As someone who appreciates the craft of writing, nothing gets me angrier than the corruption of language. When you corrupt the meaning of words, you also corrupt thinking itself. How? Because it’s through language that we’re able to think and talk about reality clearly. When you start corrupting the meaning of words, everyone’s ability to talk about the things those words were meant to convey also becomes corrupted.
This leads me to the term, “Mary Sue.” Meaning something very specific, MRA troll Max Landis completely distorted this term to mean something completely different than its original intent, in order to serve up the b.s. idea that “any prominent female action hero in a movie or TV series was put there to cynically pander to feminists” or “any female protagonist who has positive traits is unrealistically perfect and should be rejected outright as feminist propaganda.”
I’ve been trying to hold my tongue on this issue for a long time. But after seeing people misuse this term again and again and again, I just couldn’t hold my tongue anymore. I’m sick and tired of hearing people incorrectly use it, and I’m sick and tired of seeing Max Landis’ reinterpretation of what it is spread like the cancer that it is. So let me try my best to explain what a Mary Sue actually is.
What is a Mary Sue?
A “Mary Sue” (alternately, “Marty Stu”, for male characters) is a character that is highly exceptional in terms of looks, talent, adoration and importance. But there is a lot more to this concept than “highly exceptional.” If there wasn’t, we’d be calling any heroic character a Mary Sue or Marty Stu, since heroic characters tend to be exceptionally attractive, talented, beloved and skilled.
So what sets the heroic character apart from a Mary Sue or Marty Stu? Well, not only is the character exceptional, it’s to a ridiculous degree. If a regular protagonist can speak three languages, the Mary Sue or Marty Stu can speak six. If a normal protagonist has a PhD in psychology, the Mary Sue and Marty Stu has it in psychology, anthropology, biology and astrophysics. If a normal protagonist is morally upstanding, the Mary Sue and Marty Stu is more virtuous than Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Dalai Lama combined.
Mary Sues or Marty Stus are also worshiped, loved and idolized by nearly everyone. Practically every character will beat down their door to romance them, be their best friend or look up to them as a role model. The entire world revolves around them like the planets of the solar system revolve around the sun. If they so much as fart at the wrong frequency, everyone drops what they’re doing, rushes to the Mary Sue or Marty Stu’s bedside and obsessively worries about, coddles or comforts this person until he or she gets better.
Lastly–and most importantly–no one can hold a candle to Mary Sues and Marty Stus in terms of abilities or traits. He or she isn’t just the sexiest, most skilled, most accomplished and most attractive person in the whole wide world, but the only skilled, the only accomplished and the only really attractive person in the whole wide world. All the supporting characters will be average at best and mediocre at worst; nobody else will be allowed to be as smart, witty, beautiful or accomplished. On the rare occasion that a side character has some exceptional ability, the Mary Stu or Mary Sue will always be a notch better.
From what I’ve said so far, it might still be very hard to differentiate a heroic character from a Mary Sue/Marty Stu, so here are a few examples– if a cop action hero is so good at fighting that he could easily take down five guys twice his size, he isn’t a Marty Stu. However, if he is also an expert at karate, judo and tae kwan do; an amazing marksman; able to fly everything from drones to space ships; can perform open heart surgery, diffuse bombs like a pro, hack into computer networks, deliver babies by C-section and speak every language under the sun (including Aramaic), then he is a Marty Stu.
Similarly, a female heroine wouldn’t be a Mary Sue if she were so beautiful that she had two men fighting each other for her affection. However, if she had five to six different men chasing after her, constantly running to her rescue and fighting to the death over her, then she’d be a Mary Sue. She’d especially be a Mary Sue if almost every woman in the world looked up to her and kept expressing how much they could be like her.
Thanks to Max Landis’ trolling, people think that a Mary Sue is a character that never faces struggle or adversity. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, Mary Sues and Marty Stus are constantly put in jams or are facing off against rivals–all the better to show off their resourcefulness, bravery, virtue and tenacity. Also, what better way to demonstrate just how beloved these characters are than to constantly have them in turmoil or in danger, so that all the supporting characters can rally to their rescue or cry at their bedsides about how much the world needs and loves them?
