On February 10th, 2017 I had the fantastic opportunity to speak to a group of students and faculty from Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, about Fan Fiction, Mary Sues, and #DiversityMatters.
Here is the audio (slightly cleaned up) and transcript of that talk.
So, our keynote speaker is J.M. Frey. And she is from the Toronto area. I can say the “Toronto-area,” that’s a quick way of saying–
It’s a good way of saying it.
–it and everything.
Uh, she is a science fiction and fantasy author. She’s a pop culture scholar. She’s going to be talking to us about some of that stuff tonight. She often appears as a guest on podcasts, television, and radio programs. Okay, she’s got a book coming out later this year, the third in the series – the fantasy series – she’s has been writing for the past few years and, uh, she’s got a whole bunch of other creative projects on the go.
Tonight she’s going to be talking to us about how “Your Voice is Valid” and the idea of the “Mary Sue”.
So if you’ve seen that term in pop culture, and was confused what it was or, perhaps, gotten misinformation, you’ll find out exactly what that is.
Thank you very much for inviting me, everybody.
Thank you to the student organizers. Thank you to the faculty organizers. I really appreciate it.
I—ah-ah! First off, I’m gonna say: I’m going to have my notes with me, and I apologize, ‘cause talking for forty-five minutes is—a half hour! I promise, it’s a half hour!—without notes is a little much.
Um, so I just wanted to say thank you to Grant MacEwan for inviting me. Um, this is the first time in Edmonton, and I’m looking forward to exploring it. I think I was maybe promised roller coasters? I don’t know…
I do want to, in particular, thank you Mike for inviting me and for being my designated buddy while I’m here in Edmonton. It is an honor to sleep in the same guest bed that Gail Carriger once slept in.
And secondly, I do want to say thank you to everyone else for being here. I do in my brain still think of myself in my brain think of myself as your age, even though I have been out of academia for… oh… a little bit over a decade. But I loved being you guys, I loved this moment of my life. Ah, this weekend is going to be so awesome, you have no idea.
But of course before the awesome happens, you’ve have to listen to a keynote and you’re probably wondering who this hobbit in the front of the room is, getting between you and these amazing burgers that I’ve heard about?
We don’t have “Red Robin”s in Ontario? So apparently I’m in for a treat. I’m very excited about it.
So, my name is J.M. Frey. I’m a science-fiction and fantasy author, a screenwriter, and a fanthropologist. And I have a declaration to make. A promise. A vow, if you will.
And it is this:
If I hear one more basement-dwelling troll call the lead female protagonist of a genre film a “Mary Sue” one more time, I’m going to scream.
I’m sure you’ve all seen this all before. A major science fiction, fantasy, video game, novel, or comic franchise or publisher announces a new title. Said new title features a lead protagonist who is female, or a person of color, or is not able-bodied, or is non-neurotypical, or is LGBTQA+.
It might be the new Iron Man or Spider-man, who are both young black teenagers now. The new Ms. Marvel, a Muslim girl. It could be Jyn Erso, the female lead of the latest Star Wars film, the deaf Daphne Vasquez from Switched at Birth, or Alex in Supergirl, who was just recently revealed to be a lesbian still coming to terms with her sexuality in her mid-thirties, or Dorian in Dragon Age, who is both a person of color and flamboyantly queer.
And generally, the audience cheers. Yay for diversity! Yay for representation! Yay for working to make the worlds we consume look more like the world we live in! Yaaaaay!
But there’s a certain segment of the fan population that does not celebrate.
I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.
This certain brand of fan-person gets all up in arms on social media. They whine. They complain. They say that it’s not appropriate to change the gender, race, orientation, or physical abilities of a fictional creation, or just protest their inclusion to begin with. They decry the erosion of creativity in service of neo-liberalism, overreaching political-correctness, and femi-nazis. (Sorry, sorry – the femi-“alt-right”).
It’s not realistic – women can’t survive in space, they say, it’s just a fact. That is a direct quote, by the way. Superheroes can’t be black, they say. Video game characters shouldn’t have a sexual orientation, (unless that sexual orientation is straight and the game serves to support a male gaze ogling at half-dressed pixilated prostitutes).
And strong female characters have to wear boob armor. It’s just natural, they say.
