Fans often recount the scorn they experience for their “masculine” interest in science fiction and action-adventure. These readers grew up in a period during which active, even aggressive, behavior was acceptable for prepubescent girls who were expected to put away their grubby corduroys and baseballs, their books that chronicled the male fantasies of exploration and adventure, when they entered adolescence. With the teen years, girls were expected to turn to makeup, curlers, and dresses with stockings and high-heeled shoes to attract the attention of boys who were winning acclaim on the football fields and basketball courts of their local high schools.
For intelligent women struggling with their culturally anomalous identities, Mary Sue combines the characteristics of active agent with the culturally approved traits of beauty, sacrifice, and self-effacement, which magic recipe wins her the love of the hero.
For the fan woman of any age, the Mary Sue story is her attempt, if only in print, to experience that rite of passage from the active child to the passive woman who sacrifices her selfhood to win the prince.
Bacon-Smith, C. (1992). Enterprising women: Television fandom and the creation of popular myth. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Here’s another trip down Fan Studies Memory Lane: Camille Bacon-Smith’s ethnography of fandom. Bacon-Smith covers a lot of ground in this, and I will probably end posting more extracts further down the line. Her analysis of Mary Sues, however, is still a favourite of mine even years after I first read it. We all have a Mary Sue of course – whether she lives in our head, or on a long-dead hard drive, in a notebook at the bottom of a drawer, or maybe even out there on FFN, AO3 or Wattpad. And yet, some of the most derisive words we can throw at a writer and their character are “Mary Sue”. We do it to ourselves, to fellow fans, and sometimes even to original women characters in commercial media and fiction (Rey, anyone?). Mary Sue makes us feel extremely uncomfortable, but she also holds a place in our hearts and we keep writing her even if we learn better than to publish her. Bacon-Smith explores this conflict and traces it back to the contradictory demands patriarchy puts on women and girls. She views Mary Sue as a way to negotiate and to an extent even reconcile those contradictions. Of course, Mary Sues have also changed over time, and more recent explorations argue for example that they allow us to express queer desires and do all sorts of other interesting things – I’ll dive into that literature too, at some point. But this very first look at Mary Sue, back in 1992, still strikes a chord with me, perhaps because it was the first time I saw Mary Sue treated as something serious and valuable, not just an expression of a 13-year-old girl’s vanity.