With Max Landis’ critiques of Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens making news in the gendersphere (because some argue that it is misogynist to call Rey a “Mary Sue”), I wish to propose a theory as to why Mary Sues are generally disliked and “called out” far more than Marty Stus.
“Mary Sue” is a character type that is generally seen as originating from the Fanfiction scene; it refers to an idealized female character who is portrayed as extremely special and innately awesome, to the point where all the other characters (particularly desirable male characters) love her. She is portrayed as unrealistically special given the constraints of the fictional universe.
The Marty Stu is the male version; this character is absurdly powerful and heroic to the point where nothing can truly challenge them. They always save the day, get the girl/s and exhibit endless courage and grim determination. He is portrayed as unrealistically competent and awesome given the constraints of the fictional universe.
Both Marty and Mary are extreme examples of traditional gender roles. Both are idealized beyond a plausible level within the constraints of their fictional universes. Both challenge the suspension of disbelief. However, Mary Sue attracts more rage than Marty Stu ever would. Why?
A key point which needs to be recognized about Mary and Marty is that both are considered to be idealized author-avatars who exist to provide a satisfying escapist fantasy for the author. In and of itself, this isn’t a problem so long as the audience can relate to it as well – everyone enjoys fantasies of being awesome, after all.
But another point regarding Mary Sue in particular is that “Mary Sue” is a concept which arose within a female-dominated community, and is therefore an allegation mostly made by women against other women (and characters presumed to be stand-ins for other women). In other words, like the majority of slut-shaming, “Mary Sue” is something which in general is done by women to each other.
When a woman accuses another woman of writing a Mary Sue, she is effectively attacking that other woman (since the Mary Sue character is generally presumed to be an idealized stand-in for the author). But why should another person be shamed or attacked for trying to write something which makes them (the writer) feel special? Surely, this is a normal human desire? And then there’s the issue of Marty Stu – surely, if gender were no factor we’d attack Marty Stu just as often as Mary Sue, wouldn’t we?
All of this leads me to suggest the following explanation: the disproportionate treatment of Mary Sues comes from feminine jealousy, because when woman A reads woman B’s Mary Sue, all she hears (presuming she’s a gender-typical woman) is “I, the author, am such a super special princess and so awesome! I bet I’m more special than you!” The reader finds this smug, finds that this creates jealousy on her part, takes offense (how DARE someone impugn her own specialness by going on about theirs!) and decides to cut down the tall poppy by mocking the Sue (and by extention the author).
Male Stu-hood does not cause the same vitriolic reaction from women since a man being awesome in a Stu-ish way does not take away from a female’s own socially-ascribed innate specialness; males are taught that they have to earn and prove their specialness (i.e. value to society) through action, whereas female specialness is seen as innate to female biology. In addition, males are used to (and brought up to accept) the male hierarchy – the idea that there are “real men” and “not real men” and that the former are superior to the latter. Pack-animal bully behavior in school is dismissed with “boys will be boys” and thus effectively seen as natural. Females, on the other hand, are taught that they are all innately precious pretty princesses, bullying between girls is seen as an aberration or an atrocity to be dealt with via Rosalind Weisman seminars, and therefore a strange sort of egalitarianism (enforced via Tall Poppy Syndrome) becomes the norm; if another girl goes on too much about her innate specialness, other women object (whereas with males, all specialness is subject to social verification).
I offer this theory for critique and discussion.
As I have not seen The Force Awakens I will limit my comments on Rey, but if we go by the assumption that Max Landis’ critique is accurate, Rey is more of a Marty Stu than the classic Mary Sue; she becomes an incredibly agential badass in a very short amount of time (faster than Luke Skywalker even). She thus fulfils male roles and is therefore what Anita Sarkeesian’s entire Master’s Thesis condemns as sexist; a Man With Tits who perpetuates the patriarchal values system through associating masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. As such, those feminists who claim to share Sarkeesian’s Third Wave Feminist outlook yet cheer for Rey are being hypocritical. I’d suggest the real source of their cheering is that Rey is perceived as an avatar of a female takeover of a “male space” – as an assertion of female power. She can also be seen as a symbol for “having it all” – the way that women in contemporary society can perform masculinity (thus earning/demonstrating masculine social value) whilst still retaining the innate value ascribed to femininity (ergo achieving a form of social androgyny which only females may access). But like I said, this is predicated on the accuracy of Landis’ critique, and so I shall leave that subject for now.
Update: Amanda Marcotte proves my speculations regarding the cheering for Rey (as being motivated by a desire to celebrate the assertion of female power over a male space) are basically proven by her own article written here (archive link) – https://archive.is/vRswD#selection-3019.0-3019.564
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