They predict the end of civilization because things are no longer being done the way they’ve always been done. There’s nothing wrong with the system, they say. So don’t you dare change it.
And to enforce this opinion, to ensure that it’s really, really clear just how much contempt this certain segment of the fan population holds for any lead protagonist that isn’t a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, cismale, they do everything they can to tear down them down.
They do this by calling that a “Mary Sue.”
When fan fiction author Paula Smith first used the term “Mary Sue” in her 1973 story A Trekkie’s Tale, she was making a commentary on the frequent appearance of original characters in Star Trek fan fiction. Now, most of these characters existed as a masturbatory avatar – wanna bone Spock? (And, um, you know, let’s face it who didn’t?) They you write a story where a character representing you gets to bone Spock.
And if they weren’t a sexual fantasy, then they were an adventure fantasy – wanna be an officer on the Enterprise? Well, it’s the flagship of the Starfleet, so you better be good enough to get there. Chekov was the youngest navigator in Starfleet history, Uhura is the most tonally sensitive officer in linguistics, and Jim Kirk’s genius burned like a magnesium flare – you would have to keep up to earn your place on that bridge.
So this led to a slew of hyper sexualized, physically idealized, and unrealistically competent author-based characters populating the fan fiction of the time.
But inserting a trumped-up version of yourself into a narrative wasn’t invented in the 1970s. I mean, Aeneas was totally Virgil’s Mary Sue in his Iliad knock off, Dante was such a fanboy of the The Bible that he wrote himself into an adventure exploring it. Uh, Robin Hood’s merry men and King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table kept growing in number, and characteristics with each retelling; and even painters have inserted themselves into commissioned pictures for centuries.
This isn’t new. This is not a recent human impulse.
But what Paula Smith and the Mary Sue-writing fan ficcers didn’t know at the time, was that they were crystallizing what it means to be an engaged consumer of media texts, instead of just a passive one. What it means to be so affected by a story, to love it so much that this same love bubbles up out of you and you have to do something about it.
Either in play, or in art. So for example, in pretending to be a ninja turtle on the play ground, or in trying to recreate the perfect version of a star fleet uniform to wear, or in creating art and making comics depicting your favorite moments or further adventures of the characters you love, or writing stories that encompass missing moments from the narratives.
“Mary Sues” are, at their center, a celebration of putting oneself and one’s own heart, and one’s own enjoyment of a media text, first.
So, heh, before I talk about why this certain segment of the population deploys the term “Mary Sue” the way it does, let’s take a closer look at this impulse for participatory play.
Here’s the sixty four thousand dollar question: where do “Mary Sues” come from?
I’d like you all to close your eyes, please.
Think back. Picture yourself outside, playing with your siblings, or the neighbour’s kids or you cousins…. and You’re probably around seven, or eight, or nine years old… and…
Think about the kind of games you’re playing. Ball games, chase games, and probably something with a narrative? Are you Power Rangers? Are you flying to Neverland with Peter Pan? Are you fighting Dementors and Death Eaters at Hogwarts? Are you the newest members of One Direction, are you Jem and the Holograms or the Misfits? Are you running around collecting Pokémon back before running around and collecting Pokémon was a thing?
Open your eyes.
That, guys, gals and non-binary pals, is where Mary Sues come from. That’s it. It’s as easy as that.
As a child you didn’t know that modern literary tradition pooh-poohs self-analogous characters, or that realism was required for depth of character. All you knew was that you wanted to be a part of that story, right. If you wanted to be a train with Thomas and Friends, then you were a train. If you wanted to be a magic pony from Equestria, you were a pony. Or, you know, if you had brothers like me, then you were a pony-train.
Self-insert in childhood games teach kids the concept of elastic play, and this essential ability to imagine oneself in skins that are not one’s own, and to stretch and reshape narratives, is what breeds creativity and storytelling.
Now, think of your early stories.
You can keep your eyes open for this one.
As a child we all told and wrote stories about doing what, to us, were mundane everyday things like getting ice cream with the fictional characters we know and love.
So for example, my friend’s three year old tells his father bed time stories about going on walks through Home Hardware with his friends, the anthropomorphized versions of the local taco food truck and the commuter train his dad takes to work every morning. He doesn’t recognize the difference between real and fictional people (or for him, in this case, the stand ins that are the figures that loom large in his life right now as a three year old obsessed with massive machines). When you ask him to tell you a story, he talks about these fictions as if they’re real.
