She's perfect. She always says the right things at the right times, people can't stop gushing over her, and she never does anything wrong. She makes everybody look bad, but she feels plastic, fake. You're sure her life is secretly a mess, but she'll never show it. To her, everything seems easy, effortless. She never has to work for any of the good things thrown her way.
This kind of person would drive anyone insane. But it's especially aggravating when we see this character in entertainment. This is how I define a Mary Sue.
Some people cry “Mary Sue” as soon as a character shows up that they don't like. Usually the cry of “Mary Sue” can be enough to transform any character into a pariah. But “Mary Sue” has been used to describe anything from a character who's mildly annoying to one that every other character adores to one that's obscenely overpowered compared to everyone else.
So what exactly is a Mary Sue, and why is this type of character so loathed?
TV Tropes has done excellent work cataloging the origins and various definitions of a Mary Sue, though they do warn that the specific definition differs from person to person.
Originally written as a parody... [t]he prototypical Mary Sue is... idealized... mainly for the purpose of wish fulfillment. She's exotically beautiful... She's exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her 'flaws' are obviously meant to be endearing...
The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their true companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting... [T]he canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series...”1
TV Tropes may not be willing to pin down a definition for a Mary Sue, but most people agree that a Mary Sue is not something you want a character to be. It is a character who is inexplicably perfect to the point of ripping away the audience's suspension of disbelief. A Mary Sue makes other characters look like idiots compared to how incredibly perfect they are, and everyone pays them uneven amounts of attention.
Now, having some of these traits doesn’t necessarily make a bad character. Hey Arnold's Helga, a bully who struggles to confess her true feelings, is contrasted with her absolutely perfect sister Olga, the perfect daughter who's always doing good deeds and getting straight A's, but Olga doesn't break the suspension of disbelief. Saitama from One Punch Man was created to be over-powered, able to defeat any opponent in a single punch, yet he remains likable. Most protagonists gain tons of attention throughout their series; they seem to be the center of attention. But none of these situations garner as much hate as characters labeled a “Mary Sue.” Why not? What makes the difference?
I think what truly separates a Mary Sue from other exceptionally-talented, strong, powerful, or well-liked characters is the fact that accepted characters are meant to be played for laughs while Sues are meant to be taken seriously, and Mary Sues did not earn their status.
Can you think of anything more frustrating than someone who has everything when they haven't done anything to earn it? Think of the irritation with the “One Percenters” in today's society, or how frustrating it is when you've worked your butt off for a promotion only to see someone who doesn't work as hard or as long as you get it instead. This is the sentiment that Mary Sues bring. Little wonder so many people use “Mary Sue” as a derogatory term.
Mary Sues haven't worked for or earned their power, talents, and “beloved by all” statuses. So when Mary Sues hog the spotlight, it rubs salt in the wound. Not only do we have a character who hasn't earned the amazing traits she possesses, but every other character in the universe seems oblivious to that fact.
In addition, Mary Sues have no flaws or weaknesses whatsoever, or if they do, it's ones that don't matter to the story. They can't cook, but who cares? They’re adorably clumsy, but they never trip or fall at an inconvenient time so it works against them.2 And because a Mary Sue has no flaws, she's unrealistic to the point of unbelievability. We can't take a character who is literally good at everything seriously, because no one is like that in real life.
But how do you explain characters like Captain America? Steve Rogers is regularly shown as a very good man. He doesn't seem to have any real flaws; he is literally made into an unstoppable super soldier. He's a good guy with good morals. He doesn't have any particular weaknesses to speak of. Yet nobody complains about him being a Mary Sue. Now compare him to Rey, who's criticized in dozens of videos on YouTube.
|Hard work makes for a good character!|
In the first Captain America movie, Steve Rogers struggles to achieve his dream, which seemed so out of reach. We rooted for him because we saw he was a man of character, even before he enlisted in the army and became Captain America. And even after becoming Captain America, not everything came easily for him. He fails to save his friend Bucky—twice. He fails to keep Hydra bases from exploding. But he keeps fighting to overcome those failures.
Compare that to Rey, who is immediately able to use Force abilities we've only seen trained Jedi Knights perform, who can wield a lightsaber like an expert despite never turning one on before using it to defeat a trained combatant. Rey didn't work for these abilities, whereas Steve Rogers had to undergo boot camp and struggle with titanic villains.
And unlike Steve Rogers’s Super Soldier program, Rey has no program to justify why she is so powerful in the Force—even moreso than Luke Skywalker, apparently, who had the same start point as Rey and yet had to undergo months if not years of training to be able to do what Rey can do without anyone instructing her.
Mary Sues are not loathed because they're more powerful than anyone else. They're not hated because they garner attention or because they lack meaningful flaws. They're despised because they have all these things, and absolutely none of them are earned through training, failure, and hard work. And anything worth having in life is worth fighting for.
Notes and References:
- “Mary Sue,” TV Tropes. October 3, 2017, accessed August 10, 2018.
Star Wars and all related names and terms property of LucasFilm and Walt Disney Studios. Captain America and all related names and terms property of Marvel Entertainment, LLC (and also Walt Disney Studios). And I am not affiliated with any of them.
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