The most recent issue of “Transformative Works and Cultures” featured a fascinating interview with Paula Smith, the fan writer and editor who coined the term “Mary Sue” in 1973. Anyone who writes fan fiction that includes original characters in any form runs into this term sooner or later. And probably all fan fiction writers spend way too much time worrying if their original female characters are somehow slipping perilously toward this stereotype! Mary Sue’s are female characters in fan fiction who, Smith says, are “wish-fulfillment characters whose presence in any universe warps it way the heck out of reality. But we don’t notice that when it involves men.” These characters are way too perfect, take over the story inappropriately, and are often author-insertion characters. Smith says: “A story demands headspace, and the Mary Sue wants to come and occupy your whole head, so the writer gets the enjoyment and not the reader.” Cynthia Walker interviewed Smith, and asked many fantastic questions. One that leaped out to me was their elaboration of why fandom and its source materials tolerate male wish-fulfilment and self-insertion characters way more readily than female characters of the same type. “Q: Why, then, do Superman and James Bond succeed, while we tend to pull back from the female version? “PS: Because the world we live in is not just a patriarchy; it’s a puerarchy—what gets focused on in the culture is defined by boys and young men. Psychologically, there’s a turning point in men’s lives. There’s a point where they need to break away from women in their youth, and then later they come back to women as grown men, but many men never make it, never quite come back to a world that includes women as human beings.” I love how smartly and briefly Smith put that! Besides the very clear-eyed and historical look at Mary Sue and Gary Stu, in fan fiction and in our source material, the interview is a wonderful tour of the early years of Star Trek fandom and media fandom generally. That’s one of the chief things I love about this journal — its attention to our fannish history. So much to learn, and so much to be proud of here!

[META] I am Mary Sue! Pheer me!
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2 thoughts on “[META] I am Mary Sue! Pheer me!

  • 24/05/2011 at 12:24
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    Ooooh, that quote is amazing.

  • 24/05/2011 at 13:37
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    It was like a two-by-four! Bam!

    I know the author is supposed to be dead and all that, but so many times, how we respond to characters does indeed have something to do with the gender of the reader and/or writer, and on top of that, the cultural expectations. This whole discussion about the history of Mary Sue was such a great reminder of that.

    Plus, you know, I’ve read some wonderful fan fics that featured original female protagonists, or original female characters who provide the impetus for the plot (just like a guest star on the source material!), and this whole Mary Sue Thing makes those fic get the stink eye from some people.

    Just the other day I stumbled across a “will beta read” notice on Livejournal in which the offering writer was absolutely emphatic in her Do Not Want about original female characters in fanfic, claiming all OFCs are automatically self-insertion characters, badfic per se, and that she will not read them or beta them. Ever.

    Now that’s an edge case, I grant you, but PULEEZ. Fear of Mary Sue makes us throw the baby out with the bath water. OCs are GOOD!

    OMG the unexamined assumptions! Fandom is a great place to examine them. As you know. 🙂

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