As we grow up, we do learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality. But, I posit that we never truly loose that “me too!” mentality. We see something amazing happening on the screen, or on the page, or on a playing field, and we want to be there, a part of it.
We sort ourselves into Hogwarts Houses. We choose hockey teams to love, and we wear their jerseys. We buy ball caps from our favorite breweries, line up for hours to be the first to watch a new release or to buy a certain smartphone. We collect stamps and baseball cards and first editions of Jane Austen and Dan Brown. We want to be a part of it. And our capitalist, consumer society tells us to prove our love with our dollars, and do it.
And for fan creators, we want to be a part of it so badly that we’re willing to make it. Not for profit, but for sheer love.
And for the early writers, the newbies, the blossoming beginners, Mary Sues are where they generally start. Because those are the sorts of stories they’ve been telling yourselves for years already, right?
Yet as we get older, we begin to notice a dearth of representation – you’re not pony trains in our minds any more, and we have a better idea of what we look like. And we don’t see it. The glorious fantasy diversity of our childhoods is stripped away, narratives are codified by the mainstream media texts we consume, and people stop looking like us.
I’m reminded of a story I read on Tumblr, of a young black author living in Africa – who, I’m going to admit, whose name, I’m afraid, I wasn’t able to find when I went back to look for it, so my apologies to her – and the story is about the first time she tried to write a fairytale in elementary school. She made her protagonist a little white girl, and when she was asked why she hadn’t chosen to make the protagonist back, this author realized that it hadn’t even occurred to her that she was allowed make her lead black. Even though she was surrounded by black faces, the adventures, and romance, and magic in everything she consumed only happened to the white.
This is not natural. This is nurture, not nature. This is learned behavior. And this is hegemony.
No child grows up believing they don’t have place in the story. This is something were are taught. And this is something that we are taught by the media texts weconsume.
Now, okay. I do want to pause and make a point here.
There isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with writing a narrative from the heterosexual, able bodied, neurotypical, white cismale POV in and of itself. I think we all have stories that we know and love and like to tell that are like that.
And people from community deserve to tell their stories as much as folks from other communities.
The problem comes when it’s the only narrative. The default narrative. The factory setting. When people who don’t see themselves reflected in the narrative nonetheless feel obligated to write such stories, instead of their own. When they are told and taught that it is the only story worth telling.
There’s this really great essay by Ika Willis, and it’s called “Keeping Promises to Queer Children: Making Room for Mary Sue At Hogwarts“. And I think it’s the one – one of the most important pieces of writing not only on Mary Sues, but on the dire need for representation in general.
In the essay, Willis talks about Mary Sues – beyond being masturbatory adventure avatars for young people just coming into their own sexuality, or, um, avatars to go on adventures with – but as voice avatars. Mary Sues, when wielded with self-awareness, deliberateness, and precision, can force a wedge into the narrative, crack it open, and provide a space for marginalized identities and voices in a narrative that otherwise silences and ignores them.
This is done one of two ways. First: by jamming in a diverse Mary Sue. And making the characters and the world acknowledge and work with that diversity.
Or, second: by co-opting a pre-existing character and overlaying a new identity on them while retaining their essential characterization. Like making Bilbo Baggins non-binary, but still thinking that adventures are messy, dirty things. Or making Sherlock Holmes deaf, but still perfectly capable of solving all the crimes. Um… making James Potter Indian, so that the Dursleys prejudiced against Harry not only for his magic, but also for his skin color. Making Ariel the mermaid deal with severe body dysphoria, or giving Jane Foster PTSD after the events of Thor.
I like to call this voice avatar Mary Sue a Meta-Sue, because when authors have evolved enough in their storytelling abilities to consciously deploy Mary Sues as a deliberate trope, they’re doing so on a self-aware, meta-textual level.
So that is where Mary Sues comes from. But what is a Mary Sue? How can you point at a character and say, “Yes, that is – definitively – a Mary Sue”.
