"Mary Sue" Characters are a Cultural Issue and a Feminist Issue

"Mary Sue" Characters are a Cultural Issue and a Feminist Issue

We need powerful female (and male) characters who AREN'T obnoxiously perfect.

According to Urban Dictionary (always a reliable source), a Mary Sue is “a female fanfiction character that is so perfect as to be annoying”. Many people that read fanfiction are well aware of this kind of character: she is as smart and cunning as she is beautiful, and she can do no wrong. But let’s be honest: this kind of character—the Mary Sue—exists in other forms of media as well.

The easiest way to spot a Mary Sue is looking at the character’s realism and flaws. Is she able to pick up skills with the drop of a hat? Is she soooo talented that she outshines everyone in almost anything she does? Is she so beautiful that she can land any person of her preferred gender without even trying? These are all hallmark symptoms of a Mary Sue.

But what really seals the deal is when you can’t name more than one or two flaws. Any good character, as most character-creators know, should have enough flaws to balance out their admirable traits. When the scale is tipped in favor of the good parts of a character, it does not automatically make for a Mary Sue. It is exactly how much thought was put into the flaws that are there, if any at all, that will tip the scale far enough to create the Ultimate Special Snowflake.

So why is this a problem? Why do we need to understand the Mary Sue and how unrealistic or even how offensive she can be?

Well, characters in the media shape our beliefs about what it acceptable in society and how we see ourselves. They become our heroes, our aspirations. Is it healthy to aspire to be someone who is completely unrealistic, flawless to an annoyingly perfect degree? You tell me.

Though the more outlandish Mary Sues (like Bella Swan of Twilight) are often easy to spot, sometimes borderline Mary Sues (like, I would argue, Emily from Pitch Perfect 2) are not. Realistic representation, as I’m sure you’d agree, matters greatly for any underrepresented group. We need less Mary Sue, more originality and individuality that stems from the real world and not the male (or female) fantasy of what the perfect women should be like.

But… a new question arises: if female characters are only “good” if they are realistic, what about the male characters? How many male characters are so perfect it’s annoying? A lot, actually. We just don’t talk about it or even notice it enough because it’s more acceptable for a man to be perfect than for a woman to be.

There is technically a term for the male Mary Sue: Gary Stu (doesn’t role off the tongue in quite the same way, but you get the point). However, though Mary Sues are criticized constantly in the realm of fan works AND mainstream media (think of all the Twilight backlash!), I don’t hear many complaints about too-perfect male characters.

Sexism can work in implicit ways, and one of the consequences of living in a male-dominated society is that female characters are under a scrutinizing lens while male characters can get away with much more. Though Mary Sue characters produce unrealistic expectations and are overall annoying to see produced over and over again, there are plenty of problematic Gary Stu characters in literature that we don’t ever talk about.

Superman is actually a complete Gary Stu when you think about it, as are many other superheroes in comic books and movies. Easily able to win any battle, gets “the girl” every time, and has few flaws overall. Which superhero did I just describe? A bunch of them, that’s who. I love superheroes as much as the next fangirl, but even I have to admit that there’s a serious lack of realism in those characters.

The next generation of writers and consumers (myself included) need to understand the Mary Sue and Gary Stu tropes in order to better understand our own selves. Often times, many people call Mary Sues “self-inserts” in fanfiction; the Mary Sue tends to be everything that the author wishes she were and ISN’T—hence the unrealism. It’s telling that imperfect and likable characters are hard to create, but it’s so important that they exist. The imperfect-but-likable characters are important because they are the people who we love in the real world. The Mary Sues and Gary Stus, on the other hand, don’t exist in the real world (and if they did I’m sure everyone would be extremely frustrated with them). I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather read and watch characters that are like my friends.

We can have powerful female AND male characters without making them unrealistic. Take them from the ones who live in a world we already know (it's called life).

Cover Image Credit: YouTube

Popular Right Now

8 Reasons Why My Dad Is the Most Important Man In My Life

Forever my number one guy.

Growing up, there's been one consistent man I can always count on, my father. In any aspect of my life, my dad has always been there, showing me unconditional love and respect every day. No matter what, I know that my dad will always be the most important man in my life for many reasons.

1. He has always been there.

Literally. From the day I was born until today, I have never not been able to count on my dad to be there for me, uplift me and be the best dad he can be.

