When Arya Stark killed the Night King on Game of Thrones, it didn’t sit well with some male fans. On Reddit, they expressed disappointed that Stark, an expert assassin with long-established stealth and combat skills killed an ice zombie king who underestimated her. While they accepted a giant zombie ice monster without question, they thought that his death at the hands of a girl strained credulity.
A vocal minority of fans cried “Mary Sue,” meaning that Arya’s too accomplished of a character for them to accept. It’s another sign that it’s time to retire the term Mary Sue. It was a useful tool in its original fan-fiction context, where it called out authors for inserting themselves into their stories, but its modern usage is nothing but confused, anti-woman noise.
Arya’s the latest alleged Mary Sue but she’s not alone. Upon the release of The Force Awakens, filmmaker Max Landis argued that the Star Wars sequel’s main character Rey a Mary Sue. Several critics found Landis’ argument sexist and wrongheaded and today it’s difficult to separate that criticism of a fictional female character from Landis’ alleged serial abuse of women.
The term Mary Sue rose from fan fiction, where writers set original stories in established fictional worlds, more often than not involving popular science fiction and fantasy brands like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight or Star Trek.
Fan fiction writers perform a lot of the hard work of storytelling. They strive to create coherent stories their fellow fans will enjoy. But it’s recreational and it’s an homage to someone else’s work. People write them for fun. As a result, the writing can be undisciplined and self-indulgence.
For people who love a fictional world enough to spend hours writing about it without compensation, there’s a strong motivation to insert yourself into the story. But self-insertion makes for bad stories, an observation that led to the genesis of the term Mary Sue. Some early fan-fiction writers wrote themselves impossibly clever and powerful characters beloved (and sometimes lusted after) by the main characters of the fictional universe. Fan-fiction creators spotted the problem early on. in 1973, a short five years after Star Trek fan fiction started appearing in fan zines, the short parody “A Trekkie’s Tale” coined the term Mary Sue.
It was useful as means of shaming fan-fiction writers from making bad choices. But, with its female name, it was laden with a landmine. The term escaped the trajectory of fan fiction and caught on with a larger audience. When separated from the niche of fan fiction, Mary Sue shifted meaning. It stopped being useful and specific and became nasty and misogynist.
Today, people accuse characters of being Mary Sues when they’re women who’re too powerful, too lucky or too well-liked. In Mary Sue’s original fan fiction context, calling Arya Stark or Rey makes no sense. J.J. Abrams and the Game of Thronesshow-runners aren’t living out shallow personal fantasies through them.
It’s fine to say Rey lacks depth or think Arya’s triumph over the Night King was fan service. But it’s telling that social media critics seem to only have this issue with female characters. They don’t Mary Sue Tony Stark is a charismatic, universally loved, all-powerful super genius or Jon Snow, an impossibly honorable and brave beloved leader who’s coincidentally the true king of land.
It seems like men angry about women taking starring roles in these power fantasies that they’ve invested so much of their self worth and confused understanding of masculinity into. Calling out Mary Sues in fan-fiction was a clever way to slam a writer’s lazy storytelling.
The original Mary Sues were bad because they were designed to please the stories writers instead of readers. Today, social media critics argue that Mary Sues are bad because they’re trying to please women. They want to see their cherished make believe worlds flatter them and conform their expectations. The irony is that it’s not too far off from what led to the invention of the term Mary Sue in the first place.