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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

WHAT WOULD MARY SUE DO?

Hello, Dear Readers! Happy Wednesday to you all. I've decided that it's finally time to follow up on my most-read post ever. I have girded my loins, donned my flack jacket, and cautiously boarded the train back to Crazy Town (carrying some sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper, and a spare pair of socks, in case of emergency, as all travellers to Crazy Town should).

Yes, Dear Readers. That's right.

Today, we're going to talk about Mary Sue. Again.

Many of you will be aware of the internet firestorm that descended on this blog after I made a post asking reviewers and critics to reconsider their use (and misuse) of the term Mary Sue - but if not, you can find the post, and read the extremely interesting comment trail, here.

In the wake of that post and the response to it, several other authors weighed in on the discussion, with their particular takes on why seeing 'Mary Sue' scattered all over the place like an unwise fashion epidemic (neon leg warmers? Puffball skirts? Mullets?) made their souls die a little. I'm isolating here the responses that particularly struck a chord for me and made me look at this whole debate from a different perspective.

Firstly we had the wonderful Sarah Rees Brennan (who-I-kind-of-want-to-marry-Omg) telling ladies that they are ALLOWED to be both flawed and awesome: in fact, flawsome.

Next Holly Black (Saint-Paul-on-a-pogo-stick-HOLLY-BLACK!) very thoughtfully pointed out that a Mary Sue is only a Mary Sue in fanfic because she's stealing the narrative from the true leading characters. In original fiction, where she IS the leading character, she's just doing what a hero or heroine does.

Then not long ago adult urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire (whose-October-Daye-books-are-literally-on-my-TBR-pile-right-now-holy-crap) made possibly the most telling post of all for me, wherein she teased out an aspect of the situation which I hadn't consciously analysed before: that reviewers are calling Mary Sue on any female character who is sufficiently heroic to actually carry her own story.

When I wrote that original Mary Sue post, obviously I had no idea how much of a landmine I was stepping on in terms of anger and defensiveness from certain readers (which is why I eventually stopped responding to comments and emails on the topic). But at the same time, I also had no idea how much of a groundswell of support there would be from other authors, authors who'd been witnessing this phenomenon themselves and feeling just as disturbed by it as I was. I had no idea, basically, how bloody right I was.

I rant a lot, about a lot of subjects, and I always believe in what I say. But as I saw the response to my Mary Sue post gaining momentum, as I saw more and more women writers admitting how sad and disheartened and hopeless this term made them feel, it began to dawn on me that this wasn't just me ranting about a pet peeve anymore. It wasn't just that Mary Sue was an inaccurate way to criticise female characters, that it was badly defined and contradictory and annoying.

It was that the overuse of Mary Sue was damaging the quality of critical response to original fiction AND encouraging anti-woman sentiment hidden under a thin veneer of concern for Strong Female Characters.

Mary Sue is a lot more important than she first appeared, Dear Readers. Not just in herself, but because she is symptomatic of a much wider problem: how women are treated and represented in our society.

And how is that? Well, to sum it up, let's take a look at this lovely little poster (which I know you've all probably seen before) which puts a series of male comic book characters in the same pose that artists chose for Wonder Woman (with WW herself at the bottom for comparison):




This has been doing the rounds on the internet for months, and we've all had a good laugh about it. Because that's what we socially aware Feminists DO when we're confronted with evidence of the over-sexualisation of women in the media. We laugh about it.

The problem is that it's not really funny.

If any male hero was really drawn posed like that on any page in any mainstream graphic novel, the words 'Ridiculous!' 'Inappropriate!', 'Demeaning!', 'Disgusting!' and most probably 'Gay!' (cringe) would get thrown at it so fast that you'd hear a wave of sonic booms. But female characters continue to be drawn this way. And female actors continue to be posed this way in films and on TV. And female models do the same pose in ads and on the catwalk.

Why? Because its OK for women to look ridiculous and inappropriate, for them to be demeaned and disgusting (and most definitely gay, so long as they're happy to let hetero blokes watch them at it).

In fact, it's more than OK. It's expected. It is REQUIRED. So much so that no one even sees it as demeaning or inappropriate or any of those other emotive words. They just see it as normal. *I* see it as normal. So what if I spend around a quarter of a film averting my eyes from lingering shots of a female actor's rear end, bust, legs and lips, and walk away without being able to remember the character's name? I probably don't even notice because That's Just How Films Are (this is called the Male Gaze and is a topic to be fully explored in another post, Dear Readers).

