Bill and Kinukitty both posted fine conclusions to the Mary Sue roundtable. Both of them said they were sick of thinking about it, and intimated that maybe we could stop now, please? But unfortunately for them, I am like the evil terminator…except for maybe without the suddenly appearing from the future in the nude thing. And also not governor of California.

Where was I anyway? Oh right. A couple days ago I posted here arguing that Mary Sues are less venal, and more ubiquitous, than they are usually given credit for being. Several people have protested that I’ve expanded and abused the term to such an extent that it’s useless.

Be that as it may, I think the core of what I’m seeing as Mary Sueism, partially based on Miriam’s post is a character who seems brought into being to be an object of love — either self-love, or romantic love, or a mixture of both. The character is treated the way loved ones are treated; with excessive care and admiration. In some instances this can be annoying; in others it can be moving or beautiful.

My argument is bolstered by this essay by Pat Pflieger Pat Pflieger linked by Cerusee in comments, which argues that, rather than being an aberration, Mary Sue is a central trope of romance:

Mary Sue is more a placeholder, a term apparently used by writers of romance fiction, as mentioned in several essays in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Despite appearances, the essay authors agree, readers of romance fiction aren’t identifying with the heroine of the work; their real focus is on the hero, with the heroine holding open a spot in the novel into which the (usually female) reader can slip mentally. Though this argument may seem simplistic in regard to romance novels, it does seem the basis for the Mary Sue: she holds a place open in the story for the author — and presumably for the reader. She can be successful: fan fiction abounds in examples of original characters who are interesting in their own right. All too often, however, the character is a failed placeholder; her very obtrusiveness keeps readers from slipping into her place and into the adventure they have come to enjoy, as she shifts the focus from the media characters readers want to read about.

I think that who the reader is identifying with is maybe more complicated than this suggests; still, the general point is that Mary Sue is about, or tied to, the romance genre; it’s a device which allows reader and author to have, or which indicates that they have, a romantic investment in the story.

With that in mind, I think I can point to a couple of characters who, despite appearances, really aren’t Mary Sues at all.

The first is Sherlock Holmes. Tom mentions Sherlock Holmes as a Mary Sue on the strength of his hyper-competence; Holmes always wins and always has the answer in a way that is certainly suggestive of Mary Sueism.

However, if you look a little closer something is off. As one example, in the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, Watson, quizzing Holmes, discovers that the detective doesn’t know that the earth goes round the sun. Moreover, Holmes is irritated to have been told this information. Holmes, you see, only cares about information that helps him with detection. Everything else, he tries to forget as quickly as possible.

In other words, Holmes is a a freak. He requires constant stimulation, to such an extent that if he doesn’t have a case, he turns to cocaine. He has no interest in women…and while his bachelor status might suggest homoerotic subtext, compared to, say, Poe’s Dupin, this subtext is really quite muted. Watson, the obvious person to slash Holmes with, actually gets married during the course of the series…and in general, the whole point of the Holmes character is that he’s so obsessed and monomaniacal that he doesn’t have time for any romance, gay or straight.

Nor is that monomania necessarily supposed to be appealing: you get the sense from the books that Doyle is interested in Holmes, that he admires Holmes to some extent…but you never exactly get the sense that he loves Holmes. Indeed, often he doesn’t even seem to like him all that much. There’s more than one Holmes story where Doyle really seems to enjoy giving the detective a comeuppance. And, of course, Doyle tired of the character quite quickly, even trying to kill him off so as to move on to other projects. Yet Holmes survived, not because Doyle stacked the cards in his favor, but in spite of the fact that he stacked the cards against him.

Overall, the point of the Holmes stories always seems to be the adventure much more than relationships, and Holme seems more a plot contrivance than an actual character. The fun is in watching the unwinding of the plot, and the clever, gee-whiz gimmickry of the machine that is Holmes. He’s a dues ex machina, not a Mary Sue. (Hercule Poirot works in the same way; Agatha Christie often said that she didn’t like him very much, and reading the books, that seems clear enough — she often went to some effort to keep him off stage as long as possible.)

Another false Mary Sue is Asterix. Asterix, like Holmes, is super-competent competent, super-clever, and always victorious. Furthermore, it’s clear that Goscinny really does have a good deal of affection for the character. And, of course, through the magic potion and numerous other means, Asterix and Obelix and all the village have a hugely unfair advantage against Romans, Vikings, and any other adversaries who are unfortunate enough to fall afoul of them.

What’s missing, though, is sentiment. Asterix’s prowess isn’t supposed to inspire wonder or pull at the heart strings; it’s supposed to make you laugh. The fact that this little Gaulish village is constantly beating the tar out of the Roman empire is the central joke of the series. It’s hyperbolic French boasting; it’s like when _________ raps, “you’re addicted, to what my dick did, the pain and the pleasure that the whing-ding inflicted!” Romance requires uncertainty and longing, and there’s neither of those in Asterix.

There’s a similar dynamic with Jeeves (who Bill mentions as a possible Mary Sue) and with that ultimate avatar of unfair advantage, Bugs Bunny. Both have God on their sides, obviously…but the machinery of divinity is so clear that it can only be played for laughs. Those characters are there to amuse you by their triumph, not to impress you with it. You don’t envy or desire Jeeves or Bugs Bunny because they’re not designed for that kind of emotional investment. They’ve been given power and brains, but no hearts.

Which brings me to the final false Mary Sue — Mary Sue herself. Here’s the story that supposedly coined the term, (hat tip Craig L.


By Paula Smith

“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.” Captain Kirk came up to her.

“Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?”

“Captain! I am not that kind of girl!”

“You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.”

Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. “What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?”

“The Captain told me to.”

“Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.

But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies , Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.

However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday of the Enterprise.

The thing about the Mary Sue in this story is that she’s a parody. She’s played for laughs, like Bugs Bunny or Jeeves. Her prowess is supposed to elicit groans and chuckles, not wonder or awe or love. As such, she isn’t a Mary Sue at all.

To parody Mary Sue, in other words, you have to go outside the Mary Sue genre. You may say, “well, of course” — but the fact is that there are a lot of genres where this isn’t the case. Take science fiction, for example; Douglas Adams’ books are science-fiction parodies, but they’re also science-fiction. The super-hero genre is arguably defined by its parodies (and I make that argument here). Mary Sue can certainly be funny (like, perhaps, Elizabeth Bennett) but she can’t be a self-parody. A caricature of Mary Sue isn’t Mary Sue.

I think the reason for this is, again, that Mary Sue is, perhaps, another way of saying “romance.” A parody of romance, one that really sneers at the genre’s tropes and ideology, is no longer a romance — it’s bitter realist screed, or a farce, or something else (though Northanger Abbey does walk the line, I guess.) Romance is just, at its core, fairly earnest. You could say that’s because it’s humorless and stupid, I guess. But you could also argue that it’s because it deals with stuff that actually matters; not spaceships, or giant goombahs in tights hitting each other, but with relationships, and love. I think a lot of the loathing of Mary Sue that Kinukitty and others have discussed has to do with the general discomfort with romance as a genre — a discomfort that seems to extend even to its practitioners. Writing about something you care about is embarrassing. Censuring the Mary in your neighbor’s eye, then, may be a ritualized way of distracting from the love in your own.