Too Good to be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue

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Academic Commentary
Title: Too Good to be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue
Date(s): 1999, revised in 2001
Medium: online
External Links: Too Good to be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue, by Pat Pflieger, Archived version AND Too Good to be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue -- The Mary Sues Listed, Archived version, around (1999)
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Too Good to be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue is a 1999 essay by Pat Pflieger.

Author's Notes and Acknowledgments

[presented at the American Culture Association conference, March 31, 1999, San Diego, CA]

Revised in light of information presented in "Girl Power: The New Cinderellas in Cinema," by Larisa R. Schumann; see end of the text. Revised again later, to incorporate new information; added bits are marked: ex., [2001:] ... [/2001]

[NOTE: This is the full-length version of a much briefer paper presented at the conference. A bibliography and a more detailed description of the Mary Sues appear as separate files.]

I'd like to acknowledge the help of several fan writers and readers, especially Paula Smith, Kat, and Jessica Ross. I'd also like to thank those who helped me to find Mary Sues, particularly Ann Teitelbaum, Jane Mailander, Mrs Jim, and Russet McMillan. And special thanks to Amedia and to DDJ, for allowing me to rifle through their zine collections.


She's amazingly intelligent, outrageously beautiful, adored by all around her -- and absolutely detested by most reading her adventures. She's Mary Sue, the most reviled character type in media fan fiction. Basically, she's a character representing the author of the story, an avatar, the writer's projection into an interesting world full of interesting people whom she watches weekly and thinks about daily. Sometimes the projections get processed into interesting characters, themselves. Usually, though, they don't.

Many hate her, but she is alive in every fandom. She fences with Methos and Duncan MacLeod; she saves the Enterprise, the Voyager, or the fabric of time and space; she fights with Jim Ellison in defense of Cascade; she battles evil in Sunnydale alongside Buffy Sommers. She impresses the heroes of both The Girl and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; she makes Ben Stone and Mike Logan of Law & Order go weak at the knees; Ham Tyler of V marvels at her strength; Jasper Jax of General Hospital is captivated by her; Benton Fraser of Due South palpitates when she is near; she rules the night of the Vampire Chronicles.

Most often, Mary Sue is an original character created by the author of the story, but media characters also can become Mary Sues. Some start out that way: fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation point out that the overly wonderful, often-despised young Wesley Crusher is named for Gene Wesley Roddenberry. Adorable and omnipowerful Amanda Rogers, who learns that she is a member of the Q Continuum in the TNG episode "True Q," has had the name Mary Sue "ascribed to me so many times that I feel comfortable with it," as she explains dryly in a fan story. As Camille Bacon-Smith points out, Piper, in two Star Trek novels by Diane Carey, is a Mary Sue who stumbles, whines, and bunny-hops her way to Lieutenant-Commander. Megan Connor, of Sentinel, and Lisa Cusack, of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Sound of Her Voice," also share elements usually associated with Mary Sues. Here, the Mary Sue gets in the way of what many fans consider the "real" relationship and/or outshines the "real" characters; many fans of Due South so resent the way the babbling, overactive bride-to-be in the episode "An Invitation to Romance" takes the focus away from interaction between Benton Fraser and Ray Vecchio, that it can be referred to as "that first season episode that everybody hated" or "that Mary Sue episode," and fans know immediately which episode is meant. Other times, however, a media character may be turned into a Mary Sue by a fan, most often in works of slash fiction, which explore a homosexual relationship between two characters.
This recognition -- and the nostalgia factor -- may be why Mary Sue is coming out of the fan fiction closet. While many readers still gnash their teeth, many writers are having fun with her. They will knowingly write them, putting themselves and friends who love the show into the stories; Karin Ransdell and Pollytiks send "Karrie" and "Patty" off on a wild adventure with Ray Vecchio and Benton Fraser in "Karrie and Patty's Excellent Misadventure," while Susan Clarke and Gael Williams seek the ultimate Mary Sue, printing the results of their search in a zine of the same name, and Our Favorite Things #10 celebrates Mary Sue in all her glory. Most of these stories are humorous takes on the formula. Or writers who have unconsciously created Mary Sues will label them as such once the Mary Sue elements are brought to their attention, rather than keeping them out of the public eye: Melissa Roule cheerfully admits that she's been told that Christine Chevalier in "All Dolled Up" is a Mary Sue, while Kirsten Berry "makes no apologies" for her Mary Sue in "Believer," also thanking the reader who explained the term to her. So labelling the story is essentially a defense mechanism, especially for the neo-fan. The fan gets to have her cake and also eat it, inviting the reader to laugh along with her, since she knows the reader will laugh anyway. Some fans have gone even further, deciding that it is time to "own their Mary Sue" and daring the reader to disapprove. To the members of the Mary Sue Webring, she's an "avatar" of whom they no longer feel the need to be embarrassed. Judging by the shows for which they have created Mary Sues, many of these authors are not new fans; they are old enough to be nostalgic about her, and what she meant to them. And she has meant a lot. Often she was their very first original character -- Simplicity Williams was mine -- and she took them on mental adventures they remember fondly. "You got me through an awful lot of the Grey Times," Susan Crites explains to one of her Mary Sues. "My writing wouldn't exist -- I wouldn't be ME -- if it wasn't for you." It is appropriate. We created her, and, true heroine that she is, she has recreated us.