Basically: Male heroes get to save the world. Female ones get to stand there and look sexy, dammit.

Considering that we're constantly - but constantly - exposed to this worldview, is it any wonder that most of us have trouble clearing enough space in our heads to tackle female characters fairly?

I don't believe all reviewers (especially the female ones!) want to see women characters over-sexualised and treated as nothing more than unthreatening eye candy. But what I do believe is that this bombardment of EmptySexyHotObject images has made it hard for us to see women AS ANYTHING ELSE.

Which is why when female writers produce female characters with depth and agency, they get accused of wish fulfilment.

There's an unconscious assumption that any female protagonist or any important female secondary character written by a woman must necessarily be an idealised author insert/wish fulfilment character. Otherwise no female character would get to tell her own story in her own voice, and have her experiences treated as interesting and worthwhile. That's the real flaw with the term Mary Sue and the way that reviewers are applying it to original fiction. Female characters are not parasites sucking away the limelight that rightfully belongs to their male counterparts. Women do deserve their own stories. Their own voices. Their experiences are interesting and worthwhile.

Female protagonists are being treated like cuckoos in the nest within their own stories.

And the more successful they become, the more female writers are being treated like cuckoos in the nest within their own industry.

Look at this. And some of the comments in this (brilliant) post by Maureen Johnson. Examples of people stating that they want women to stop all this silly writing of theirs, and let men do the job instead. Examples of people stating, without irony, that women need to stop producing these girly books full of girl characters for girls to read because that is somehow stopping BOYS from reading! Let the men write manly books for men because...well, just because! Boys are important! Stuff girls! Who cares if THEY read or not? They're just there to look sexy, dammit!

These are the attitudes and assumptions that all women, and all readers, are fighting against.

I'm not saying that the misuse of the term Mary Sue is responsible for All The Sexism. But it is a really worrying symptom. It's an internet term, mostly used by internet savvy folks - and the Internet is the place where, for my money, a lot of the really smart booktalk happens. This is the place where readers find like-minded networks of friends, where a lot of promising young writers get nurtured. And where you find courageous, honest reviewers who really know the YA category - reviewers whose reviews we NEED because they are willing to put their heads above the parapet and call out misogyny and racism and homophobia and bad writing and abusive fictional boyfriends (all stuff that worries me too)!

Let me make it clear that I love readers. I love reviewers. I love bloggers. I WANT you guys to keep doing your thing. I want to keep on reading reviews of my own work (positive and negative) which teach me useful lessons and help me to develop and improve as writer BECAUSE they are not written for my benefit. I want to be able to click on Amazon or Goodreads or Book Depo and see fifty different reviews of the books I'm thinking about buying from all different perspectives. If you think a character is badly written or developed or unrealistic? I 100% support your right to scream that from the rooftops.

But the unconscious cuckoo-in-the-nest assumption betrayed by the use of Mary Sue as a term to denigrate female characters (and authors!) in original fiction is stealthily poisoning a lot of that healthy, necessary debate about YA books. It's harmful to the young readers we should be encouraging, the young reviewers we should be embracing, and the developing writers we should be supporting online.

Why does it have to be this way, Dear Readers? What do you think?

What would Mary Sue (by which I mean a complex, fully realised, awesome female character) do?

(With thanks to the lovely writers who double-checked this post for me and stopped me from commiting pure Feminist Rage Smash. They know who they are!)

29 comments:

Megha said...

This is such a lovely post! And I never thought about this symptom until you mentioned it right here, and it's just so true. Thank you so much for bringing awareness to this point! <3

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Thanks, hun :)

BuffySquirrel said...

It strikes me that much of the debate over teh boyz not reading is misinformed.

If men do want boys to read books (and given the way they go about achieving this goal, it's inevitable sometimes to wonder if they really do), then their tried-and-tested approach of denigrating women's books, women characters, and women writers is about as wrong-headed as it can be.

Let us briefly examine human psychology. There is currently a theory that children are born primed to seek out the behaviours, attitudes, toys, activities et cet et cet appropriate to their gender. (What may happen to trans people is that the gender selected for them by this drive does not match with their physical sex, for reasons unknown). What those behaviours, attitudes, et cet *are* is determined by the culture in which the child lives. One culture may see farming as women's work, another as the sole perogative of men.

