The Public Mary Sue (I've Got a Theory)

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Title: The Public Mary Sue (I've Got a Theory)
Creator: caras galadhon
Date(s): July 22, 2004
Medium: Livejournal post
Fandom:
Topic: fanfiction, Mary Sue
External Links: The Public Mary Sue (I've Got a Theory); archive link
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The Public Mary Sue (I've Got a Theory) is a 2004 essay by caras galadhon.

The Post

For a while now, a number of friends of mine have been going 'round and 'round amongst themselves regarding the widespread fandom hatred of Mary Sues. I believe it's been mostly in locked posts, so I won't link to them here. Rather, I'll let the posters identify themselves as/should they wish. (Also, I am being too lazy to bother to check if any of said posts are unlocked.)

Anyway, I was talking with ithiliana about Mary Sues not too long ago, and something clicked during our conversation. Yes, that's right, I have a theory about why MSes are so reviled. *pauses for inevitable 'ooOOOOoooohhh's* ^_~

Let me start off with a couple quick disclaimers. I'm primarily talking about slash fandom, since I don't swim in het and gen waters enough to speak from any sort of position of authority, and I believe most of what I say here can just as easily be applied to mailing lists, bulletin boards, RL fan gatherings, etc. I'm phrasing it more in terms of LJ communication because that's what has most recently drawn all of this to my attention, and because my examples are coming from those same LJ encounters.

So this particular epiphany came to me over the course of a number of weeks as I noticed the "Mary Sueing" increasing exponentially in some of the _daily (picture) comms I follow. Reading various original posters' commentaries and comments following posts has become a teeth-grinding affair.

Pic comms, if I understand them correctly, operate in a way similar to fic comms. The OP offers up pictures of a shared object of affection for the community to look at, and the commentary that results from the offering mainly runs towards a collective expression of desire. Commenters will compliment the OP on her taste, ask where she found certain pictures, or commiserate on how desirable actor X is. It is a communal activity with space for each member's/viewer's thoughts and impressions, provided certain unwritten rules of conduct are followed.

The Mary Sue problem comes into effect in these pics comms with the same destructive force as an unwanted MS in a fic comm. The OP will post pictures with commentary that runs along the lines of "this is actor X leaving my home," "this is what X looks like after we're together," "this is X thinking of me," etc. The trend will continue in the comments, with the same or similar claims being made on the shared object of affection. These captions/comments, along with a disturbing tendency to come attached to usernames such as mrs_actorX, actorXsluvr, etc., initially seem cute and entertaining, but as with anything that stakes a claim, rapidly lose their shine.

The reason this shine is lost so quickly, I believe, is because the MS interrupts the ebb and flow of the comm -- she takes away that voyeuristic, erotic appeal by shoving not only a woman, but one of our own (because we can't begrudge real people their girlfriends/wives/lovers/daughters/etc.) in between the rest of the community and the shared object of our affection. The MS artificially elevates that particular person so that we're forced to watch her fantasy play out instead of indulge in our own.

And that, essentially, is the key to the revulsion a lot of us feel. The MS is claiming ownership of what should be a shared fantasy. She's grabbing at something that is understood to have space for readers/viewers to insert themselves and as a result she destroys both that shared space and the possibility for the audience to, in effect, play out their own self-inserts/MSes. In a "proper" interaction between poster and audience, each individual reader/viewer can insert herself into the presented text (story, picture, etc.) in whatever way she chooses in an invisible way -- her interaction with the text remains her own while maintaining space for the reader who is halfway across the world and simultaneously partaking of the same post to insert herself.

