Looks like this essay was needed, so I went ahead and did it. Not sure I said everything I wanted to say, but I tried.
So, there’s this girl. She’s tragically orphaned and richer than anyone on the planet. Every guy she meets falls in love with her, but in…
Okay, there are some valid points made here regarding the origins of the term.
HOWEVER, I think there is a very real reason to be critical of the “Mary sue” trope when it is used in literature, film, etc., namely, that it is one of the only ways women are represented.
Male characters are not only heroic, idealized “Gary stu” types. We are given flawed male characters, imperfect male characters. Characters that represent the diversity of REAL MEN in the actual world. We don’t get anywhere close to that range of women.
Female characters are too often either two dimensional window dressing, or “Mary sues”. More recently, we have seen more and more “Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl” type women, which is arguably a type of “Mary sue” (I could write pages about that, but I’ll refrain because it just makes me mad). But these aren’t anything like real women.
So maybe, instead of writing another “Mary sue”, write a real woman. Write a woman who is imperfect, who has a temper, who fucks things up, who doesn’t always get the guy. Write someone that actual women can relate to. Write a woman, instead of how you think a woman should be.
The thing is, those are not what people call “Mary Sues” . It’s typically characters written by women that get stuck with those labels and flawed female characters are just as likely to be stuck with that label if they experience any range of success.
"Manic Pixie Dream Girl" and "Magical Girlfriend" are tropes that already have names. You don’t need to call them "Mary Sue". What’s problematic about these women is they are defined by male characters and how they benefit male characters, not that they are successful. Men are still central in those stories, women are accessories or sexual fantasies.
It is very possible to criticize the lack of range of women in fiction without demeaning female writers and characters by sticking them with a dismissive, HIGHLY GENDERED, broad label that can essentially mean anything, but really means “too powerful and important” or “female power fantasy” or “eh i don’t like her”. It helps the dialogue about representation of women in fiction to be more specific in our criticism. Terms like “Magical Girlfriend” and “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” are valuable because they DO focus on specific narrative trends, and these trends happen to be perpetuated by men far more often than women, while people lean more heavily on female works for the mary sue characterization.
Honestly, female authors, write whatever women you want. If you feel like you want to write a power fantasy, fucking go for it. You deserve it. Everyone’s always tearing us down, let us fucking conquer. Just be aware of problematic, sexist tropes you could fall into that have nothing to do with being too powerful. And try to be interesting, or people won’t be interested!
If you want to write a character that’s a pile of flaws, GO FOR IT.
Don’t fool yourself thinking “mary sue” was started, and is largely used, to criticize lack of range of women in fiction. It is absolutely not. It’s just an easy, gendered method to blanket dismiss female characters and writers without engaging in real critical analysis.
(right now, i, the author of this essay, am writing a clinically depressed protagonist who has alienated all of the people around her, is distrustful and self-hating, afraid of touching, has underlying rage issues,feels like she’s never in control…and well, no getting the guy cuz she likes girls but she has a very rocky relationship with the one she does like but…what i’m saying is everyone reading this essay assumes just because i said i’m not going to be bothered by the accusations of writing a mary sue or that i advocate women having power fantasies like men do I must clearly not know how to write ~real women~ despite being one. (100 percent for realsies! complete with certificate of authentication) but you know, actually i love writing heavily flawed characters who screw up every five seconds. I just notice even those characters get called mary sues.And women should get to be powerful and successful and central too.)