In almost any modern culture you care to name, being oriented male is something to aspire to, whereas being oriented female is much to be regretted. Western culture denigrates anything denoted 'female' 'girly' 'effeminate' 'gay' and so on. Boys pick this up from other boys, from men, from women, from books, films, adverts, tv shows, anything and everything. It's all around us.

Every time a man writes about how boys need manly books about boys written by men, not these girly books written about girlies by girlies, they reinforce the stereotype. If men really want boys to read (and I challenge them to prove it by changing their behaviour) then they need to pick up the Jane Austens and the Sarah Rees Brennans and the Brontes and the Judy Blumes and the books by women about women and go OH MY GOD WHAT A GREAT AND WONDERFUL BOOK FOR MEN TO READ.

Because, yanno, boys will read what males in their culture tell them is right for boys to read.

Zoë Marriott said...

Buffy: What a beautifully thought out argument! I've never thought about it that way before but of COURSE, you're right! I'm not sure I agree with the part about transgenderism, but other than that you're spot on. Well done.

BuffySquirrel said...

I'm not sure about the transgenderism point, either, but it offers a pathway for exploration.

Jenni (Juniper's Jungle) said...

Excellent post, I completely agree with you and I'm so very impressed once again with the clear way you put your points across.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: Thank you! They weren't all that clear to begin with, though - I did about thirteen drafts AND got people to read it for me :)

CitizenjaQ said...

I've been confused about the recent firestorm over female comic book characters. Haven't they ALWAYS been oversexualized? And of course male characters look ridiculous posed the same way; what constitutes a "sexy" pose is different for males, because their bodies are different and the preferences of their partners are different. I'm not even sure there IS a sexy pose for males - as a straight man, I've never found one that works for me. Wonder Woman would look equally ridiculous with the bulging steroid muscles male comic book characters are given.

As for Mary Sues - two of my mother's favorite Star Trek novels were Dreadnought! and Battlestations!, because they featured a female Lt. Piper, with Kirk and Spock & the gang relegated to supporting character status. I enjoyed them as a kid too, and it didn't occur to me until much later that they broke this Mary Sue rule. I'm currently on the second book of The Hunger Games trilogy and find Katniss skilled, smart and competent, but not unrealistically so.

The best route to combatting the misuse of the Mary Sue term is probably aggressively pushing an alternative term, like Canon Sue. Doesn't solve the sexist issues though.

Valerie Meachum said...

*clappityclappityclappity*

I love this post SO MUCH. It's making me want to "reclaim" Mary Sue and recast it as a positive term. Which might or might not actually be a good idea, but sounds like fun right at the moment.

Bring on ALL THE LADIEZ with agency, good, bad, or confused!

J.A. Cummings said...

Thank you for this post. For a very long time, I have been afraid to write a central female character precisely because of these accusations of Mary Sue-ism that keep being slung around like mud in a political race. I needed this perspective.

Elissa said...

This.

All of this is why I love the internet - because finding smart, like-minded people is shockingly difficult (as evidenced by the insane comments you linked to).

It seems that people get all up in arms about male readers being overlooked are the ones who are willfully ignorant about sexism and male-privilege. One just has to take a look at the books that are assigned in schools or dominate the "Best Of" lists. Don't worry fellas, there are still thousands of books written by and for you. Just because female writers (and characters) have been given a voice in these past fifty or so years, doesn't mean that we're going to destroy the literature from the previous thousand years.

It's a hysteria caused by those who have no sense of history or context, seeing a trend as a destructive agenda. Giving a voice to those who have been without one for so long does not mean we are silencing everyone else. But those who are the most threatened by this trend are usually those who benefit the most from sexism and are terrified that they would be treated the same way they treat women. And that's pretty terrifying to them.

In the same vein as the superhero sexy poses, this (http://jezebel.com/5837476/internet-attempts-to-recreate-comic-book-characters-ridiculous-sexy-pose) was going around the internet a little while ago as well, in which people tried to recreate Mary Jane's insane "sexy sitting".

I also second your love of Sarah Rees Brennan. She's a joy to read and a smart cookie to boot.

Tere Kirkland said...

I do see the term being misused, mostly to denigrate the author for writing something the reader found unrealistic. But a true Mary Sue, even outside the confines of fanfic, is a character who is never in true peril, and only there to satisfy the escapist desires of the author. I've read plenty of Gary Stues, too, perhaps more than the female equivalent.