So much of the discussion surrounding MSes centres on the characteristics of MSes and equates these characteristics with bad writing. Sure, I absolutely agree that MSes go hand in hand with bad writing, but bad writing is bad writing, whether it's simply horrible netspeak or features a girl with hair the colour of midnight, eyes that sparkle like purple amethysts, and the ability to capture Aragorn's heart with no more than a flutter of her long lashes and this nifty sword-swallowing trick she picked up on the Isle of Balar. Calling MSes out as examples of bad writing that pollutes the [good and pure] pool of fanfic could be considered a noble pursuit, but as I'm trying to illustrate here, I honestly don't think the level of revulsion that is directed at MSes comes from anywhere so noble. (Oh, would that it did! *sigh*)

Essentially what is happening is that the MS writer/poster isn't sharing, isn't opening up a space for each new reader to privately live out her own version of the presented fantasy. The audience then becomes angry/resentful/etc. with the public MS for taking away our private MSes, as the public MS sets up a competition, an issue of possession, rather than maintaining the shared community.

Extending this to fanfic, fic, at the base, is about sharing with others. The fan writer offers a fantastic space for the audience to play in, and in turn the reader gives feedback, and the cycle goes around. The MS shortcircuts this sharing, since it is impossible for the reader to participate in the fic or even reach our favourite shared characters, because there is a wall in the form of a MS standing in the way. This is exacerbated by the fact that the MS is an idealized character that is always better than the rest of us, and always becomes the focal point of the story rather than the characters we're there to read about.

So those are my still slightly-rough thoughts on the matter. I am truly coming to believe that hatred of the Mary Sue stems not from what makes a MS a MS, but from the fact that she occupies and hoards space that is understood to belong to the community itself.

Comments to the Post

[cathexys]:
Very interesting and true, esp. your last thought. It reminds me of an interesting post from earlier this year by cortese here [1], where she actually defines MSness by level of our ability to identify.
[undonne]:
:applause: Wonderful analysis -- rings very true.
[reginaspina]:
Wow! I think you're on to something here, but also, man, are you articulate and fabulous and I will just go away and drool in the corner (and cast a stern gaze upon my own Mary Sues ;))
[ribby]:
I've been wondering lately why I can't look at some of the dailypic comms anymore, but haven't been able to come up with a good reason... and then you went and did it for me, and so beautifully too! *grin* Very true... and I think people just lose sight of the shared nature of communities like this. Beautifully worded, as always with your introspective posts!
[atropos lee]:
Here via the daily snitch...

For me you've hit the Sue right on the nose.

Miss Mary Sue opens a place for the writer to enter the story and play - but excludes the reader. It's not offered in the spirit of mutual exploration.

It's a bit like going on a date and discovering that your new partner's idea of showing you a good time is to lie back and wank to his/her favorite porn movie while you stand back and applaud.
[sistermagpie]:
Wow--I think you have an excellent point there. I *do* feel that way about Mary Sues. And then when you add on the fact that many Sues are given super powers they're not only hoarding the space but taking away from the canon character as well. Excellent points!
[millifiore]:
I am truly coming to believe that hatred of the Mary Sue stems not from what makes a MS a MS, but from the fact that she occupies and hoards space that is understood to belong to the community itself.

I think this is an excellent observation, and I agree. As I read this post I was thinking of a story I read that featured an OFC in a relationship with one of the main canon characters. I really disliked the character and despite being fairly well-written she was pinging my Mary Sue alarms right, left and center. I got into a rather heated discussion with another fan, who pointed out that the character wasn't beautiful, that she was flawed, that she had no exceptional powers, etc. And all that was true, but the character *still* bothered me, and I still saw her as a Sue despite all that.

If what makes a Mary Sue is not so much (or only) characterization, but also the character's position in the story/universe, then my reaction to this particular character makes a lot more sense to me.
[lilithilien]:
Bravo! I've basically stopped looking at the posts of one pic community because what you describe is particularly egregious there. I never gave it the thought that you did, but as I read your post it resonates so true.

...a girl with hair the colour of midnight, eyes that sparkle like purple amethysts, and the ability to capture Aragorn's heart with no more than a flutter of her long lashes and this nifty sword-swallowing trick she picked up on the Isle of Balar.

I totally agree that it goes way beyond the bad writing. For Mary Sue, everything comes too easily. That's another reason that they (and MS books like Outlander and MS pic posts) really bother me. And I think it's because of exactly what you said, that the MS is an idealized character that is always better than the rest of us, and always becomes the focal point of the story rather than the characters we're there to read about.

