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I Was a Teenage Mary Sue, or Why Being a Big Damn Hero Is Hard (Though It Shouldn't Be) If You're a Girl

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Mary Sue - Big Damn Heroes


For one summer, when I was about fourteen, I was Harry Potter.

It was fucking epic. I had a wand, I fought Voldemort in my bedroom, had heroic angst sessions, GOT ANGRY AND SHOUTED IN CAPSLOCK and epically united all four Hogwarts Houses and led them into victorious battle. I like to think I’m not alone in doing this (or something like it), although there is also a definite possibility that I am singularly weird. 

I want to talk about Mary Sues, because as a Sci-Fi/Fantasy geek, I grew up in a boy’s playground – and so did a lot of other young girls. I wrote my first fanfic (a horrendous self-insert) for the Horatio Hornblower fandom (which featured an all male cast), and promptly hobbled on over to the Lord of the Rings fandom when The Fellowship of the Ring came out (also a boy’s adventure romp). I also spent a lot of time in the Star Trek fandom (again, almost all men in the main cast). What all these fandoms had in common (though the Hornblower fandom was fairly small so it was less noticeable) was an abundance of Mary Sues. The LotR fandom was particularly bad, and there was a lot of backlash – hence the Protectors of the Plot Continuum (PPC) who found Mary Sues and wrote ficlets about hunting them down, and the Official Fanfiction University of Middle-Earth (OFUM) were born. 

I want to take a moment to talk about why we write Mary Sues, why we hate Mary Sues, and why this is a symptom of a larger problem. 

Coming back to Harry Potter – I loved those books. I wanted to go to Hogwarts, I wanted to be part of the adventure, and I wanted to beHarry Potter. The problem a lot of girls have when they read these stories, is they want to play the Big Damn Hero. It’s fine for boys, because the Big Damn Hero is usually a boy, so nobody blinks twice at, for example, my brother running around the house playing Captain Kirk. They were a bit more confused when I walked in and told them I was Spock. 

I liked Hermione – but I wanted to be the one to take down Voldemort. I wanted to be right at the centre of the story. Be the most important person – have a prophecy over my head, and, not wind up married to Ron Weasley. So I identified myself with Harry. But then, I, and, I think, many other girls my age ran into the problem of trying to reconcile the fact that Harry was a boy with the fact that I was a girl.

The Mary Sue is what happens when girls try to write themselves into the traditional model of a boy’s role as a girl. I’m not saying they’re stellar writing (we love to hate them for a reason), but there are some things about the typical Sue I find really interesting. Firstly, the Sue walks a strange balancing act between being the most ‘heroic’ (in a traditional “male” bash things over the head sense) character and being a damsel in distress. She usually saves the male love interest at the climax of the story, because that’s what we’re taught the hero does – that’s how he gets the girl. But she also gets written as needing to be saved by the male love interest, because she is a girl, and the girl always gets rescued. I literally cannot count the number of times I’ve seen Sues kidnapped by orcs and utterly helpless, and then take down about a billion of them later in a bid to save Legolas. She’ll wield a sword with the best of them, and take down a Balrog, displaying the “male” attribute of warrior prowess, but she’s also devastatingly attractive – displaying ‘female power’. Because we’re taught very early on, as girls, that beauty is a status symbol, and that the more men you attract, the more powerful you are. And I think it’s quite telling that Sues are characterised for having impossible hair, eye and skin colours – violet eyes, natural sky-blue hair... These are beauty standards that can literally never be attained in life – a bit like the body shapes we see photoshopped all over the models in magazines. 

When I look back at some of the things I wrote, and some of the stories I read (and, yes, I’ll admit, enjoyed at the time), it seems obvious to me that I was trying to reconcile my place in the world – what I saw female characters doing on TV compared to male characters, and the fact that almost all my favourite characters were men and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be them or just be with them. Even characters like Buffy – arguably the strongest female role-model I thought I had (although in hindsight, I would’ve done better to latch onto Hermione, I think) – got beaten up, usually by men, every episode. And do a quick google search for promotional images for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (especially in its early run), and tell me that is not a picture of a girl holding a goddamn stake and still looking demure whenever Angel’s in the frame. Yes, she came out on top in the end, but this is how I wound up constructing elaborate storylines for fics that involved the main character being simultaneously ludicrously strong and competent, but beaten to a pulp. Girls were expected to be everything at once – gorgeous and capable of kicking you in the face with stiletto heels on. What separates the Mary Sue from a character like Buffy is the ego-centrism you grow out of (hopefully) as you age, allowing you to separate the character from a vision of yourself, and the depth that also comes with age, allowing you to write better-rounded characters. 

What I find fascinating about the Sue is, because most of the authors are relatively young writers, they’re very reflective of the sort of proto-model for the more multi-dimensional, better developed versions of these Sues that get written by adults, both in the world of fanfiction and in the media. We don’t lose the confusion about how to write a “strong female character”, and we still walk the line between being both the damsel and the rescuer. They’re very reflective of the way that women are still expected to be all things all the time – the importance of beauty in our culture and the power being beautiful is viewed to hold, and the fact that girl’s just want their hero stories too, dammit! We want to kick butt and take names, without trying to be both Aragorn and Arwen at the same time. 

Just goes to show: “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” Unfortunately, I think this is quite difficult, and Mary Sues are the result.