My original debut piece entailed dusting off a dying trope, so no one was more surprised than me when the popular YouTube channel “The Take” beat me to the punch. As a lifelong roleplayer who’s experienced plenty of cross-over with fanfic writers and lovers, I figured that the “Mary Sue” was an archaic archetype: a silly milestone.
You see, somewhere down the line, “Mary Sue,” often a cringe-worthy chapter in the creative history of young writers, made an epic trek from the campy corners of fanfic to an interview with a chart-topping celebrity in 2016. This was certainly a shocking and sensational trajectory, but why, in 2021, is a major presence still examining a matter that's over five years old? A quick browse of YouTube’s filtered results as of this writing would suggest that the “Mary Sue” is not a hot new trend in the cinema circuit, nor has it been applied recently to any character other than Rey.
On September 23rd, when I set out to layer a critique of the Mary Sue on top of the surge in female superheroes in the MCU, I pitched an idea to my team through the lens of a roleplayer. I asked: “What informs anti-Mary Sue sentiment, and will female superheroes face a similar critiquing process? If so, will lovable flaws somehow protect them?” Perhaps there was something to that, because, lo and behold, The Take claimed, a week later, that one can create the “non-Mary Sue” by plugging in flaws. But is it really that easy? And should we be bashing Mary Sues in the first place? I invite you to follow me down the rabbit hole of YouTube comment threads, Discord channels, fanfic nostalgia, and a man that really just wants his pig back.
Our story begins with Nicole Currie, who had a hot take on Mary Sue: she’s a rite of passage, not a figure to be ridiculed in popular media.
Her comment cut straight to my heart. Poor Mary Sue wasn’t what unraveled the Star Wars franchise: poor writing was! Since this was simply a gut feeling, I decided to conduct more interviews with writers and readers of fanfic. Did they recall Mary Sue in their narrative histories? Did a younger wave of fanfic lovers even know who Mary Sue was? What did they think of Mary Sue’s place in popular media, and should “she” be used as a diagnostic tool for female superheroes created by professional writers? Alias Anybody on YouTube believed that many are misconstruing Mary Sue, “defining her by her objective power level [and] likability” instead of how she “outshines established main characters.” Alias also pointed out that the main symptom of a Mary Sue is how she “replaces” main characters of a particular fandom’s universe. Alias noted this is “especially linked” to “fan fiction.” Genevieve Gudino, who goes by the pen names Ms. Xyz and Ms. Absidee Xyz, is a fantasy writer who also reads fanfic. While she had to look up what a “Mary Sue” was, she isn’t sure it’s bad. In fact, Genevieve said that “self-insert characters,” as Mary Sues seem to be, must’ve been around “longer than fanfiction has.” She went on to point out: “I feel like self inserts are somewhat therapeutic or cathartic for fanfic authors. I also strongly believe in the idea of writing for yourself.”
She also hazarded this: “...I don't have too much to say about it in terms of fanfic; however, I definitely don't want to see such characters in popular media, especially visual media. Representation always matters, and self-inserts outside of fanfic are somewhat... unhealthy. Charging people to see what you would do if you were all powerful and flawless, then calling it art? Not cool. Not to mention the toxic view it purports.”
Satisfied with her rich insight, I delved deeper into Discord. After some unsuccessful attempts to make it through the complex “#sortinghat” rituals in many Harry Potter channels, where I figured opinions about fanfic would abound, I found myself in a general fandom community.
Tobio E. Mark, whose favorite fandom is The House in Fata Morgana, didn’t care what we labeled critiques of characters: “You don't necessarily need a certain term to critique a type of character, you just need to be able to throw some verbiage and your job will be done. Labels and tropes such as those (in my own limited view) emerge for sociological or analytic reasons.”
