Mary Sue Just Ain’t What She Used To Be

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Title: Mary Sue Just Ain’t What She Used To Be
Creator: Linda Stoops
Date(s): 1982
Medium: print
Fandom: Star Trek: TOS, Star Wars, many others
Topic:
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Mary Sue Just Ain’t What She Used To Be is a lengthy 1982 essay by Linda Stoops.

Storms2art6.jpg

It was printed in the feminist multimedia zine Storms #2.

The Introduction

This article is addressed primarily to relatively new fen who came in late to the phenomenon of "Mary Sue-ism." I hope that those who participated in earlier debates will bear with me through any omissions or reiterations, as the more recent M S types and the changes in the feminist outlook will also be dealt with.

Some Topics Discussed

  • descriptions of Star Trek: TOS and Star Wars Mary Sues
  • fringe fandom Mary Sues, such as "Galactican MS,"Hero's Girlfriend MS," "Darkovan MS," "Dragonfolk MS" (the latter: too many dragons, not enough time)
  • "anyone whose character fits any of the above descriptions to a "T" should be advised by her friends and editors to tone things down a bit."
  • the assertion that there are less Mary Sues in fic now because the women's rights movements of the 1970s have let women writers "relax," allow for more freedom of movement, and experimentation, and that "another subject that has matured, albeit slowly, is the existence and practice of psionic abilities...."
  • traditional literary science fiction downplayed and insulted women, media fandom was a little bit better
  • the essays diverges wildly into a polemic on the pre-Christianity, Paganism, the Dark Ages, and the suppression of women
  • "good" descriptions of female characters in Trek were listed as Dirty Nellie and Sadie Faulwell
  • ""Universes" such as Star Wars (specifically non-Imperial), M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, Dr Who and The Greatest American Hero allowed more freedom of movement and experimentation for fannish authors than, say, Battlestar Galactica, Wild, Wild West, Man from UNCLE and televised Trek"

From the Essay

To begin with, just who or what is a "Mary Sue"? The G-rated version of the original Star Trek definition given to me was "a female character, resembling the author, who by her looks, charm, brains, inherent courage and handy bobby pin, rescues the Enterprise from certain destruction and/or gets romantically involved with at least one of the major male characters. This can be divided into the following categories:

Ensign/Lieutenant Mary Sue — A disgustingly cute and perky little creature who makes friends with everybody and just happens to come up with the solution that saves the day for the Big E and her crew. This wins her the undying gratitude of said crew, especially Captain Kirk, who shows his in various and sundry ways (gratitude, that is). Spock and McCoy are also up for grabs — in more ways than one — and the details depend on how far the zine publishing it will go and how horny the author is.

Any Percentage Vulcan MS — Usually a perfect wife for Spock: beautiful, brilliant, a high-level telepath, and often quite willing to blithely toss away her career and self-respect for the privilege of walking a step behind him. The relationship rarely lasts long due to Circumstances Beyond Their Control, namely death (hers, of course), parental objections, Star Fleet Service, James T Kirk, Vulcan VD...

Uppity MS — This is the "woman in power" type, a direct offshoot of the Women's Movement. Klingon and Romulan females of any rank also often fall into this slot, as they are guilty of the heinous crime of competency. "Uppity" is the author's "angry feminist" soapbox, braving the onslaught of Federation chauvinism, and often getting stomped on in the process. In other stories, she turns traitor to the cause, losing her heart and good sense over whichever one of the Big Three she happens to have the hots for. (A thought: has anyone ever noticed that, while patriarchal structures are left more or less alone, the Big Three of the Big E have repeatedly attempted — if not succeeded in — shifting matriarchies toward what they consider more"egalitarian"societies? Is Kirk playing with the Prime Directive again, or is there a paragraph or two that we don't know about? Maybe that's why T'Pau refused a seat on the UFP Council.)

With few exceptions, which I'll get to later on, the image of the fan-based female protagonist was to remain virtually stagnant from its inception to the late 70's. Mary Sues became a joke, something that neos wrote and no mature fan author would touch except as satire. It got to the point where no woman could create a female character without being accused of writing a Mary Sue.