You are simply brilliant!
[tanacawyr]:
And that, essentially, is the key to the revulsion a lot of us feel. The MS is claiming ownership of what should be a shared fantasy. She's grabbing at something that is understood to have space for readers/viewers to insert themselves and as a result she destroys both that shared space and the possibility for the audience to, in effect, play out their own self-inserts/MSes.

YES! YES YES YES YES!!!! I've said the same damned thing -- that a GOOD Mary-Sue is a reader insert, and a bad one is an author insert. A good story invites the reader in to have fun with the universe.

A bad MS story forces the reader to sit back and watch the author hogging all the fun. It puts a chainlink fence between the reader and the universe, and we're stuck watching someone else enjoy themselves. When was it ever fun to watch someone else ride a rollercoaster or eat a gourmet meal?
[stakebait]:
I guess it could work like that. But it doesn't describe my experience, because I really don't want to self-insert, privately or otherwise. I love watching my fannish universe, but I don't want to be there, and I'd break my own suspension of disbelief if I were. As far as taking up space goes, what I resent is her occupying the canonical characters', not mine/ours. I don't like most original characters for that reason. The thing that infuriates me about Mary Sues above and beyond that is the same thing that drives me nuts about second person -- I can't stand people telling me what I think. I guess it is true that what's bugging me is someone taking space that ought to be mine/ours -- but it's not the space for self-insertion, it's the space to form our own opinions of the characters, instead of having them thrust down our collective throat.
[kyuuketsukirui]:
Oh, I'm glad it's not just me! That's exactly how I feel. I don't want to have anything to do with the characters and when reading, I don't see myself as any of them. And yes, OCs in fanfiction, whether they're Mary Sues or not, take away from the characters I want to read about.
[stewardess]:
Yep. I agree.

What makes Mary Sues painful is that the Mary Sue's fantasy is so infrequently your own, further shutting you out as a reader/participant.

If an author writes a Mary Sue with an OC that readers can identify with [it happens once in a great while] then the fic is no longer denigrated as a Mary Sue, but praised as a work of fanfiction with a great OC in it. *g*

Mary Sues tend to be poorly written not because of their genre, but because they are the first fanfiction a new author writes. Most fanfiction authors move further and further away from Mary Sues once they get the hang of things.

I'm always on the look out for stealth Mary Sues in my fic, because it's natural for a writer to put them in. Tolkien put loads of Marty Stus in LotR: Bilbo, Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo all expressed aspects of Tolkien's personality. A good author can use parts of himself or herself without shutting the readers out.
[serafina20]:
The MS shortcircuts this sharing, since it is impossible for the reader to participate in the fic or even reach our favourite shared characters, because there is a wall in the form of a MS standing in the way. I don't disagree with your theory here, exactly, but how to you account for the fact that Mary Sues are wildly popular among a certain subset of fandom? Perhaps slash writers and many older writers don't like these stories, but among teenagers (or the younger set; I was still writing/reading MSs when I was eighteen, nineteen), they're not only written but read and enjoyed. Even the badly written ones.
[caras galadhon]:
but how to you account for the fact that Mary Sues are wildly popular among a certain subset of fandom?

*G* That'd be partially why I've disclaimed my theory as limited to slash fandom. I don't know how qualified I am to speak from any sort of position of authority when it comes to portions of fandom that are Mary Sue friendly, although I would venture to say that there is a different set of unwritten rules at work there. Possibly the members of MS-friendly communities are looking for stories that reflect "perfect" relationships (not all the time, just some) and the MS in that case offers up a character for the MS-friendly reader to step into and inhabit, just like the fairy tale princess in the tower, or the girl wearing the charred paper bag who defeats the dragon but ultimately rejects the prince. The MS-friendly reader might have a focus that shifts from the canon characters to how she might interact with them in a very overt way.

Perhaps slash fandom is more voyeuristically based, as well?