Cris, a big fan of One Punch Man, followed up with their assessment of a “Perfect Character,” as they weren’t tied to the phrase “Mary Sue”: “An overpowered character is one with no flaws. One Punch Man? He's selfish, rude, and impolite but he helps his friends when they need it. He cares for others and he also struggles with his need for a rival but never finding one.” Ency, an anime and manga fan, chimed in after just learning about a “Mary Sue”: “I'll be completely honest when it comes to Mary Sues: I had to read several fanfic before finding the term as well as Gary Lou/Stu and then I went down a bit of a rabbit hole in learning what it was referring to. Finding a quiz/list to use for identifying if you were writing one, one of my original characters in an original work fit the criteria.” Dandelion, the channel’s admin and lover of more fandoms than I can list, said she last heard of a “Mary Sue” in the aforementioned 2016 interview with the actress of Rey, Daisy Ridley. She sees a “Mary Sue” as the making of an “inexperienced writer.” In terms of Disney, she believes “professional writers” should have a Mary Sue in their rearview mirror: “I would forgive a child for a lack of research, but not an adult.”
Aidan offered me the epiphany that would lead me to digging into Pig: “The thing with Rey is that she never learned how to do anything. She could magically fly the Millennium Falcon without any training and take on a Sith with a lightsaber. There are some people I’ve seen who are like, ‘Oh, Anakin could do it--y’all are just mad cuz she’s a woman.’ But Anakin had experience with building stuff and pod racing.” Cue my revelation! I’d already settled on the “Mary Sue” as either a relic or a rite of passage. I never saw her as a valid diagnostic tool for professional writers in the first place. If I wanted to create a rubric for a “Terrible Character Situation,” then I wasn’t going to look into female superheroes.
I was going to look at a down-on-his-luck, off-the-grid chef that just wanted his pig back, damn it!
Pretty much from the get-go, Robin Feld doesn’t give me any reasons to suspect he doesn’t make any sense. Since his co-star and auburn pig, Ruby, steals the show, I can’t accuse Robin of hogging the spotlight. All of his decisions track: he’s in the woods, he collects a bunch of truffles, he grows a sincere attachment to his pig, he sells his truffles to afford decent to fine ingredients, and he cooks hearty meals to share with Ruby. I’ll give Robin an "all clear" on Rule Number One for a Terrible Character Situation.
As Nicole Currie noted, “Setting is key- if your character is a superhero, they will need to have a great degree of power, more than a character in your basic rom com.”
Robin Feld is no heart-throb nor does he wear a cape, but Currie’s point still stands. I’ll spare you the gorey stills, but he gets beat up more than an adequate amount throughout the course of the film. While I’m not a proponent of violence, the sheer level of blood--a mainstay on Robin’s person--is an extension of the once-hailed chef’s battered morale. While Robin Feld’s past reputation certainly opens doors for him in the culinary community, he doesn’t get any cheat codes to outsmart grief or bigger sharks in the business of luxury foods.
With that in mind, Robin bypasses Rule Number Two for a Terrible Character Situation.
In the context of “real time” in this story, I can’t think of a single moment when Robin Feld actually wins. Sure, he can get his hands on the best vino and crank out an unforgettable meal, but what does that mean without Ruby? Robin Feld has a clear motivation in Pig, but that doesn’t mean he gets to feast on a big victory at every turn. Seeing that Robin loses all that is dear to him in the most nonchalant way possible, his sobs muted without any cinematic fanfare, I’m going to call it: Rule Number Three for a Terrible Character Situation doesn’t apply here.
The movie Pig offers us a prime example of how not to fall into a Terrible Character Situation: as viewers, we are invited to see a man with genuine tenderness for and grief over his pig, Ruby, while navigating a space he once dominated within with far less grace and success. We don't need to just stick to the MCU and seeing how female superheroes measure up in terms of "Mary-Sueness" to learn about strong character development. As Nicole Currie said before: let kids and newbie writers have their Mary Sues, Gary Stus, and anyone else they can dream up. They can have their cake with extra sprinkles on top and eat it, too. No need to bash their darlings and perfect unicorns! As for professional writers or discerning critics of media: I strongly urge you to consider a more robust assessment of storytelling as a whole. You can keep Mary Sue out of it.
P.S. I want to thank the roleplaying, creative writing, and fanfic communities that provided their valuable insights for this piece! Thank you for your takes on inclusivity.