One of the best ways to get an idea of what a Mary Sue or Marty Stu is like is to look at comedy, which often pokes fun of this type of character or deliberately exaggerates the hero to Mary Sue or Marty Stu-like proportions for comedic effect–for example, Derek Flint from Our Man Flint (1966). A parody of the 1960s secret agent character who can do and be it all, there isn’t a thing Flint doesn’t have, doesn’t know or isn’t capable of doing. As this IMDB reviewer puts it:
“Here, Coburn plays the plethoric, three-doses-of-everything Derek Flint. Four girlfriends (up to five at one point as we learn in the sequel), able to stop his heart, master of combat techniques, uses two wolfhounds and a GSD to greet guests and escort them in, forensic science genius, private jet owner, philosopher… the list goes on.”
Another comedic character that comes closest to matching what a Marty Stu or Mary Sue is like is Ferris Bueller from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Ferris is not only incredibly charming, he is so clever, he is able to scheme and think his way out of every situation, no matter how hopeless. He is also beloved by everyone but being a Marty Stu, has his share of foils to constantly throw obstacles his way. Not to worry though because the oh, so wily Bueller is able to outwit his enemies (showing off how clever he is in the process) and always beat them in the end.
One last example from comedy is Simon the Likable of Get Smart. He is an evil KAOS agent who is the most adorable and lovable man in the world. No matter what he does, no matter who he meets, everyone instantly falls in love with him. He can accidentally bump into someone or spill coffee on them, but it doesn’t matter. One look at him and everyone is smitten:
There are also some non-comedy examples of Mary Sues and Marty Stus as well. Probably the best example ever of a Mary Sue was Melanie Cross from the now defunct Under the Dome. She wasn’t just a textbook Mary Sue but a Mary Sue personified. Hell, she was Mary Sue to the power of infinity times ten. Not only did she enter the show as a damsel in distress, she became the town princess–on top of the entire town of Chester’s Mill being constantly worried about her practically every second of the day, all but one of the male leads were either set up as a love interest or made to gallantly rush to her side whenever she needed rescue or tending to. She was also so sickeningly sweet and virtuous that she made Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs look like Alexis Carrington.
This is what a Mary Sue and Marty Stu is in a nutshell. It’s a character that is exaggerated in terms of personal achievements, abilities, adoration and otherwise to the point of absurdity. This person is more god than god; more superhuman than superhuman; purer than the purest driven snow; and everyone loves, worships, looks up to and depends on him or her. This person will also always be the center of attention, and no other character will match his or her level of attractiveness, likability and talents.
The Mary Sue/Marty Stu Alter Ego
Mary Sues/Marty Stus can take many interesting (and in some cases, hilarious) forms. One form is the alter ego. Generally speaking, an alter ego is a fictional character who is based on the writer himself but expresses a different aspect of his personality that he doesn’t express in real life. For example, Dilbert is the alter ego of Scott Addams. Charlie Brown was the alter ego of Charles Schultz.
But it’s not enough for a character to be an alter ego to be a Mary Sue/Marty Stu. An alter ego becomes one when it’s obvious that the writer is using this character as a form of self-flattery and wish fulfillment. For example, if the author is writing Star Trek fan fiction, she will not only imagine herself as the most skilled and impressive new addition to The Enterprise crew, but as a love interest of Captain Kirk. And she won’t just be a love interest, but the woman in Kirk’s life, the one that got away and the one he spends the rest of his life pining over.
In terms of female characters, a classic hallmark of an alter ego being a Mary Sue is if the character is in crisis or in damsel in distress mode to an excessive degree. By having the alter ego repeatedly getting kidnapped, injured or endure suffering in which she needs rescue or emotional support, the author can play out the fantasy of being rescued by one, two or more love interests over and over again. She can also envision her Mary Sue character being so beloved and cared about by the world that the entire village, town or city either comes to her rescue or rallies behind her in times of illness or struggle.
Regarding both male and female characters, a sign that an alter ego is a Marty Stu or Mary Sue is if he or she is constantly dogged by jealous or stupid rivals (aka “haters”). This usually results from the writer seeing himself as someone of enormous talent who is being kept from reaching his potential because of a petty and jealous cabal, or because of short-sightedness on the part of colleagues. So ironically, the author–in lovingly painting his alter ego as being oh, so beautiful, sexually appealing and skilled–also sees having these traits as a curse. To be this skilled and talented will naturally attract his share of bitter, jealous haters or people too stupid to appreciate him or his abilities.