Well, Mary Sues can generally be characterized as:
-Too perfect, or unrealistically skilled. They shouldn’t be able to do all the things they do, or know all the things they know, as easily as they do or know them. For reasons of the plot expedience, they learn too fast, and are able to perform feats that other characters in their world who have studied or trained longer and harder find difficult. So like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.
-They are the black hole of every plot – every major quest or goal of the pre-existing characters warps to include or be about them; every character wants to befriend them, or romance them, or sleep with them, and every villain wants to possess them, or kill them, or sleep with them. Makes sense, as why write a character into the world if you’re not going to have something very important happen to them. So like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.
-A Mary Sue, because it’s usually written by a neophyte author who’s been taught that characters need flaws, has some sort of melodramatic, angsty tragic back-story that, while on the surface seems to motivate them into action, because of lack of experience in creating a follow-through of emotional motivation, doesn’t actually affect their mental health or ability to trust or be happy or in love. So, Like the emotional arc of, I dunno… Neo in The Matrix.
– A Mary Sue saves the day. This goes back to that impulse to be the center of the story. Like, Neo in The Matrix.
-And lastly, Mary Sues come from outside the group. They’re from the ‘real world’, like you and I, or have somehow discovered the hero’s secret identity and must be folded into the team, or are a new recruit, or are a sort of previously undiscovered stand-alone Chosen One. Like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.
Now, as I’ve said, there’s actually nothing inherently wrong with writing a Mary Sue. Neo is a Mary Sue, but The Matrix is still really good. So there’s nothing really wrong with it.
The first impulse of storytelling is to talk about oneself. All authors do it. We write about ourselves, only the more we write, the more skilled we become at disguising the sliver of us-ness in a character, folding it into something different and unique.
We, as storytellers, as humans, empathize with protagonists and fictional characters constantly – we love putting our feet into other people’s shoes. It’s how we understand and engage with the world.
And we as writers tap into our own emotions in order to describe them on the page. We take slices of our lives – our experiences, our memories, our friend’s verbal tics or hand gestures, aunt Brenda’s way of making tea, Uncle Rudy’s way having a pipe after dinner, that time Grannie got lost at the zoo (mouths: wasn’t my fault!) – and we weave them together into a golem that we call a character, which comes to life with a bit of literary magic.
I mean, allow me to be sparklingly reductionist for a second, but in the most basic sense, every character is a Mary Sue.
It’s just a matter of whether the writer has evolved to the point in their craft that they’ve learned to animate that golem with the sliver of self-ness hidden deep enough that it is unrecognizable as self-ness, but still recognizable as human-ness.
That certain segment of the fan population has been telling us for years that if we don’t like what we see on TV or in video games, or in books, or comics, or on the stage, that we should just go make our own stuff. And now we are. And they are losing their goddamn minds! “Make your own stuff,” they say, and then follow it up with “What’s with all this political correctness gone wild? Uhg. This stuff is all just Mary Sue garbage.”
Well, yes. Of course it is. That’s the point. But why are they saying it like that?
Because they mean it in a derogatory sense.
They don’t mean it in the way that Paula Smith meant it – a little bit belittling but mostly fun; a bemused celebration of why we love putting ourselves into the stories and worlds we enjoy. They don’t mean it the way that Willis means it – a deliberate and knowing way to shove the previously marginalized into the center. They don’t even mean it the way that I mean it. And for those of you unfortunate enough to be in Dr. Perschon’s class, and have read The Untold Tale you’ll know: as a tool for carefully deconstructing and discussing character and narrative with a character and from within a narrative.
When a certain segment of the fan population talks about “Mary Sue”, they mean to weaponize it. To make it a stand-in for the worse thing that a character can be: bland, predictable, and too-perfect. Which, granted, many Mary Sues are. But not all of them. And a character doesn’t have to be a Mary Sue to be done badly, either.
When this certain segment of the fan population says “Mary Sue”, they’re trying to shame the creators for deviating from the norm - the white, the heterosexual, the able bodied, the neurotypical, the straight cismale.
