One of the issues I like to follow in the broader sci-fi/fantasy/geek subculture is the recent attention to that subculture’s problem with sexism. Since I tend to keep things here focused on Tolkien and fan creation of transformative works (versus the many other ways that people express their fannish appreciation), then I haven’t talked too much about it here. But this article on Slate magazine’s XXFactor blog about sexism in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America caught my eye today because, although the Tolkien fanfic and fanart communities are predominantly female, it refers to a sexist occurrence that I have observed among us and that appears to be part of the larger issue with sexism that geek culture is facing.
The whole article is worth a read (it’s pretty short), but this passage particularly jumped out at me, speaking of the experiences of steampunk paranormal romance author Delilah S. Dawson:
Dawson describes volunteering at a convention where a guest of honor called the sorts of stories she writes “vampire porn” and told her “that women like me were ruining his genre”—even though, as it turns out, that author wrote sexually charged works himself. Gratifying his own fantasies, for that author, was a perfectly legitimate use of science fiction, but women to gratify theirs, even in well-developed fantastical worlds, was completely out.
Now aside from the too-tightly-laced conservative contingent of the Tolkien fandom, most people in our community are supportive of women who write erotic fiction. However, there is a phenomenon that I still observe in our fandom that definitely reflects the idea that fictional expressions of fantasies by men and young men is okay, while the same by women and young women is not.
Good ol’ Mary Sue.
I am glad to see more people are unwilling lately to accept without question that writers–primarily young writers–creating “Mary Sues” is anything worth getting upset over. When I started in the Tolkien fandom eight years ago, Mary Sue was subject to more hatred than if Keith Mander and Diana Galbadon were hired by Amazon to eliminate non-profit fandom, rainbows, and Golden Retriever puppies all in one day. However, this new magnanimity toward Mary Sue is far from universal, and in some fandom corners, the vitriol against Mary Sue trucks on, as ever it has, along with the bullying of young authors determined guilty of writing characters who fit this label. Fanlore defines a Mary Sue as follows: “A character may be judged Mary Sue if she is competent in too many areas, is physically attractive, and/or is viewed as admirable by other sympathetic characters. Mary Sues are generally presumed to be idealized self-inserts rather than true characters, although they may actually be intended as proxies for the reader.”
Viewed as admirable? Competent in too many areas?? And the author is imagining herself in these ways, you say??? Now we don’t want that!
When I was new to fandom, Mary Sue was defined to me as an original character who exerted too strong an influence on a story. It may be that she forced another character out-of-character. It may be that the plot changed to accommodate her. It may be that the story focused on her rather than the [male] canon characters who surrounded her.
In other words, a young woman dared to write a story in which she, not a male character, was the focal point. The disdain towards this wouldn’t be so awful were it not commonplace to accept alternate universe (AU) scenarios, and were the idea of the boy-turned-wunderkind not nearly archetypal in modern culture. Harry Potter is, of course, the first example to come to my mind–an otherwise ordinary boy discovers that he is not only special but then gets to save the world–along with the male superheroes who are socially outcast twerps until they don a colorful costume and become capable of superhuman physical and romantic feats. Then there’s the endless march, in the last decade, of entertainment in which a thoroughly ordinary, even underwhelming, man gets beautiful women and extraordinary opportunities knocking down his door. This is a male fantasy: that a beer gut and the inability to grunt words more than two syllables long is not a barrier to marrying a supermodel who will bring you and your buddies beers during the game. Yet the vitriol is lobbed at Mary Sue.
I’ve been told that Mary Sue is a problem because her writers tend to overemphasize the character’s good looks and put a romantic relationship with a male at the center of the story. Firstly, why should we expect teenage girls to tell the stories of ordinary-looking women when the mainstream media has been unable to do so? It’s nearly impossible to find a woman in a mainstream movie or TV program who isn’t gorgeous; when she doesn’t fit our culture’s standards of beauty, she becomes a Melissa McCarthy or Rachel Dratch: relegated to roles where her appearance is part of the joke. (For the record, I adore both of these very funny women.) That young women writers imitate this standard is hardly something they can be blamed for. Secondly, it is certainly an adolescent tendency to focus narratives on success with the opposite sex, a realm perhaps scarier, in the minds of many young people, than a jaunt to Mordor. Again, this is fantasy, and no writer should have to be told that imagination and fantasy can be used as a form of rehearsal for experiences and emotions that are novel, intriguing, and even frightening. While such behavior in boys is sometimes viewed as humorous or endearingly desperate, I have never heard the fantasies of young men subjected to the kinds of censure to which Mary Sue is routinely subjected.
And the fact still remains that Mary Sue is not defined by her beauty or by the romantic component to her story: She is defined by her effect on the story. She is essentially an assertion by a young woman that, “I am important and I value myself enough to believe that I can accept and sustain such a central role in an important narrative.” She is a female fantasy of a world where a 16-year-old girl can walk with the Fellowship, heal Aragorn and rescue Boromir, and still marry Legolas at the end. She is, in many ways, the young woman’s fantasy of “having it all.” Ironically, when we choose to direct our time, energy, and passion toward eliminating her under the pretense of serving as some arbiter of “quality fiction” or, more generously, of “helping young writers improve their craft,” then we prove just how firmly planted in Fantasyland Mary Sue really is.
Adminish Note: I continue to wage war on spam but the opposite of my previous problem. Now, real comments are being filed as spam. Even mine go into the spam can, so no offense! I am hoping it is because I hadn’t updated my software in *cough* years. I’ve updated and hopefully that will fix the problem, else I’m going to have to contact support and possibly disable Akismet again if they can’t give me the answer I need to hear. Anyway, I will be checking the spam folder at least daily. If you post something and it doesn’t show up, do feel free to email me; otherwise, I’ll catch it and approve it during my usual rounds.