protagonists can be all those things in their own story! But in a roleplay there is no single main character, everyone is a protagonist, which means every character has to be equal.

Here’s the full quote by author Seanan McGuire:

I genuinely wish that everyone would delete the word “Mary Sue” from their vocabulary. In its original, fanfic usage, it described a character who was, yes, usually female, but whose greatest crime was not perfection: it was twisting the story. A Mary Sue in that sense literally walks into someone else’s world and makes everything about her. Flash forward to the modern day and it’s a rare female protagonist who doesn’t get accused of being a Mary Sue, and hence worthless. Here’s the thing: she can’t distort the story if the story already belongs to her. The protagonist, regardless of gender, is awesome and interesting and has a milkshake that brings all the boys, girls, or genderfluid space pirates to the yard, because that’s why they’re the star of the story. So calling female protagonists “Mary Sue” is sexist, belittling, and reduces them in a way that is very rarely applied to their male counterparts—even when those male counterparts are just as guilty of being a little too perfect to be real.

What do you think? Comment below! Or to read our other articles about writing click here.