Like many things in fandom, the term “Mary Sue” originated in the Star Trek fandom, first appearing in A Trekkie’s Tale; a 1973 short story by Paula Smith that parodied other stories that featured idealized female characters without any weaknesses. The main character of that story, Lieutenant Mary Sue, was at age fifteen the youngest lieutenant in Star Fleet. Over the course of the ten paragraph story, Mary Sue receives advances from Kirk, Captains the ship, and dies tragically young while surrounded by Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty, all of whom are weeping at the “loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability, and all around niceness.” Oh and she also forever changed the perception of female characters in fandom. Thanks Mary Sue!
In her book Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth, Camille Bacon-Smith says:
“Mary Sue is the youngest officer ever to serve on the starship Enterprise. She is a teenager…with clear skin and straight teeth. If she is not blond, Mary Sue is half Vulcan… She is usually highly educated, with degrees from universities throughout the known universe… She can mend the Enterprise with a hairpin, save the crew through wit [and] courage… Lieutenant Mary Sue dies in the last paragraph of the story, leaving behind a grieving but safe crew and ship.”
In short, Mary Sue is perfect. She is young, intelligent, and utterly flawless. She dies tragically and she is above all else, loved by all. That is, loved by all of the characters in the story. As Bacon-Smith says in the next paragraph, “Mary Sue is also the most universally denigrated genre in the entire canon of fan fiction.” From the inception of the term, Mary Sue has been a derogatory term, a way to refer to characters that we don’t like, that we see as lesser.
While Smith stated in 1980 that her intention was not to put down stories about inspiring women, the damage had already been done. Per Enterprising Women, during a ClipperCon 1987 discussion by female authors who didn’t write female characters, one author said “every time I’ve tried to put a woman in any story I’ve ever written, everyone immediately says, this is a Mary Sue” and that “the automatic reaction you are going to get is ‘that’s a Mary Sue.’” The fear of being accused of creating a Mary Sue had already become such a massive issue that one decade after A Trekkie’s Tale was published Johanna Cantor, a TOS (short for The Original Series) fan writer and fanzine editor posed a challenge, “why is it that in a group that is probably 90% female, we have so few stories about believable, competent, and identifiable-with women?” By the 1990s, a shockingly familiar phenomenon arose as participants in a January 1990 panel noted that “any female character created in the community [was being] damned with the term Mary Sue.”
For years, Mary Sue has been applied almost exclusively to characters within fanfiction. However, by the time that Star Trek: The Next Generation was airing, the term had begun to be applied to non-fan media with Wesley Crusher acting as an incredibly rare male example of a character referred to as a Mary Sue or, in his case, Gary Stu (this, of course, was helped by the fact that Gene Roddenberry’s middle name just so happens to be Wesley). Another example of a prominent “Canon Sue” can be found in Bella Swan, the protagonist of the Twilight series and its film adaptations, something which is inherently attached to the often misogynistic hatred of Twilight and by extension, the ridicule of its young female fans. But that’s an article for a different day.
In 2015, a new target to attach the term emerged. The main character of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a young woman named Rey from a desert planet called Jakku. Rey has lived her entire life longing for more than the desert she has spent her entire life in. As well, Rey is a scavenger; she hunts through the old rusted out remnants of a long ago battle between Imperial and Rebel forces for anything of worth that hasn’t already been taken by other scavengers. Because of her entire life spent as a scavenger, Rey has gained several skills that are obviously related to her life on Jakku; she has skills with mechanical devices, has learnt to use a weapon to defend herself, speaks more than one language because of the seemingly multicultural nature of Jakku, and has learnt to climb the large structures she scales in order to survive. These skills combined with the fact that she showed some ability both as a pilot and a force-user led people (read: angry men on the internet) to decide that Rey was to be written off as just another Mary Sue.
Perhaps the most prominent example of that criticism came from notable shitstain and alleged abuser Max Landis, who took to twitter in December of 2015 to refer to The Force Awakens as “a fan fic movie with a Mary Sue as the main character.” This led to considerable discussion of Rey’s status as a Mary Sue, with Caroline Framke of Vox pointing out that Rey’s character arc within the movie was similar to Luke Skywalker’s storyline in A New Hope, stating that, “not every seemingly perfect heroine deserves to get written off so quickly – especially — especially because it is so incredibly rare that a seemingly perfect male hero gets the same dismissive treatment.” Framke’s argument echoes something that Bacon-Smith points out in Enterprising Women, “Other fans have noted that James Kirk is himself a Mary Sue, because he represents similarly exaggerated characteristics of strength, intelligence, charm, and adventurousness.”
From the moment Max Landis tweeted that first tweet, a non-insignificant portion of the Star Wars fanbase decided that Rey was unrealistic and the evidence of some sort of feminist agenda that aimed to destroy Star Wars; it isn’t difficult to see how little time it took for people to connect the dots between Kathleen Kennedy, the current president of Lucasfilm and their imagined feminist agenda. After all, Kennedy is a woman, why wouldn’t she be behind the feminist plot to ruin their precious Star Wars. It was perhaps the worst time to be three things at once: online, a Star Wars fan, and a woman or girl. Thank god I was only on Tumblr.
The thing about that dismissive treatment is that it implies that women are inherently less capable than men, and that to pretend that a woman can be more capable than a man is unrealistic and a sign of poor writing. This is what the term Mary Sue means, perhaps it meant something different in the 70s, but this is what it’s been twisted into.
Rey is no more a Mary Sue than Luke Skywalker is, and if she is a little “unrealistic” so is Star Wars. Believe it or not, the Jedi don’t exist and neither does The Force. If you can suspend your disbelief for that, why can’t you accept the fact competent women do in fact exist in real life and aren’t some sort of grand conspiracy from the left or something that exists only in badly-written stories. Rey isn’t a Mary Sue, she’s just a woman who happens to be good at things.