The outcry against boys not reading because there's nothing being written for them feels like hogwash to me. Boys who want to read have plenty of options, just as they always have. If they really want to search out books, they have plenty of venues to do so. Publishers do buy "boy" books, but they should not be held to task for putting more money into marketing "girl" books, since the demographic buys more books.

CitizenjaQ, I think part of the "recent firestorm" has a lot to do with DC's reboot. We (women and girls who like comics) were hoping that the newly rebooted female heroes would be treated more like, well, heroes, rather than tits and asses, which is how they've been represented since the Golden Age. 'Nuff said.

Zoë Marriott said...

CitizenJaQ: Just because something's always been wrong, that doesn't mean people shouldn't try to change it, or that they can't be offended by it. And the idea that there's no such thing as a sexy male pose is a remarkably silly one. Go buy some gay porn and try to repeat it with a straight face. Women and gay men find all the same bits of a man's body sexy as a a straight man finds sexy about a woman's: bum, legs, chest & stomach. The poses up there show off those areas. It's just that no one would ever think of posing a man that way because it would rob him of his dignity and make him look like some kind of empty-headed sex-obsessed male bimbo. Anatomically uncomfortable and exploititive poses are only for the ladies - no one minds it if we look empty-headed and sex-obsessed.

Zoë Marriott said...

Valerie: Thank you! I kind of feel that too, but it might be a bit of an uphill battle, I fear!

J.A. Cummings: YES! *Airpunch* That is exactly what I wanted to hear. Go forth and write your awesome ladies! Send anyone who hassles you to me, and I'll deal with them.

Zoë Marriott said...

Elissa: It's such a relief, isn't it? To know you're not alone and that other people see this nonsense to and realise how contradictory and stupid it is.

That Mary-Jane pose article is HILARIOUS! Thank you for sharing it!

Tere: I'm not sure I've ever read a character who didn't experience any peril, emotional or physical, in a story. Even Bella Swan and Anita Blake do!

Diana said...

Wonderful, awesome, touching, inspiring series of posts.

Thanks!

Robin said...

Very interesting post! I've been cringing lately when that phrase is tossed around, but couldn't put my finger on why. Now I know--thanks! I just discovered your book "Daughter of the Flames" and loved it. I'm really enjoying your blog, too--great work!

Zoë Marriott said...

Diana: Thank you - I'm glad that you like them and find them useful.

Robin: Excellent. I know what you mean about the cringing feeling. I really wanted to isolate it and give it form. Thanks for saying that about DotF too. There's a companion novel to that coming out next year, which I ought to be able to post the cover and synopsis for soon :)

Isabel said...

Wow, this is amazing! I'd never quite thought about it this way before, but I agree with you entirely. Completely awesome post, Zoë! :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Thanks! I'm glad it all made sense.

moonspinner said...

Female protagonists are being treated like cuckoos in the nest within their own stories.
And the more successful they become, the more female writers are being treated like cuckoos in the nest within their own industry.


I found this part of the post very touching, very telling of current 21st century attitudes: the idea that the Mary Sue brush is not just used to paint the readers’ perception of female characters but the mainstream’s perception of female writers… the idea that successful female authors – particularly those authors who achieve success by writing “girly books” are regarded as cuckoos in the nest. I see this attitude directed a lot at the Twilight phenomena: it isn’t just taken as a “matter of fact” that the Twilight books and movies are “rubbish” but it’s taken as a matter of fact that Meyer is a silly (and fat) non-writer* who got “lucky” by self-projecting herself in the Bella Swan character and sharing her sick fantasies with the rest of the world, and all the young, impressionable girls out there really need to be protected from her dangerous literature because we all know how (stupid) easily influenced female children are.


*according to Stephen King who goes from once saying, “if you write, then you’re a writer, that’s all there is to it” to saying “Stephenie Meyer isn’t a writer. Her books are rubbish.” Of course, he praises JK Rowling’s writing in the same breath so yah, for a man raising up one woman at the expense of another, right?

Zoë Marriott said...

Moonspinner: Oh, you've put your finger on it *perfectly*! As if there aren't plenty of rubbish books by blokes out there, with self-insert characters - people just call them rubbish and move on. They don't feel the need to seek out the author and villify them on a personal level. I find comments on SM's appearance to be distasteful in the extreme. Not only is it cruel and horribly sexist, it's irrelevant; if SM was a blue-eyed blonde would that make them like Bella Swan better? No! It's so reductive.

