‘Such a Mary Sue’- we see that insult hurled all the time at female characters. Sometimes it’s due to mysogyny/ internalised mysogyny, but often there’s another reason. There’s something fundamentally different about the way a lot of female protagonists in an action/ fantasy setting are written when compared with male characters.
Mary Sue is a term that has been really hard to pin down- in part because it’s supposed to be a criticism of original fanfic characters not characters in original works(though with the likes of Fifty Shades Of Grey and The Mortal Instruments). I think when people say ‘Mary Sue’, what they really mean is really a fanfic term, ‘author insert fantasy’- where we’re not really seeing a real, believable character with flaws, talents and a believable reason to be the hero, but a
Yet, pretty much the majority of fiction can be described as this in some way, especially the ‘geeky guy who nobody likes saves the day’ stories (which I now am beginning to loathe), so why is it that
Some of it is due to sexism- no doubt about that (see Men’s Rights Activists throwing tantrums who spend all their time whining about increased female representation rather than doing something about important issues that they claim to care about like the male suicide rate). Some of it is internalised sexism- you hear this criticism from girls with depressing regularity when all a heroine did was be really competent. But some of it is to do with a legitimate reason- female protagonists are more likely to be granted special status without actually doing anything to do it.
Although that criticism is sometimes directed at heroines like Rey, who’s a strong,capable action heroine who DOES a lot of stuff, not as many people criticize characters like Hermione, Katniss, Arya , Toph Bei Fong, Daenerys, Buffy, or Wonder Woman. Hell, a lot of people think Hermione’s so much cooler than Harry and I’ve heard the Gary Stu criticism being leveled at Harry far more than Hermione. The characters who receive the criticism are people like Bella Swann from Twilight or Clary from Mortal Instruments or Kairi from Kingdom Hearts.
And what do they all have in common? What is different about them compared to James Bond or Batman or Sora (apart from quality of writing?) Well, all those Male characters are special BECAUSE of their skill and prowess, while these women are deemed special IRRESPECTIVE (and often IN SPITE OF) of any actual skill or prowess shown. And that does not a compelling character make.
Everyone follows Clary in spite of her poor decision making skills, everyone loves Bella Swann for REASONS (special blood I guess) and while Sora had to earn his special status, Kairi is special in spite of getting kidnapped relentlessly and achieving nothing, because she is pretty, nice and has special pure princess powers . People follow Rick from Walking Dead because he’s a good leader, like Luke Skywalker because he becomes a powerful Jedi, admire Superman because he’s saved Metropolis on many occasions. And Batman? Well, why do we like you , Bruce?
I understand why the Princess characters like Kairi ended up that way (male writers, archetypical princess fantasy, plus she’s nothing more than a pretty plot device to motivate Sora), but a lot of these female wish fulfillment fantasies are written by women too, so why do we end up with these type of author inserts?
Well, a lot of these wish fulfillment involve fantasizing about fulfilling (and surpassing) societies expectations of what makes the ultimate Successful Person. And society has very different standards for success in men and women. This can be summed up as ‘Men Do, Women Are.’ And this is how these standards shape male and female heroes:
THE HERO’S JOURNEY
For men, a man is judged in society for what he DOES. He has to compete with other men and PROVE he’s top dog if he’s to be of any value. Is he rich, successful, a great fighter, able to attract that hot girlfriend that all his friends want to bang? If he isn’t any of these things- if he doesn’t have a job, can’t fight, isn’t a provider, not tough, then he isn’t a ‘real man’. This is pretty harsh and a double edged sword; on the one hand this can lead to depression and resentment in those who can’t reach those sky high standards of masculinity, but on the other hand pushes them on to achieve things.
So a male character has to prove his worth to the story to be vital. A male author insert/ wish fulfillment has to EARN his esteem to be valuable, and the typical hero’s journey reflects that. With the nerdy guy who starts out a zero but becomes a hero (think Luke Sky Walker, Shia LaBouf in transformers, that kid from How To Train Your Dragon ), he has to grow and save the world or do something worthwhile before he gains esteem.
The already successful Asshole Hero (your House, your Tony Starks, to a lesser degree Wallander), is already the Alpha Male, and he proves his worth by all of the cool shit he does and his brilliant plans. The flaws he has to overcome are usually personal, and involve Dark Tragic Backstory or an alcohol problem etc.
THE PRINCESS’… UM, SPECIALNESS
Now, success is a very different matter for women. Time and time again, we see that in spite of her achievements, a woman’s reduced to who her boyfriend is and what she looks like. Her most important attributes are (1) beauty- which although make up and gym help, either you’re born with beauty or you’re not, and are fairly passive traits and (2) being desired by a good man, which is mainly about looks, and (3) being nice and accommodating, and definitely not ‘a bitch’.
Sure, these women are often expected to have some kind of attainments. A woman should get great grades at school or get a good job, but she’s not really expected to go on and DO anything incredible with that, unlike her male counterparts. She’s meant to be smart, but at the end of the day her most important job is being a wife and mother, and finding an impossible medium between being an EVIL FEMINAZI CAREER WOMEN WHO ABANDONS HER KIDS AND ARE SELFISH, and being JUST A HOME MAKER WHO IS PATHETIC AND TERRIBLE BECAUSE ALL SHE DOES IS COOK AND CLEAN AND SPEND HER MAN’S MONEY!
And how do these low and contradictory expectations reflect itself in fiction? It means a lot of these female wish fulfillments don’t go through these Hero’s Journeys or have to earn their worth. They are special because they’re just really, really pretty; they are special because they’re princesses; because they’ve got special blood; because they’re the only female X; they’re the chosen one; their specialness makes them the most popular girl in school. Their most important victory is being desired by the male lead, not saving the day. Her skill, talent, intelligence are a nice extra, sure, but not the main event.
WOULD YOU WANT TO RELATE TO THESE WOMEN?
And as such, these are REALLY frustrating characters for both men and women to read about. No man can relate to that, and lots of women don’t want to fantasize about these passive, uninspiring characters.This also makes for less compelling story telling, because it means she doesn’t go through a hero’s journey or earn her success. She doesn’t do anything great (and when she does it’s not the point).
So what is the take away of all this? Well, I guess there’s nothing wrong with having these fantasies- on the same token as the host of male harem leads in anime. But these are not great characters, and we shouldn’t expect them to have the appeal to all people the same way that these male harem leads will not appeal to a female audience; but I think we need more engaging characters.
I think we need more Katnisses, who endures and deals with loss and PTSD in a realistic way; more Batgirls and Ms Marvels, who struggles to get stronger and who’s strong will, determination and kindness (as well as her intellect) get her through; more Granny Weatherwaxes, who are talented and who’s pragmatism is more helpful than her magic. Also, more Harley Quinn- just because she’s awesome and basically crazy clown female Deadpool.
We should have less Bellas, less Clarys, less characters who are special because she’s a princess or the only female x, and more characters who are valued for their skill, which they prove through the course of the action.