Anyway, those are my preliminary, and not nearly as well formed thoughts on MS-friendly comms. Hmm. Really good question. Thanks.
[cathexys]:
but that's not really the end of it either. for my self-insertion vs voyeurism section, i have looked at entire slash archives full of not only male Mary Sue's but also self-inserts where a character in canon is basically modified to let us identify with him (or at least let the writer identify). some are subtle; others very overt, and a lot of the same issues occur as do with the classical MS characters.
[anonymous]:
This is an excellent essay and you make good points, but to me Mary Sues are simply a prime example of bad research and bad writing, and I despise both failings in even a casual author. Anyone over the age of 12 who can't take five minutes to look around the web and see that idea HAS BEEN DONE A BILLION TIMES BEFORE ALREADY is IMHO too impossibly stupid to cope with. I'm not jealous of Mary Sue. I just enjoy tormenting her. :)
[seleneheart]:
You make great points! MS is one reason why I can't bear fanfiction.net (other than the censorship), it's too much trouble to wade through all the crap to get to the good stuff.

And you are absolutely right, the MS takes us out, out of the mood, out of the story, out of everything except her little ego trip.

We all have our MS fantasies of what we would ever do if confronted with one of the guys that we write about. But hopefully, we keep it to ourselves, that way it remains ours.
[serinatia]:
*nods* Even with "youfics" (*shudders*), it is still not the reader who is living out their fantasies. In fact, it is even worse than inserting a real character, because the author of a second person POV assumes what we will do, and what we are like. Bad writing and Mary Sues often go together, so people think that the two are inseparable. There can be a wonderfully written story that just happens to have a character that I hate right in the centre of it all. If someone doesn't like the character, though, it doesn't automatically make that character a Sue.
[mafdet]:
There can be a wonderfully written story that just happens to have a character that I hate right in the centre of it all. If someone doesn't like the character, though, it doesn't automatically make that character a Sue.

Unfortunately, the term "Mary Sue" often gets equated to "any character I (the reader) don't like." Which, I think, degenerates the term into a meaningless insult.

I find it especially wrong to call canon characters Mary Sues, because if one uses the term "Mary Sue" to mean a fanfic character who interferes with the canon universe. Canon characters, even if one doesn't happen to like them, have a legitimacy. A writer can hardly rape his or her own canon. And if we are talking about the obnoxious traits of Mary Sues as the original poster here defined them, a canon character is part of the world we all know and love, etc.

Certainly there are badly written canon characters, and canon characters whom one dislikes for one reason or another, but that doesn't make them Mary Sues. Ditto with original characters. One can read a well-written OC and still dislike the OC, but that doesn't mean she or he is necessarily a Mary Sue. Maybe the canon character or OC just happens to rub one the wrong way.
[fileg]:
I have in particular noticed the pic-community phenomenon, and have been wondering why I let it make me feel so unsettled. I think you have it here - its the difference between sharing and gloating.
[serenda]:
Does the picture forum MS really destroy the community? It skeeves the hell out of me, but I never quite felt they were for me, even with less MSing. There's more presumption and assumption and general RPFing in them than is my preference. The instances where I've seen the pic MSing -- it seemed to be playing to a vocally appreciative (and included -- it's like each thread created a communal MS that they all got to play, or to have one-upmanship competitions, outwitting each other). This makes a voyueristic community a participatory one.
[caras galadhon]:
it's like each thread created a communal MS that they all got to play, or to have one-upmanship competitions, outwitting each other Except if you watch a pic comm where this is happening for any length of time, the people who are posting and commenting start to skew in the direction of the MSers. The number of posts/comments that are made by people who are not as interested in Mary Sueing goes drastically down until the only vocal people ARE the MSes, which results in a false sense that this behaviour is approved of by the larger community.
[serenda]:
I do forget to consider there's a third party in the scenario -- to me there are people who don't comment, and people who take it too personally. I'd had these assigned as the large majority of the community. There's a constant footnote of "we don't count lurkers so we can't count lurkers" to this whole thing, I assume. Of course, I have a sense they're supporting me (checks e-mail, nods), but my mental count was such that I wasn't considering the shift in numbers by the departure of the posters who can't stomach the MS noise anymore.

References

  1. journal referenced has been purged and deleted