This is the latest in our ongoing roundtable on Mary Sues. So far Tom has written a kick-ass essay about Michael Corleone as a Mary Sue. And Miriam has an essay which I talk about below.
In her effort to define Mary Sues Miriam argues that the point is not author insertion:
Mary Sues happen when the author becomes concerned with making her protagonist likable to readers. Symptoms include overcompetence, unearthly beauty, and other characters taking time out to admire the protagonist’s awesomeness. I don’t think a Mary Sue has to be the author’s self-insertion in the sense that Mary has anything in common with the author, and if the test is “created with likability too much in mind, to the point where the opposite results”, that covers Snapper Sues just as easily.
In other words, it’s not about putting yourself in the story so much as it is about overweening affection: “Don’t love your characters too much!” as Miriam quotes Leigh Dragoon as saying.
I think Mary Sue is often about love, in one way or another. A good example is Dorothy Sayres’ Lord Peter Wimsey. I mentioned him before as a possible Mary Sue; in various of his tedious adventures, he manifests an unlikely ability at cricket, at bell-ringing, and lord knows at what else. one Phil Jimenez Wonder Woman story, but it was about as Mary Sueish as it could be. The whole comic was, literally, a puff-piece feature story about how great Wonder Woman is. It’s a pretty lousy idea for a narrative, in my opinion …but part of what even makes it tolerable, I think, is the glee with which Jimenez, who is gay, plays with the idea of thinking of Wonder Woman as a gay man, or of himself as Wonder Woman, or of both at once. He dresses her up in fabulous clothes, for example; he makes her bitchy and funny; he has her actually banter (i.e. flirt) with other gay men. There’s a real love for the character there, and the gender slippage, the tension between loving her as an object of desire and loving her as an aspiration or ideal self, is part of what gives that love a texture and a weight. In short, there’s something singular, or queer about Jimenez’s Wonder Woman which makes her (within limits) enjoyable to read. (As opposed to the WW in League of One, who has no discernible personality except for her allegiance to her equally boring league comrades and her quest for self-purity via the-lasso-that-has-nothing-to-do-with-bondage.)
One more for instance might be Kyoko Okazaki’s manga, Helter Skelter. In our roundtable on the manga, I expressed a good deal of animosity towards the detective character, Asada, who gets to figure everything out and has some special and unearned connection with the main character Ririko. Thinking about it some more, it seems like Asada might be considered a Mary Sue; Okazaki seems to have a weird, overweening interest in his well-being. But what exactly is her investment in him? Is he supposed to be an object of desire? Of envy? And what would she envy him for, anyway?
One possible answer is…she might find him appealing because of his connection to Ririko — a connection which is, in various senses, perverse. Asada admires Ririko for the fact that her face doesn’t fit her bone structure; she’s fake. His recognition of her fakeness gives the two their unexplained and creepy connection; they seem to have been together in a past life, or to have shared feathers, or something. In my earlier posts I tended to interpret this as a stalking scenario…but thinking about it again, it seems like it could also be a metaphor, or a glance, at a gay relationship. Ririko — the out of control diva with a terrible secret involving the falsity of her appearance — could certainly scan as gay or transvestite — and the secret’s fascination for Asada, provoking a submerged connection, is suggestive as well. Okazaki does have explicit gay content in the manga; there’s a lesbian relationship which is treated with a combination of voyeuristic excitement and moralistic contempt. Given the gay themes, and the anxiety around them, it doesn’t seem impossible that part of Asada’s Marty Sue status, part of why he gets favorable treatment, is that he’s a fantasy means for lesbian and/or straight women to imagine themselves as gay men desiring a beautiful androgyne of indeterminate gender.
If that sounds far-fetched…well, it’s a fair thumbnail description of the gender dynamics of yaoi — or of slash-fiction, one of the Mary Sues’ natural habitat. For a particularly vivid example, you could try this fan fic by Vom Marlowe. It’s called “Girl Yoji” and it’s about a male assassin who turns into a girl and then has lots of sex with his male partner, who he has long loved. Did I mention that he’s pregnant with the other assassin’s child? It’s written by a woman, primarily for other women who enjoy a fun fetish story about imagining they’re men turning into women. The line between wanting to be someone and wanting to be with them is crossed, recrossed, blurred, and gleefully bounced upon; indeed, violating that line seems to be much of the point of the story.
And I think it may be part of the point of the Mary Sue as well. “Don’t love your characters too much!” sounds like good advice…but the persistence of Sues in canon and out, and their popularity with both authors and readers suggests that loving too much is one of the things we have fiction for. And, often, the “too much” is not just a quantitative excess, but a qualitative one. It’s a way to try on different patterns of desire — envy, lust, gay, straight — that you usually have to keep separate in real life. The appeal of Mary Sue, in other words, is that she is a love you can wear like drag.
Update: Kinukitty says leave me alone about the Mary Sues already; Bill concurs; but I won’t shut up about Mary Sue and loooooooove.