Out of frustration, many writers stuck with established characters and quickly ran dry of new situations to put them in.

Then came Star Wars. (Brassy fanfare)

Lucas' sojourn into a galaxy far, far away affected femfen in different ways. Some saw it as a standard, though space-bound, fairy tale complete with male heroes and damsel-in-distress. Others disliked the possible threat to Trekdom's popularity and dismissed it as mindless pap. Many, however, were delighted with this new "playground" and set about exploring its myriad features. Unfortunately, a lot of them brought their old"toys" along, making only minor alterations to suit the scenery. Observe:

Rebel/Imperial MS — One can see a marked resemblance to "Ensign/Lieutenant" in this group, with traces of "Uppity" to give them some color. The former usually enlists because of altruism; they want to save the galaxy in a week or two, and then get down to the more serious business of chasing Luke or Han. They're always crack shots, whizzes at repair, and seasoned pilots at the ripe old age of 22 (or under), when they're not putting their pretty little necks on the line for the Force, Mother, and the boy they left behind, they're flying Skywalker's squadron, drinking Solo and Chewbacca under the table, and making small talk with the Princess. The latter are often high-ranking or on their way up, whether by connections or hard work and jackboot-licking. A lot of them have a thing for Vader, probably because he seems to be the only man in the Empire who makes no distinction as to sex (or species) in his dealings; he uses everybody.

Spacer MS — Otherwise known as a "Solo clone," this character is always tall with long dark hair, expressive eyes, a body that won't quit, a small freighter complete with Wookiee first mate and secret holds, a "zebra suit" (black vest, white shirt opened halfway past "PG" heading for "R," and jeans with the broken stripe down each leg), a fluency in at least forty languages (including Wookiee) and a rough childhood. She must also be a prodigy at nearly everything and a Corellian national, sometimes even claiming blood-relationship to Han (does that man have any male relatives?). "Spacer" divides her time between smuggling spice, blowing away dozens of troopers all by her lonesome, drinking enough to pickle a bantha's liver, and hauling Solo off to the bushes somewhere.

Jedi MS — Unlike her psionic cousins,"Jedi" is rarely a type unto her self. Often she carries another label native to this universe, and when her loyalties are to the Empire, she is usually a Sith (whatever that is) and under the tutelage of Vader. As with Han, both Luke and Kenobi have quite a few female relatives, all of them faster than a speeding blaster beam, more powerful than a mind probe, and able to lift objects that would give Master Yoda a mental hernia. All of this, of course, with a minimum of training from an old, exiled, male Jedi.

Princess MS -- There are very few of these, possibly because of the existence of a sufficiently feisty and competent young monarch. "Princess"' main function, therefore, seems to be that of a consolation prize for whichever of our heroes gets dumped by Her Worship. This type can also be found in other fanfic universes, usually where women are secondary characters with IQ's to match.
Let's get more or less serious now, shall we? First, a few old questions to rehash over, plus a couple newly presented. Why did Mary Sues come into being, and how have they changed over the years? Has feminism in its evolution altered the way we write our characters and stories, or have we just gotten older and more world-wise? Why are so many Mary Sues endowed with esper ability? Are these types on their way out, and if so, what will replace them? Can we create male or non-humanoid characters of any gender to represent us and our points of view?
Media SF made some headway in the forms of Number One, Uhura, T'Pau, the Romulan commander, and even T'Pring. Budding women SF writers, especially those with rising consciousnesses, saw this as a great training field. We could tell stories as well as our male counterparts if given decent material to work from. As chauvinistic as the Star Trek universe was, it was a damn sight more equal than its literary and theatrical predecessors. As we began to explore our own assertiveness, we postulated role models for ourselves, just to see how far we could go if we had the opportunity. Some, however, fell back on the old submissive ways, making gains only to get the attentions of Mr Right (or Captain or Dr Right, as the case may be) and chuck it all for a wedding ceremony and a little house planetside. In our eagerness to be free of male domination, though, some of us made our role models just a little too perfect in too many ways. Plot credibility began to slip as the stories became little more than showcases for Mary Sues. Then as the years passed, and everyone got a little older and less naive, editors and readers demanded more substance from the stories they were getting. Writers were suddenly required to delve into reality, where not everything was neatly divided into compartments and not every problem could be solved on the last page. Newcomers had trouble with this, as well as criticism from their peers, no matter how constructive. More adult themes appeared, and their acceptance caused the hard-line conservatives to withdraw from active zinedom. Even fandom, it seems, has a "Moral Majority."

