Twitter Erupts: Is ‘Force Awakens” Rey a Mary Sue?

Twitter, with its 140-character limit and many large personalities, is often a nexus of controversy. This weekend’s dust-up took place, probably unsurprisingly, over Star Wars.


What Is A Mary Sue

It seems to have all started with Max Landis, writer of the movie Chronicle and star of the viral YouTube video “The Death and Return of Superman.”

If you’re not sure what a Mary Sue is, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The most common ammunition seen being hurled over last weekend’s spat were snarky Inigo Montoya “You Keep Using That Word” memes – on both sides. So what is a Mary Sue? The short version is that a Mary Sue is Batman and I know, that sounds like it should be awesome. But it’s not. It actually means they suck, and I know that doesn’t make any sense but just bear with me. Maybe TV Tropes has the best summary of the word:

Mary Sue is a derogatory term primarily used in Fan Fic circles to describe a particular type of character. This much everyone can agree on. What that character type is, exactly, differs wildly from circle to circle, and often from person to person.

…The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. 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.

Here’s my own attempt at a truncated definition: In fan fiction circles, ‘Mary Sue’ generally describes a character who is so good at everything she is never really challenged and never really in trouble. You’ll notice I’m saying ‘she.’ This is because ‘Mary Sue’ is a criticism leveled exclusively at female characters. That’s problematic, and we’ll get to that in a moment.


Say Mary Sue Again! Say Mary Sue Again! I Dare You, I Double-Dare You Motherf*cker!

The female and feminist nerd set, likely rubbed raw by what is now a years-long battle for legitimacy in the eyes of fellow nerds and our merchandising overlords, were quick to attack this idea. The rejections of this notion range from the intellectual…

…to, bizarrely claiming the other side is being too nerdy, as with Noelle Stevenson, creator of the webcomic Nimona and co-writer of the critically-acclaimed comic book Lumberjanes:

All I’ll say about this peculiar avenue of attack is that I hope the people using it have the self-awareness to be embarrassed when things have cooled down. Because if you are nerdy enough to argue with other nerds on the Internet over whether a certain fan fic term describes your favorite Star Wars character, you are certainly too nerdy to pull the “You’re too much of a nerd” card.


Little Mary Sue Who

Now I’m not going to weigh in on whether Rey is a Mary Sue or not. For one thing, it’s not an interesting question to me. Some people like Rey, some people don’t like Rey, sometimes for the same reasons, people can enjoy or not enjoy a thing and it doesn’t bother me. Second, I don’t have the right to lay down an opinion because I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t intend to, for reasons that aren’t relevant to this article (long story short, I’m disengaging with Star Wars for as long as I feel it’s being locked safely away in mediocrity).

What does interest me is the conversation itself! For one thing, why is Rey a Mary Sue, and Batman isn’t? If you really run down the list of what makes a Mary Sue, Bruce “exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas” Wayne should be the chairperson at every Mary Sue meeting. No matter what problem arises, Batman has the tool he needs in his utility belt, or it happens he learned the skill he needs to deal with it.


Maybe we find the critical difference if we examine a male character who has transitioned into Mary Sue territory. Like John McClane of Die Hard. In the first movie, McClane is clearly holding on by his fingernails. He’s hobbling across broken glass on bare feet, he’s running from better-armed men, and he’s probably going to die any minute (remember to put Die Hard on your Netflix queue for Christmas!). But by Live Free or Die Hard, John McClane has become a superman. Now, if McClane had always been that way, I wouldn’t really be able to complain. But seeing how he began the series as a regular joe pushing his limits, I couldn’t help but feel bored and irritated by the fourth movie.

I feel if we’re going to narrow down the ever-elusive definition of ‘Mary Sue,’ then it’s time to add something: a Mary Sue is a character whose abilities break the fiction’s own rules for suspension of disbelief.

As I alluded to before, the whole existence of term ‘Mary Sue’ its own kind of sexism. Certainly male heroes are subject to the same criticism, but it’s framed entirely differently. They’re “too powerful” and “not interesting” because they “always win.” Basically, they are described as if this is poor writing in an individual instance, and not grouped as part of a wider phenomenon.

We can fix this though! Not by removing the term Mary Sue from the lexicon. The phenomenon it describes is real; the sexism, to me, is not treating ‘Gary Stus’ (the male mutation of the term) as their own phenomenon. Probably because ‘Gary Stu’ is a dumb, empty term, lacking any of the jabbing condescension of the cutesy, Seuss-like ‘Mary Sue.’ I’m a much bigger fan of building language as opposed to policing it, so I’m going to get on board with a suggestion of Landis’s: “John Cena.”


“Did you see Live Free or Die Hard? John McClane is such a John Cena now.”

“I love Rambo in First Blood, but by Rambo III he’s totally a John Cena.”

“Kid Trunks and Goten are like 9 and already Super-Saiyan? Why not just name them ‘John’ and ‘Cena.'”


Is Being a Mary Sue Always Bad?

Some people actually don’t consider Rey’s Mary Sue-ness a bad trait.

I get this. Maybe Rey does fit the definition of a Mary Sue and maybe that works for a lot of people, and that’s okay. After six movies with almost no female characters, having one with a hyper-capable woman is kind of a good thing. Maybe female Star Wars fans are due. The only interesting double-X-chromosome character Star Wars has given us since 1977 is Ahsoka (who is fantastic), from the CG Clone Wars cartoon of all places. So if you enjoy some Jane Bond in your Star Wars, who am I to argue?


Mary Sue? How About You!

But where I draw the line is when we’re hurling epithets at classic Star Wars characters. Specifically, one Luke Skywalker.

Whoa guys, let’s chill. Let’s all just cool down now. I understand tempers are running high but really, though? You’re going to hang your argument on A New Hope Luke Skywalker being a badass?

Max Landis, the original instigator, breaks this down pretty quickly with a look at Luke’s performance in ANH:

Luke, basically, depends on other people and wouldn’t have survived those early experiences without them. He almost died three times even before making it off Tatooine, and in none of those cases did he survive of his own agency. I love Luke, he’s my favorite, but literally R2-D2 is a more effective protagonist in the first act of Episode IV.

Let’s just skip the part where he tries to rescue a princess and almost drowns in garbage instead, and let’s look at that movie’s ending. In order to make Luke’s one good skill important (piloting), the plot bends over backwards so he only needs to make one good shot in order to effectively change the destiny of the galaxy. And it still takes a dozen other pilots, and Han and Chewie hovering over him like helicopter parents over a college freshman, to get the job done.


Luke is a leaf caught in a tsunami in that movie. And that’s his strength as a character; he had to grow and learn.


Rey Does Not Need Rescuing (Obviously)

Some people are reacting to this “Rey is a Mary Sue” deal as if it represents some real threat to her as a character. Meanwhile, stores are reporting a shortage of Rey merchandise. I think it’s safe to say she’s on track to be the most popular Star Wars character since Mara Jade. So even if some people don’t like her, don’t worry; you’re gonna find more that will.

Although some arguing, of course, never hurt anybody.


Some Things We Can All Agree On

I mentioned I’m boycotting the movie, but if one of these upcoming one-shots was a Mara Jade movie? Mm-mm. Boycott would be over.


One thing we can all agree on: Mara Jade rocks.


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