How do you define a Mary Sue?
The term originated in fan fiction, and referred to lead females who represented an idealized version of the female author. They lacked flaws, depth and humanity – they were just perfect all the time. Over time, the term leaked into online discussions of professional novels, films and TV shows. But the definition is murky and subjective, so let’s talk about what it means to each of us.
To me, it’s a gender-loaded term I have some trouble with. On the one hand, I think it’s meant to describe characters who are acknowledged by the rest of the characters as having a monopoly on being right, competent, admirable and amazing. On the other hand… well, look at the genres where this is allowed. James Bond is a perfect little Mary Sue. So are the Avengers, in all their incarnations. So in spy romps that are over-the-top in every sense, it’s okay to have this sort of over-the-top Best at Everything! character. Also in romance novels: it’s okay if the lead female is so amazing it’ll be a miracle if we can find a man good enough for her. Like spy romps, it’s just for fun and fantasy.
But somehow, it’s all different when you put a woman in a role where she has the opportunity to be truly heroic. Suddenly, the critics who gave a pass to James Bond come out of the woodwork waving the “underdeveloped character” flag, and I can’t help but think: it would be okay if she were a romantic heroine, or she had a penis. But a female James Bond? A woman who can take out bad guys while mixing a martini? Oh, noes! It was trendy for a bit in England in the 60’s with the female Avengers, but no more!
But on the other other hand (yes, I’ll need to borrow one), the female Mary Sue is often the male writer’s shortcut to writing women characters. He thinks if he makes her really, really awesome, those impossible-to-please feminists won’t complain that he’s sidelined her, reduced her to one of the usual female stereotypes, etc. This is obviously the approach George Lucas applies nowadays to cover his expressed insecurity about writing women. The Stargate team, heavily influenced by Lucas via Robert C. Cooper’s emulations, actually had a character describe Carter with the following: “even her mistakes are perfect”. And he meant it. Regardless of whether Carter strikes you as a Mary Sue, she’s obviously that in the minds of the writing team: a woman who is perfect for no well-explored reasons.
So after this long-winded three-handed discourse, the bottom line is: when I use “Mary Sue”, I’m usually referring to lazy writers (usually male) thinking perfection is a shortcut to character development, but it makes me kind of nervous because I have seen a lot of people only use it to refer to female writers.