Many fan fiction writers, whether they be new to the forum or old-time veterans, have stumbled across the term “Mary Sue”, usually used in the context of a fan fiction review. Mary Sue is loosely defined, however, which makes this entire conversation all the more nebulous. What’s commonly accepted is that Mary Sue represents the idealized woman, the perfect, blonde cheerleader who always gets what she wants, when she wants. Mary Sue’s counterpart, Gary Stu, speaks for male characters who exhibit these same characteristics, but “Gary Stu” is decidedly less common than “Mary Sue”.
Critics of Mary Sue have jumped upon the fact that Gary Stu is less popular than Mary Sue as a sexist implication that women cannot be perfect, and any such female character is abnormal and should be reviled, hence the term Mary Sue. After all, they argue, Gary Stu’s lack of use stems directly from the fact that most people, including fan fiction writers and critics, assume that it is normal for men to be the power-holders and the dominant characters. Therefore, the term Mary Sue refutes the fact that women can be just as authoritative, just as, dare I say, perfect, as men.
A counter-revolution to the Mary Sue hostility quickly appeared, though, with people on the fandom fringes protesting that Mary Sue was never sexist to begin with. They attributed Gary Stu’s lack of popularity, shall we say, to the fact that most fan fiction writers are female, which is a true and proven statistic. Based off this line of reasoning, Mary Sue would naturally enter the fan fiction lingo because female fan fiction writers are, well, more likely to write about protagonist female writers. Another recognized fact is that novice writers are more likely to commit this cardinal sin of writing themselves into the plot line. Therefore, in conjunction with the previous statement, if there are more female fan fiction writers, especially fledging ones, then the popularity of Mary Sue is not an extension of sexism into our digital world, but rather a result stemming directly from the gender inequality in fan fiction.
Personally, I tend to side with the latter crowd. I don’t believe that the fan fiction writers who introduced this revolutionary term into our jargon intended for it to be taken as a sexist or demeaning term. Rather, and this is based on pure conjecture, I think they took a look at the quality of fan fiction writing, spotted some glaring, prevalent errors, and tried to combat the Mary Sue trend by first naming it. After all, it’s hard to wage a battle, especially a digital one, against a nameless foe. Depending on your personal beliefs and background, you might come to deplore Mary Sue as a sexist slur, while others might accept it as constructive criticism. But, at the end of the day, please, let’s all remember that Mary Sue is only what we make it out to be. We, as the fan fiction community, gave rise to a whole host of terms (think AU, head canon, flaming, etc.), terms whose meanings are in no way fully delineated. Mary Sue is–and probably will be–just another one of those terms.