2. He learned to adapt and suffer through girly trends to make me happy.

I'm sure when my dad was younger and pictured his future, he didn't think about the Barbie pretend pageants, dressing up as a princess, perfecting my pigtails and enduring other countless girly events. My dad never turned me down when I wanted to play a game, no matter what and was always willing to help me pick out cute outfits and do my hair before preschool.

3. He sends the cutest texts.

Random text messages since I have gotten my own cell phone have always come my way from my dad. Those randoms "I love you so much" and "I am so proud of you" never fail to make me smile, and I can always count on my dad for an adorable text message when I'm feeling down.

4. He taught me how to be brave.

When I needed to learn how to swim, he threw me in the pool. When I needed to learn how to ride a bike, he went alongside me and made sure I didn't fall too badly. When I needed to learn how to drive, he was there next to me, making sure I didn't crash.

5. He encourages me to best the best I can be.

My dad sees the best in me, no matter how much I fail. He's always there to support me and turn my failures into successes. He can sit on the phone with me for hours, talking future career stuff and listening to me lay out my future plans and goals. He wants the absolute best for me, and no is never an option, he is always willing to do whatever it takes to get me where I need to be.

6. He gets sentimental way too often, but it's cute.

Whether you're sitting down at the kitchen table, reminiscing about your childhood, or that one song comes on that your dad insists you will dance to together on your wedding day, your dad's emotions often come out in the cutest possible way, forever reminding you how loved you are.

7. He supports you, emotionally and financially.

Need to vent about a guy in your life that isn't treating you well? My dad is there. Need some extra cash to help fund spring break? He's there for that, too.

8. He shows me how I should be treated.

Yes, my dad treats me like a princess, and I don't expect every guy I meet to wait on me hand and foot, but I do expect respect, and that's exactly what my dad showed I deserve. From the way he loves, admires, and respects me, he shows me that there are guys out there who will one day come along and treat me like that. My dad always advises me to not put up with less than I deserve and assures me that the right guy will come along one day.

For these reasons and more, my dad will forever be my No. 1 man. I love you!

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

From One Nerd To Another

My contemplation of the complexities between different forms of art.


Aside from reading Guy Harrison's guide to eliminating scientific ignorance called, "At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life" and, "The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer" by Charles Graeber, an informative and emotional historical account explaining the potential use of our own immune systems to cure cancer, I read articles and worked on my own writing in order to keep learning while enjoying my winter break back in December. I also took a trip to the Guggenheim Museum.

I wish I was artistic. Generally, I walk through museums in awe of what artists can do. The colors and dainty details simultaneously inspire me and remind me of what little talent I posses holding a paintbrush. Walking through the Guggenheim was no exception. Most of the pieces are done by Hilma af Klint, a 20th-century Swedish artist expressing her beliefs and curiosity about the universe through her abstract painting. I was mostly at the exhibit to appease my mom (a K - 8th-grade art teacher), but as we continued to look at each piece and read their descriptions, I slowly began to appreciate them and their underlying meanings.

I like writing that integrates symbols, double meanings, and metaphors into its message because I think that the best works of art are the ones that have to be sought after. If the writer simply tells you exactly what they were thinking and how their words should be interpreted, there's no room for imagination. An unpopular opinion in high school was that reading "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne was fun. Well, I thought it was. At the beginning of the book, there's a scene where Hawthorne describes a wild rosebush that sits just outside of the community prison. As you read, you are free to decide whether it's an image of morality, the last taste of freedom and natural beauty for criminals walking toward their doom, or a symbol of the relationship between the Puritans with their prison-like expectations and Hester, the main character, who blossoms into herself throughout the novel. Whichever one you think it is doesn't matter, the point is that the rosebush can symbolize whatever you want it to. It's the same with paintings - they can be interpreted however you want them to be.

As we walked through the building, its spiral design leading us further and further upwards, we were able to catch glimpses of af Klint's life through the strokes of her brush. My favorite of her collections was one titled, "Evolution." As a science nerd myself, the idea that the story of our existence was being incorporated into art intrigued me. One piece represented the eras of geological time through her use of spirals and snails colored abstractly. She clued you into the story she was telling by using different colors and tones to represent different periods. It felt like reading "The Scarlet Letter" and my biology textbook at the same time. Maybe that sounds like the worst thing ever, but to me it was heaven. Art isn't just art and science isn't just science. Aspects of different studies coexist and join together to form something amazing that will speak to even the most untalented patron walking through the museum halls.

Related Content

Facebook Comments