The Women Who Coined the Term ‘Mary Sue’

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Commentary
Title: The Women Who Coined the Term ‘Mary Sue’
Commentator: Jackie Mansky at "Smithsonian.com"
Date(s): May 16, 2019
Medium: online
Fandom:
External Links: The Women Who Coined the Term ‘Mary Sue’
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The Women Who Coined the Term ‘Mary Sue’ is a 2019 article by Jackie Mansky at "Smithsonian.com."

The article has the subtitle: "The trope they named in a ‘Star Trek’ fan zine in 1973 continues to resonate in 2019."

Some Topics Discussed

  • the history of the term Mary Sue, and its creators Paula Smith and Sharon Ferraro
  • the zine Menagerie
  • some remarks about early science fiction fanzines, males and female fans
  • Game of Thrones
  • a link to A Trekkie's Tale online
  • an uncredited image taken from Fanlore
  • teaching fans a lesson
  • Paula Smith's comment: "I wanted to write the complete sort of Mary Sue that there was because they were all alike,” says Smith. “It was just so typical that it just had to be done.”

Excerpts

Soon after Paula Smith and Sharon Ferraro launched one of the earliest “Star Trekfanzines, they started noticing a pattern to the submissions they were receiving. Each began the same way: a young woman would board the starship Enterprise. “And because she was just so sweet, and good, and beautiful and cute,” Smith recounts, “everybody would just fall all over her.”

Looking back, Smith says, it was obvious what was going on: “They were simply placeholder fantasies,” she says. “And, certainly, I can't say I didn't have placeholder fantasies of my own.” But the thing that had attracted the two friends to “Star Trek” was that the show — which had gone off the air for good in 1969, four years before they launched their zine — was intelligent. These submissions, says Smith, were not intelligent.

“There were very good stories coming out at that time,” adds Smith, who is now 67. “But there was always a huge helping of what we started calling in letters to the editors of other zines, a Mary Sue story.”

... Smith and Ferraro were already active members of the Trek community when they launched Menagerie in '73. Though nearly four decades have passed since they edited their final issue, both can still vividly recall the submission that inspired Mary Sue. The piece, which came in at 80-pages, double-sided, centered around a young protagonist who was, of course, brilliant and beautiful and ultimately proved her mettle by sacrificing her own life to save the crew—a tragic moment, which was then upended when she resurrected herself. “I’d never seen that one anywhere else,” Smith says with a laugh. “So, I have to give [the writer] kudos for that.”

Smith, a big Mad magazine fan, couldn't resist writing a concise, biting parody in response...

While the original meaning of a Mary Sue referred to a stand-in character of any gender orientation, the reason Smith and Ferraro encountered more Mary Sues than Murray Sues when they were running Menagerie likely had more to do with who was writing in. Unlike the larger science fiction fanbase, which skewed male, both Smith and Ferraro remember that the “Star Trek” fandom they experienced was made up of mostly women. “Science fiction fandom, in general, was like 80 percent men,” Ferraro ballparks. “'Star Trek' fandom was the exact opposite; at least 75 percent women.”

Later, cultural critics began to make the argument that Mary Sues opened up a gateway for writers, particularly women and members of underrepresented communities, to see themselves in extraordinary characters. “People have said [the Mary Sue characters] actually seem to be a stage in writing for many people,” Smith says. “It's a way of exercising who they are and what they can imagine themselves doing.”

Naming the trope also allowed people to understand what they were doing when they set out to write a Mary Sue or Murray Sue character. “In terms of teaching writers a lesson, it was very useful in that people could say, well, that’s really a Mary Sue story. And then they could look at it and decide whether they wanted to change it,” says Ferraro.

While both Smith and Ferraro actively worked to popularize the term within the “Star Trek” fan community, neither expected it to catch on the way it has. “I was absolutely blown out of the water when I Googled it the first time and went, oh, my god,” says Ferraro. Smith agrees, “I am surprised that it held on so long. Many fan words get tossed around and they live for a while and then they die.”

But Mary Sue has withstood the test of time. Both articulate the surreal quality that comes with seeing a name they coined take on a life of its own. That includes the creeping sexism that's become associated with the term. "There were the people who would say anytime there was a female protagonist that’s a Mary Sue," Smith remembers. “It just developed in all sorts of ways."

But she’s found her peace with it. “You can’t control a term. Nobody does after a while,” she says. “It's like children. You raise them and you say, oh my gosh, what's happened here? And off they go, and you're pleased to get a call 40 years later from "Smithsonian" to talk about them.”