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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.

  • SilverCrowns

    On a slightly different note, I love the Kelis “Milkshake” reference.

    • My milkshake brings all the genderfluid space pirates to the yard 😉

  • Johnny

    As a Caucasian male, 35-50, do I even get an opinion? I mean, am I a misogynist if I confess that I am so oblivious to women’s suffrage that it would NEVER have occurred to me that there might even be ONE woman on the entire planet who MIGHT be offended by using a feminine characterization to describe someone as either `limelight grabber’ or `annoyingly perfect’? If this question hadn’t been asked, I would have never thought to ask it. Oblivious? Maybe, but, honestly, I did not even know it was a `thing’. And it really sucks that at 50 years old, it had to be explained to me. And understanding it the way I do now, there is no argument I have heard or read that will compel me to change my language. So, Seanan McGuire, I will not comply. There are way too many double standards being lobbed from both sides of the net for me to even play this game. This is a battle unworthy of your passion. When you consider all the hateful things real people say about real people, what real people say about archetypal fictitious characters can not be cause for personal shame. So, please, for all our sake, don’t let your heart be troubled with what most of us can’t believe even really matters. Respectfully, John Langmaack

  • Kirby King

    No more than the term Gary Sue is sexist and belittling.

    • Chris

      Gary Stu is the correct term for a male Mary Sue

  • MisterKing

    Yeah, and the Gawker-feminists haven’t distorted words from their original connotations before (RIP “privilege” and “trauma trigger”).

    This article is ridiculous. A “Mary Sue” is called that because the first prominent instance of that sort of character was actually named Mary Sue. The story she was in, “A Trekkie’s Tale”, was written by a woman, by the way.

    Saying that the term “Mary Sue” is sexist is like saying the term “Newtonian Physics” is sexist. It’s not; we as humans just name things by their creator like that.

  • Baragon

    Well, there’s the “God-modder” term. “God” referring to a masculine diety. Couldn’t that also be considered sexist?

    • I wasn’t aware the word “God” was solely masculine. Whoopi Goldberg played God in a Muppets movie

      • Johnny

        Then why even have the word ‘Goddess’?

      • Johnny

        As did Alanis Morissette in Dogma.

        • Yeah but she IS god, or goddess, or pretty much whoever the hell she wants to be.

          • She is the “Yarweh” god isn’t she? (It’s been a while since I saw it). The jewish/christian/muslim god, known commonly as “God”. She’s not “Goddess” which I think describes the Wiccan deity.
            Unless those are actually the same deity, but I don’t want to get into that debate!

  • Andy Locke

    what Seanan asserts is sound insomuch as female characters do not deserve to be decried as Mary Sue’s for merely being competent protagonists, while male characters of the same ilk are more generally accepted because they’re the “hero”.

    unfortunately, I think the point is lost by couching the argument in such strong terms

  • Oh for Pete’s sake.

    I had a ‘heated discussion’ with another chick the other day, not specifically about this, but about other things to do with feminism and words. Words are hugely important – that’s why we’re here right? But there is a point where people take themselves too, too seriously. When people begin to be outraged over everything, nothing becomes important.

    tl;dr: if someone is going to get upset over that tiny slight, female or male, they’re not anyone I want to chat to, lest I offend them. 😉

    Also, David’s milkshake brings the space pirates to the yard, indeed.

    • I completely agree, I don’t think words by themselves can every be offensive. Even the rudest, most vile, insensitive words are okay to say (and I think should never be censored) – because they’re just words. The only way they can be offensive is if they’re *intended* to be hurtful and aimed at a particular person.

  • Mobius64

    No

  • Jaxx

    Wow this topic is still popular after all these decades. The sad truth is that life is based on perspective and since we all think differently we have the burden of many perspectives on many topics. Personally I believe Women are just as capable as Men in all things good and bad. However in the media world we are conditioned to accept the false world that Hollywood presents us. When we see a female hero she is always looking like a model with special forces training. Though it looks good on paper I rarely have ever seen a skinny super model type hold her own in combat or martial arts. In reality the real females that can fit the GI Jane persona are more rough looking and have masculine features. I am in no way saying this is bad but Hollywood has no intention of “Keeping It Real” like that. Personally I like my women mean and cute but then again I am a hardcore martial artist so already fit in a disturbed niche. The one thing that does amuse me though is that no matter how many complaints I hear about stereo types I still see people who work hard to live up to them. So until that changes people will just have to deal with it. And Dave I heard your Milkshake is the talk of the town among the scurvy dogs. 😉

  • Ralof

    Mary Sue doesn’t mean you are the protagonist. It means you are as deep and relatable as a burnt waffle.