Exceptions to the Mary Sue Rule

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about Mary Sue characters: those perfect, perfect female characters filmmakers create in place of women who grow and change. Anything the guys can do, Mary Sue can do better, and there is just simply no reason to watch herin a story, because you know she’s going to breeze through every challenge like it’s a nice long bubble bath, so who cares? Who can empathize with her?

I mentioned that there have been some notable exceptions to that rule: female characters we actually get to go through hell with, who evolve before our very eyes, or at least rise to occasions with some difficulty. A couple of examples:

Ripley from Alien.

Ellen Ripley is one of the earliest examples in my own personal experience of a female whose hell we get to personally experience. She deserves her own article – maybe even a few – so I’ll just make a few general points here. Ripley’s on a spaceship, and an alien is killing her crewmates one by one. It’s the same sort of jeopardy a male character might face – as opposed to the usual female jeopardies, i.e., rape, spousal abuse, kidnapping, trying to give birth on the Oregon trail, etc. It’s just a simple life or death situation, and in the end, Ripley is the only survivor. Believing the alien dead and the ordeal over, she settles in for the journey home, only to have to confront the alien one last time – on her own. Even though she has survival training, she’s understandably terrified, and not in a theatrical way. She’s a little shaky, a little sweaty, wide-eyed and hyper-alert. And we’re right there with her.

Throughout the film, she makes judgment calls that may or may not prove good. They’re best guesses, and she’s painfully aware of that. Except for the suspense, it’s just like the situations you face every day, when you make decisions that might impact your future of someone else’s.

Sarah Connor from The Terminator.

Another early 80’s movie finds a young woman (nineteen, I believe) being hunted by an unstoppable killing machine from the future. The first time the Terminator catches up with her in a nightclub, she freezes, just the way you hope and pray you wouldn’t. Fortunately, another gun-toting maniac saves her, and they go on the run. But as she regains her bearings from the bloody violence of a few minutes ago, she realizes she isn’t sure of her protector’s intentions. She tries to escape, but he outmaneuvers her, then convinces her to stick with him. Reluctantly.

It takes another horrific event for her to come to trust him, and even then she makes the mistake of calling her mother to let them know where she is – thus alerting the Terminator inadvertently. It doesn’t play like a stereotypical female mistake: it plays like the mistake of a civilian suddenly thrown into a military situation, underestimating the danger.

In the end, like Ripley, Sarah’s on her own and facing the Terminator that just won’t die. Taking what she’s learned from other characters in the course of the movie, she begins to assert some control, luring the Terminator into a part of a factory where the equipment can crush him. She remains terrified throughout the ordeal, as would any man, woman or child, and she only barely manages to save herself in the end.

She’s all the more heroic for having been afraid, and we admire her because we can relate.

Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs.

Clarice’s ambition is her great vulnerability. She wants to make it in the FBI and prove the “boys’ club” wrong. The Hannibal Lechter interview is dangled like a carrot on a string by her superiors, and she snatches it. Lechter toys with her like a cat with a mouse, seeing right through her and letting her know it. She’s subjected to indignities, used and manipulated.

But she endures it all out of pride. She comes to see the serial killer’s victims as people instead of notches on her career bedpost. In the end, she gets everything she was hoping for… and a whole lot more, in the form of an unwanted journey into her own head.

She’s not even a very nice or likeable person. She’s skipped “strong” and gone straight to “brittle”. But she’s young, and because the script doesn’t preach to us that she’s perfect, we can see the flaws, and with them her potential.


  1. SunlessNick says

    Regarding Ellen Ripley, I believe the part was originally meant for a man, but Ridley Scott went with a woman as a juxtaposition to John Hurt’s character (damn good decision). On the other hand, John Hurt’s character being a man was deemed absolutely vital because they had rape specifically in mind when they were designing the facehugger – they wanted such a “typically female” peril to be suffered by a man.

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