Kassem said...

One of my pet peeves in all stories told - written or on TV, is the representation of women and/or the reaction to strong female characters (rare as they are). I nodded my head throughout most of both blogs and had many "I'm not alone' awakenings :) What makes it even more frustrating for me is the reaction if I try to discuss these thoughts with anyone. I am told that I am just an ugly/jealous/old/boring woman desperate for a man and often in the same breath that I hate men or even my own gender- go figure!
Thank you for writing such a well written, honest and brave article. I look forward to reading more on your blog in the future.

Zoë Marriott said...

Kassem: You're not alone. The second that most men and a majority of women hear you talking seriously about sexism they go into 'La la la, I'm not listening' mode. No one wants to admit that this is the reality. And if you try to make them see it, they turn on you. I'm so glad that you found a sense of solidarity in reading these posts.

Megha said...

So I was looking at your original Mary-Sue post and thinking, well, Hermione, Mae and Clary definitely aren't Mary Sues. And that made me think - although these characters are original and wonderful, when more and more characters are 'born' in newer books by some not-very-good author, that are replicas of Hermione or Mae or Clary or any other original and wonderful characters, THEY are the ones called Mary Sues.

Basically-

We have Hermione. She's a wonderful and rich (not wealthy, rich as in complex, sophisticated and thought out) character. And then we have the dozens of books that have literal replicas of Hermione. And these replicas are the ones that are called Mary Sues, quite rightly.

Because I also think that apart from your wonderful list of what a Mary Sue is, it can also be a character that is just a replica of some other awesome character from some other awesome book.

I don't know, maybe that just seems the definition to me. But when I think of a bestselling book with a character who EVERYONE is crazy over, I find their clones in less popular books Mary Sues. Or at least, replicas.

Of course, I'm not saying that having similar characters in two different books is not allowed or something. I mean, if you don't know that there's a character just like yours, you can't be blamed for writing a similar character.

However, when we have characters from books that are bestselling and LOTS of people have heard of, and your character turns out to be exactly the same as the character from the bestselling book, you can't NOT expect your character to be labelled as a Mary Sue.

Now, I don't know if that's a Mary Sue or not. But I do know that it's a fault and certainly not a good thing in a character, so I thought I might as well comment about it in this wonderful characterisation-related post.

I know you said that the term Mary Sue is NOT an opinion, so I'm just going to say that replicas are NOT what I think Mary Sues are, but I think they're, uh, a part of... Mary Sue-ism. You know, something that *I* would ADD to your list, because your definition IS correct, only this is a little extra thingy that I thought about.

Isabel said...

Megha: I think you have a really good point. Maybe after the character is reflected in so many other books, people start to think of them as unoriginal, and blame the person who wrote the original character...? I think that might be what you're getting at. I can see where you're coming from. :)

secondmagpie said...

Thanks, thanks, a thousand thanks for pointing this out and pushing that point as far as it could go. Because you are so right, and people are so ignorant that sometimes it makes me cry.

Especially the people who think they're "feminist" when actually they're so immasculated (technical term: basically means 'so far in the Male Gaze they have no idea they're in the Male Gaze') that they can't see the sexualisation for the trees.

Have you ever seen Feminist Frequency? (http://www.feministfrequency.com/) She does some great "Tropes against Women" stuff that I think could dovetail quite nicely with your interests!

zk said...

just read the NY TImes article you linked to. Raging sexism and stereotypes of "girl's books."th

moosh said...

Know this is a latey McLate comment, but just found your blog and have thoroughly enjoyed your perceptive (and positive) insights.

The issue about the term Mary Sue coming to mean the opposite of what is actually intended - i.e. a real female, in whatever myriad form she may take - is quite enlightening.

I definitely had a lightbulb moment at that point.

That bit of 'Society' only wants fake (restricted to being eternal 2D sidekicks and sexy lamps) women.
Then the moment you try and step outside of that limitation, you or your characters are branded as Mary Sues* in order to keep you in line.

So the real Mary Sue is the world of socially-imposed female role models, whilst real females just carry on doing their thing being, you know, real.

So white is black, black is white and "Mary Sue" = (Mary Sue.exp-1).

Figures.

S'cuse me whilst I go and do some wonderfully badass sciencey stuff IRL that of course fictional wimmin could never do, because of..er...reasons.

*NB. Sadly, many other pejoratives are available ;)

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