Why do alter egos sometimes turn into Mary Sues or Marty Stus? Well, some writers get completely carried away as they play their alter egos out. Other writers are just plain narcissistic and self-indulgent. But for the most part, the Mary Sue or Marty Stu Alter Ego is the result of bad writing, usually on the part of fan fiction writers and amateurs. This is why you’ll rarely see this type of character in professional writing, unless it’s for dramatic or comedic effect–for example, in the case of a vain TV character telling a fairy tale in which he imagines himself as an impossibly handsome, brave and irresistible hunk and casts his female friends in real life as horny princesses who will do anything to sleep with him.
The Mary Sue/Marty Stu Muse
Another form of Mary Sue/ Marty Stu that can take is the muse. A muse is a person (usually a love interest but now always) who inspires someone to base a work around. For example, Uma Thurman is the muse of Quentin Tarantino. Johnny Depp is the muse of Tim Burton. Grace Kelly was the muse of Alfred Hitchcock.
Sometimes having a muse can result in great works of art and characters. However, sometimes a writer can get so carried away in his love or adoration of the person who is inspiring them that it results in a character turning into a Mary Sue or Marty Stu.
You will most often find this version of the Mary Sue or Marty Stu TV shows of ensemble casts, and you’ll know it when you see it. Everything will be hopping and skipping along on a TV series, and all the characters will be equally important. Then, for no reason at all, one character will suddenly become prominent. He or she will be the center of attention, the “It Girl” or “It Guy.” Everyone will want to pursue this person, and he or she will be drowning in love triangles, quadrangles and even quinangles. The Mary Sue/Marty Stu muse will also suddenly become the Messiah of the show, the one person who always has all the answers and who the entire cast would be completely helpless without. Lastly, he or she will far outshine and outpace all of the other characters, even the ones who were established as having strengths of their own.
A textbook example of a Mary Sue muse was Seven of Nine of Star Trek: Voyager. Played by Jeri Ryan, this character became front and center of the show because one of the producers, who she was seeing, just couldn’t get enough of her. So Seven not only served as the resident sexpot, she became involved in a large majority of story lines. In addition, more than half the time, she was often pivotal in saving the crew from disaster because of her Borg implant and “superior” Borg intelligence. Seven also had her share of damsel in distress moments in which she was constantly in danger or needed rescuing by the crew. Lastly, her being a liberated Borg had everyone on Voyager constantly obsessing over and wrapped up in her emotional struggle in becoming more human.
An example of a Marty Stu muse was Dr. Taub of House. (Reportedly, a writer for the show claimed she “enjoyed” writing for actor Peter Jacobson, which if true, is an understatement if I ever heard one.) Just a side character, Dr. Taub was made out to be better at everything than everyone on the show, even better than House himself. Not only was he depicted as a sexual stud who couldn’t keep the ladies away, he nailed every observation he made, was extremely witty, wound up getting chosen for a billboard ad over the handsomest member of the cast, was the most popular guy in school, was so virile that he knocked up two women at the same time and was able to handily beat a black man in a game of basketball. In one particularly notorious episode, he was the only character on the show who figured out that a patient was lying. Even House, the brilliant thinker whose claim to fame was to figure out and see things no one else could, was duped.
A possible Mary Sue character in this vein (I have my theories) was Neela Rasgotra of ER. Like Seven of Nine, this was a character who was made front and center of a show of which she was only one of many characters. Not only did Neela basically take over ER as the It Girl, she became the romantic interest of not one but four men and a lesbian–and all at the same time. She also endures tragedy after tragedy–one of the love interests gets killed, the other is so “devastated” over her rejection that he wanders into the path of an oncoming car and loses both his legs. And of course, being a Mary Sue, she also had to have her damsel in distress moment in which two men come to her rescue and literally fight over her stretcher as she goes into cardiac arrest.
How does a muse turn into a Mary Sue/Marty Stu? This usually happens when someone behind the scenes of an IP (like a writer or producer) develops a crush on a character he is writing for or the actor or actress that is playing that character. Sometimes it can also happen if a writer bases a character on someone he or she is infatuated with or loved in the past. In any event, once smitten, the writer then expresses his or her adoration by putting the muse on a pedestal, and usually at the expense of the other characters.