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I don’t believe people like this are interesting enough to be the lead character in a story.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I don’t think there’s any need to listen to that voice. They’re not interesting enough.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “This character is not what I am used to a.k.a. not like me, and I’m gonna whine about it.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “Even though kids from all over the world, from many different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds have had to grow up learning to identify with characters who don’t look or think like them, identifying with characters who don’t look or think like me is hard and I don’t wanna.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: ”Even though I’ve grown up in a position of privilege and power, and even though publishing and producing diverse stories with diverse casts doesn’t actually cut into the proportionate representation that I receive, and never will, I am nonetheless scared that I’ll never see people like me in media texts ever again.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “Considering my fellow human beings as fellow human beings worthy of having stories about them and their own experiences, in their own voices, is hard and I don’t wanna do it.”
When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I only want stories about me.”
They call leads “Mary Sues” so people will stop writing them and instead write… well, their version of a “Mary Sue.” The character that is representative of their lived experiences, their power and masturbatory fantasies, their physical appearance, their sexual awakenings, their cultural identity, their voice, their kind of narratives.
Missing, of course, that the point of revisionist and inclusive narratives aren’t to shove out previous incarnations, but to coexist alongside them. It’s not taking away one entrée and offering only another – it’s building a buffet.
Okay, so who actually cares if these trolls call these diverse characters Mary Sues?
Well, unfortunately, because this certain segment of the population have traditionally been the group most listened-to by the mainstream media creators and the big money, their opinions have power. (Never mind that they’re not actually the biggest group of consumers anymore, nor no longer the most vocal.)
So, this is where you come in.
You have the power to take the Mary Sue from the edge of the narrative and into the centre. And you do can do this by normalizing it. Think back to that author who didn’t think little black girls were allowed to be the heroes of fairy tales. Now imagine how much different her inner world, her imagination might have been at the stage when she was first learning to understand her own self-worth, if she had seen faces like hers on the television, in comics, in games, and on the written page every day of her life.
And not just one or two heroes, but a broad spectrum of characters that run the gamut from hero to villain, from fragile to powerful, from straight to gay, and every other kind of intersectional identity.
You have the power to give children the ability to see themselves.
Multi-faceted representation normalizes the marginalized.
And if you have the privilege to be part of the passing member of the mainstream, then weaponize your privilege. Refuse to work with publishers, or websites, or conventions that don’t also support diverse creators. Put diverse characters in your work, and do so thoughtfully and with the input of the people from the community you are portraying. And if you’re given the opportunity to submit or speak at an event, offer to share the microphone.
–Sorry, I always get emotional at this part. Ah-heh!
The first thing I did when actor Burn Gorman got a Twitter account was to Tweet him my thanks for saving the world in Pacific Rim while on a cane. As someone who isn’t as mobile as the heroes I see in action films - who knows for a fact that when the zombie apocalypse comes I will not be a-able to outrun the monsters – it meant so much to me that his character was not only an integral and vital member of the team who cancelled the apocalypse, but also that not once did someone call him a cripple, or tell him he couldn’t participate because of his disability, or leave him behind.
Not because it’s a trendy hashtag, or a way to sell media texts to a locked-down niche market, but because every single human being deserves to be told that they have a voice worth listening to; a life worth celebrating and showcasing in a narrative; a reality worth acknowledging and accepting and protecting; emotions that are worth exploring and validating; intelligence that is worth investing in and listening to; and a capacity to love that is worth adoring.
White, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied cismales are not the only people on the planet who are human.
And you have a right to tell your story your way.
Okay, so I’ve basically spent thirty minutes basically cribbing my own MA thesis, and for what? Why? Well, you’re here for a conference focused on Narrative and Identity, right?
Calling something a “Mary Sue” in order to dismiss it out of hand, as an excuse to hate something before even seeing it, is how the trolls bury your Narrative and your Identity. We are storytellers, all of us. Every person in this room.
Whether your wheel house is in fiction, or academia, or narrative non-fiction, we impart knowledge and offer experience through the written word, through the telling of tales, through leading a reader from one thought to another.
The root of the word “Essay” is the French “Essayer”. A verb meaning, “to try”. To try to convince the reader of a truth in an academic paper is no different than trying to convince a reader of an emotional truth in a fictional piece. Tout le monde doit essayer.
And we none of deserve to be shouted down, talked over, or dismissed. No one can tell you that your story isn’t worth telling. Of course it is. It’s yours.
And don’t let anyone call your characters, or your work, or you a ”Mary Sue” in the derogatory sense. Ever again. Ever.
Or I am going to scream.
For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.