As our outlook on the world changed, so did our self-image as women. Back then, "the Man" was out to get us at every turn, to keep us on our backs. We were an oppressed and often justifiably paranoid "minority," ready and eager to flail and rage at an unjust establishment. In fanfic, this anger and fear manifested itself as "Uppity." She was always fighting one obstruction or the other, dragging out her soapbox at every opportunity, reminding the women around ;her that she was doing this for their benefit as well. Sometimes she made it; more often she didn't, brought back down into the old restrictions by societal pressures and basic human needs. This made "Uppity" the saddest and most frightening of the Trek archetypes in that she was where many of us wanted to be, but she was no more free of the ancient chains than we were, twenty-third century or no.

Getting back to the issue of the evolution of female characters, both author-based and otherwise , the late '70's saw a proliferation of less-than-prefect, even decidedly flawed, types. These were less Mary Sueish and more alter-ego like. This change was spearheaded several years before by the most anti-Mary Sue of Trekdom, Sadie Mae Faulwell, and her contemporaries "Dirty Nellie" Gray and Landing Party Six. A virtually ignored and often mislabeled category also became noticeable: the non-related pro/antagonist, whose only similarity to the author is gender (confused with Mary Sues for that reason only). This character carries no special status in a given story or or series other than as a voice for the writer, much like the rest of the cast, be they male, other-sex, other-species, major or minor characters. Non-M S's allow for a great deal of developmental freedom, and, like the anti-M S, can be more fun to work with than the standard kind.

Such a breaking-away from the usual formula also allowed for some experimentation in the creating of main pro/antagonists who were neither female nor even humanoid. After studying the host of established male characters for quite a few years, it has only been recently that we've gotten around to making up some of our own that did more than carry spears and get killed off at the end. Perhaps it was the dissolution of male stereotypes and/or a group assertiveness on our part that said, "Hell (or Heck), why not? It's something new." Or perhaps we got tired of someone declaring that cross-sex writing is not credible for the upteenth time. Men are no longer the alien intelligences that we were told and vice-versa. As for "alien" intelligences themselves, stories based around non-anthropoid life-forms and their cultures are considerably more difficult to write well, and therefore rarer than a sterile tribble. These, however, are virtually the backbone of science fiction, and more attempts should be made in this area.

It is obvious, then, that as our tastes in fannish stories mature (as well as in other things), so must the styles, plots, and characters. We are no longer satisfied with simple storytelling; points of view must be expressed, comments on the human (and otherwise) condition must be made, the only exception being comedy fanfic. We are changing on many levels, and it was the intention of this article to explore some of these levels in as thorough a manner as possible.

Now it's your move.

Reactions and Reviews

"Mary Sue Just Ain't What She Used to Be" by Linda Stoops, introduces us to the most maligned of created characters, the Sue. As Stoops points out, SW fan-fic has been guilty of creating more than its share of new variations on an old mistake. Unfortunately, this article at several points threatens to get away from Stoops; it is perhaps the single most "preachy" article in Storms, and I found it a bit disconcerting to find "Mary Sue" tied to the growth of Christianity and the destruction of the Mother-religion on one hand, and the burgeoning power of the "Moral Majority" on the other -- or maybe it's the same hand? Stoops' point could have been made with less bitterness and with less condescension, and an outline of what she wanted to say would have kept her from straying so much from the point. Also, her political/religious material should have been saved for a more meaningful, deeper essay rather than wasted here almost as a throw-away. [1]

References

  1. from Jundland Wastes #11