From all I’ve said, it might be a little difficult to distinguish between a Mary Sue/Marty Stu muse and a breakout character, especially one that breaks out as a sex symbol. Well, the difference is that a breakout character becomes prominent because he or she becomes a fan favorite or the actor playing the character is so funny, sexy or charismatic in a role that he winds up stealing the show and gaining the spotlight. In addition, the breakout character–though exceptional–will be exceptional within reasonable limits; he won’t know how to do 15 different things at once or have 10 people fighting over him. Lastly (and this is most important) other characters will be allowed to have their strengths as well and be given equal importance, not diminished in any way or sacrificed for the sake of the breakout character.
When muses turn into Mary Sues/Marty Stus, it’s a different story. Their prominence will come out of nowhere, and their skill set and importance will be out of proportion relative to their role on the show or movie. Other characters will lose screen time to this character, be sacrificed for his or her sake or only seem to exist to prop him or her up as the Messiah/It Girl/It Guy. Other characters will constantly be upstaged as well, such as in the case on Star Trek Voyager when Seven of Nine’s Borg background kept giving her an extra edge over the equally skilled members of the crew in resolving crises or Dr. Taub of House always wound up besting another character at a particular trait that they both possessed.
Don’t Allow Yourself to Be Corrupted by a Toxic MRA Troll
Going back to what I said when I opened out this entry, I don’t like it when people corrupt language. Corrupt language results in the dumbing down of discourse and even thought itself. But another reason why I don’t like it is that more often than not, it’s not done out of an innocent mistake. It’s done in the service of propaganda.
In the case of the term, “Mary Sue,” Max Landis took a very nuanced term from the writing world about a specific type of character and weaponized it so he could spread his toxic MRA views to others. This is a classic form of propaganda, which is to to take a catchy term and “load” it with toxic subtext so that when more and more people start using it, this subtext spreads like a virus.
And it worked like a charm when Max Landis ranted about Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Because he successfully weaponized the term “Mary Sue”, millions of people today who use it aren’t “innocently” identifying a character as such. They’re expressing a violent knee jerk reaction to seeing a strong female character onscreen. Not only that, they’re subscribing to and spreading an entire toxic ideology that has nothing to do with screenwriting or film analysis or anything else, based on the following:
- Any time a movie has a female protagonist, it’s a cynical attempt at spreading Feminist/SJW/Liberal propaganda.
- Not only are female protagonists cynical, they’re token characters. In other words, there’s never any real reason to ever have a strong female character or female protagonist. It’s just pandering or virtue signaling.
- Any female protagonist with heroic traits is automatically overpowered or flawless to a ridiculous degree; male counterparts with the same heroic traits are well-rounded and balanced.
- Any female protagonist with heroic traits is poorly written, but any male protagonist with the same traits is well-written.
- Any strong female protagonist is an attempt to denigrate males (make them seem stupid, incompetent, etc.)
If you’ve been walking around puffing yourself with pride using this term, “Mary Sue” as if you knew what it meant, I’m telling you now–you don’t. Not only do you not know what it means, you’ve been played by Max Landis. All this time you’ve been using this term thinking you had a handle on it, when what you were doing was unthinkingly absorbing his toxic views on the depiction of female characters in cinema. In other words, you’ve been allowing a professional troll–who you don’t know from Adam and couldn’t care less about you–to infiltrate your mind and color your reality with his toxic ideas and worldview.
I’m not going to pretend that this entry is going to change most people’s minds about what a Mary Sue is. We’re living in an age in which once an idea catches on and spreads–no matter how stupid, ignorant or wrong–it becomes like a runaway freight train. Once it gains traction, it gains traction and some people are beyond hope of being turned around.
But some of you who are on that train right now aren’t completely lost. You still have a choice. You can decide to get off, plant both feet firmly on the ground, learn the true definition of what a Mary Sue is and use the term intelligently and wisely. You can also retrieve your own mind back from Max Landis and free yourself from his toxic views. You can watch movies and TV shows with female protagonists without getting triggered like he would, can learn to evaluate the weakness or strength of a character using your own critical thinking skills and not Max Landis’ lack of them. In other words, you can watch and appraise what you see on your own without needing to rely on an MRA troll’s jaded views as an emotional and mental crutch to do that for you.
Remember this the next time you see an IP with a female protagonist and suddenly fly into a blind rage. Ask yourself why you’re doing that. Are you doing that because you legitimately feel that way? Or have you allowed Max Landis’ brain to infiltrate your mind and teach you how to become triggered? Are you in control of your own mind? Or have you allowed Max Landis to control it?
Think about it.