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The Mary Sue Dilemma

Thanks to the (in)famous Max Landis, the internet has whipped itself up into a frenzy over the suggestion that Rey, the protagonist of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is a ‘Mary Sue’. This intrigues me, as a member of the Jupiter Ascending fan community, because Jupiter Jones, the heroine of Jupiter Ascending, has been frequently described as ‘the terrible Mary Sue fanfic self-insert you came up with when you were 13′. While this label is often used in an affectionate sense in relation to Jupiter, it’s still hardly a glowing recommendation for her as a fully realised and developed character.

Before I delve into this any deeper, it would be helpful to actually clarify (or at least attempt to clarify) what a Mary Sue is. According to the font of wisdom that is Wikipedia, the definition goes something like this: “A Mary Sue or, in case of a male, Gary Stu or Marty Stu is an idealized fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities.”

This definition obviously applies more to Rey than it does to Jupiter. While they both come from obscure backgrounds and have low opinions of themselves (”I’m no one”/”I’m nobody” covers it pretty neatly), they are both markedly different in terms of their skills and capabilities. Rey is extremely competent and skilful, winning through on account of her extraordinary personal qualities. Jupiter is, by way of contrast, clumsy, awkward and (understandably, I must note) almost permanently bewildered by her crazy predicaments; nonetheless, she still wins through on account of her personal goodness and integrity.

So why, then, are such different characters assigned the same label? As the TV Tropes page for the Mary Sue phenomenon points out, the term has acquired a meaning so broad and poorly defined as to become meaningless and lose all practical application. It is basically thrown at any character - and especially any female character - who finds themselves in a position that calls for heroism and skill and is able to live up to that requirement.

Rey and Jupiter are both power fantasies, though they’re markedly different ones and it does both of them a profound disservice to equate them with self-inserts created by thirteen year olds. So while Rey is excellent in a fight and more than capable of taking care of herself, it makes absolute sense that she possesses those skills - growing up alone on Jakku, she had to become tough and resilient to survive. Equally, while Jupiter is superficially the epitome of a tween’s princess fantasy, being honoured as a queen, lavished with the attention of multiple suitors and getting increasingly extravagant and envy-inducing costume changes, she is also a brilliant deconstruction of that fantasy. 

Rey’s power and skill are justified by her background and experiences, and her subsequent wielding of the Force is no more left-field than Luke’s or Anakin’s displays of similar prowess. Jupiter’s specialness, meanwhile, is revealed to be a sham. What really makes Jupiter special is her humanity and integrity, which is why she is profoundly normal and has no extraordinary special powers or abilities - just a conscience. 

Perhaps most importantly, I doubt that this kind of comment would be made if either character were male. Luke Skywalker (ace pilot! intuitive Jedi! saviour of the universe!) and Neo (the one! epic martial artist! saviour of humanity!) are utterly shameless power trip fantasies, but they are never labelled ‘Gary Stus’ for the simple reason that we’re conditioned to expect our male heroes to fulfil our deepest wishes and desires. We’re simply not used to seeing female characters presented in this way, so even when their extraordinary qualities are justified or de-constructed as part of the narrative they’re still assigned the ‘Mary Sue’ label as if they’re mysterious anomalies demanding categorisation. We can only hope that, as time goes on, the sight of women kicking ass and being at the centre of the universe becomes common enough to no longer require a label.

Those are my thoughts - I wanted to comment on this since it’s a subject I find fascinating and worthy of explanation. What do you make of this topic? Do share your thoughts, as I love it when these posts generate a nice, meaty discussion.