Mary Sue: From self-inserts to imagines, how young women write themselves into the narrative

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Title: Mary Sue: From self-inserts to imagines, how young women write themselves into the narrative
Creator: Elizabeth Minkel
Date(s): March 23, 2017
External Links: Mary Sue: From self-inserts to imagines, how young women write themselves into the narrative; archive link
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Mary Sue: From self-inserts to imagines, how young women write themselves into the narrative is a 2017 essay by Elizabeth Minkel.

The essay was written as a companion piece to Fansplaining: Mary Sue.

Some Topics Discussed


The days of limited space and resources in fic production are ancient history: there is always room for another story in the internet’s archives, and the general ethos of the broader fanfiction community has long been “don’t like, don’t read.” Many stories are self-indulgent, whether they feature a stand-in for the author or or not. But hatred of Mary Sues is embedded in the culture, self-perpetuating, and has seemingly ramped up since fic came online. In the early digital days, some archives banned Mary Sues outright; to this day, blogs exist solely to call peoples’ original characters Mary Sues, and to deconstruct and mock them accordingly.
But these days more women are pushing back against the original characters they once felt ashamed of. After all, why shouldn’t young girls write the most spectacular versions of themselves—and why shouldn’t they want to see themselves in a story? In recent years I’ve been especially interested in watching women, people of color, and queer people reclaim the self-insertion narrative from one of indulgence to one of vital representation.
But part of it’s not just me: I hesitate to get too reductive on the links between shaming girls out of their own stories and the kinds of things that dominate many corners of the fanfiction world, but one could draw a line from the embarrassment of the Mary Sue to the positioning of certain types of characters in fandom as “default.” In the vast landscape of popular media, at least in the Anglo-American context, we’re implicitly taught to view the white male character as neutral, blank, infinitely relatable. While media certain can shoulder some blame, fans should be held responsible, too, and the way young fans are encouraged, gently or mockingly, to step out of their own perspectives, away from their own backgrounds, and into the perspective of certain types of characters is one of the lasting legacies of the Mary Sue construction.
Perspective is important in fanfic. It’s obviously also important in all other fiction, ever, but fic can sometimes feel particularly preoccupied with it. After all, perspective shift is one of the bedrocks of the practice; fans love nudging the spotlight off a canonical protagonist. RPF is an interesting space to examine perspective, and the way the “default” (white, male) gaze gets shattered and refashioned. There’s the complicated sort of circular gaze of stories from the celebrity’s point of view, where the reader watches the celebrity watching a character who’s often a stand-in for the reader. And while second-person fic feels more prevalent in fanfiction at large than it does in the published fiction world, it often feels ubiquitous in RPF spaces. Lumped under a second-person umbrella stories that work very differently in form and function, from fleshed-out second person narrators to “x Reader” stories that eschew identifying details to “imagines,” short prompts that exist in a murky space between fiction and daydream fodder.

Fan Comments

Good article. Long years ago, I looked forward to seeing how fanlit would develop and how/if women would still be involved with SF fandom (which is how we thought of our Trek fiction). My oh my, how the web helped the involvement and discussion explode.

You are correct that back in the day of print zines, there was a split reaction to the term “Mary Sue” from the beginning. I remember it as being between those who recognized in themselves the desire for such a personal story and those who had no patience for finding such a story in a fanzine, between those who were kind about such personal stories and those who were not. The people who were not kind were often quite sarcastic, if not brutal, especially in zine reviews.

I also remember some intense panels at fan cons over whether readers should regard fan stories as if they were written as practice for being future pro writers, or whether it should be understood, and happily accepted, that fan stories were written for the fun of it, for the pleasure of writing stories in our fav universes. Mary Sue stories were one current under those discussions. The reality was, is, that both reasons were and are legit, and that the first also include the latter.

My instinct is that analysis of the Mary Sue conundrum must include an understanding of the social setting for early media fandom. If you were in your 20s in the 1970s, you had grown up in the 1950s and 60s; you probably still couldn’t get a credit card in your own name; you might not know how to drive because your father didn’t think women should drive; you might never have had a checkbook and suddenly were handling checks from people who wanted a zine you had published by running it off a mimeograph machine or photocopying it yourself. Young women who lived more sheltered lives encountered women who were working on careers; some culture clashes occurred. I knew a woman who put together her zine in her car because she lived at home and knew her parents would understand. I knew a woman who’s husband finally “allowed” her to go to a con just this once because he wanted her home taking care of the house and his meals at all times. Reasons for writing Mary Sue stories, and for reacting against Mary Sue stories in those days had very different backgrounds than they might have today.

(You certainly had heard people say things like, “I don’t know any girls who like SF,” or “Oh, you’ll give that up when you finally start dating/get married”…or, hmm, maybe girls and women still hear that sort of crap.)

I didn’t care to read Mary Sue stories, as per Smith’s description, simply because I had been making up stories based on fav TV shows since childhood and had gotten such out of my system. That didn’t mean that I didn’t ID with certain characters in my stories for my own psychological reasons; it just meant that I knew how to temper the presentation of those characters. My friends and I still sat around and told “pizza and beer” stories that were flagrantly personal; we just didn’t publish them publicly because we had to get them accepted by a zine editor/publisher. If there had been the web, things might have gone differently. Some of those stories did get described in written letters to friends who lived far away.

Fanzine fandom grew pretty quickly and by the mid 80s, you could find zines with wide editorial interests and buy/read accordingly. With the web, the range of available material of differing presentations seems infinite. That people fling “Mary Sue” around with damage in mind even today may be a measure of how far girls and women haven’t come; that people are arguing back against the nastier reactions may be a measure of how much understanding of why people write that we’ve acquired.

It’s a big universe, big enough for Mary Sue and everyone else.

Again, thanks for the article. I’ve read more than a few on the subject and I like yours a lot. [1]

Excellent piece. That said, I think a key issue overlooked about the Mary Sues (who don’t totally offend me in original fiction; I don’t read FF so may be off-base) is their underlying superiority to other females. Often, a Mary Sue has a sidekick best friend who isn’t nearly as powerful/pretty/perfect as her. The best friend is allowed to be funny, and perhaps intelligent or having a sense about how/why other characters behave as they do, or do “research” so the MS can fix the problem at hand. Mary Sue’s pal is mostly a yes-man, but occasionally there will be a spat, easily resolved by the end of the story. Also, the majority of other minor female characters are jealous of Mary Sue, often because of her beauty (though MS is unaware of her beauty) and all the boys love her…A large part of her value as a person is based specifically on being an object of the male gaze. Anyway, I wish there were more Mary Sues who had REAL female friends, were not traditionally attractive, and did not stir up envy in the other female characters.

Okay…that’s my spiel. And, yep, I know there are exceptions. [2]


  1. ^ comment by Maggie Nowakowska, March 24, 2017
  2. ^ comment by REAL Vivacia K Ahwen, March 28, 2017