Daisy Ridley as Rey in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (image: Disney)
As gratifying as it was to see Han Solo again, the characters generating the most excitement from Star Wars: The Force Awakens are its young heroes — particularly Rey, the Star Wars films’ first female protagonist. Although Daisy Ridley’s character has received much love and appreciation, there is one particularly virulent strain of backlash: People dismissing her as a “Mary Sue.” The term, taken from the world of fan fiction, is meant to suggest that Rey is a terribly written character, so skilled and flawless as to be one-dimensional and obnoxious. In Rey’s case, critics complain that she masters everything too quickly, from piloting and repairing spaceships to wielding the Force to using a lightsaber, and that she faces no significant obstacles along her journey. But a closer look at what the term “Mary Sue” means, reveals that Rey isn’t one at all — and that her detractors are grasping at straws to find fault with one of the most exciting female movie characters in years.
To understand the idea of “Mary Sue,” we need to begin with Star Wars’ intergalactic cousin Star Trek. Modern fan fiction (in which fans write original fiction set in the universe of a favorite film, TV show, novel, etc.) was born in 1967, when the original Star Trek TV series inspired viewers to pen their own stories about the Enterprise crew. The authors of these early Star Trek stories, most of whom were middle-class women, could submit them to mimeographed fanzines (also published and distributed mainly by women). The stories themselves varied widely in both quality and content, but many of the amateur writers who submitted to fanzines were very obviously playing out their own fantasies, inserting thinly veiled, idealized versions of themselves into Kirk’s five-year mission.
In 1973, a prolific fanzine writer named Paula Smith decided to gently lampoon this trend, inventing the term “Mary Sue” in the process. In Smith’s very short story “A Trekkie’s Tale” (read it here), a teenager named Mary Sue (“the youngest lieutenant in the fleet”) joins the Enterprise crew. In quick succession, Kirk falls in love with Mary Sue; Spock declares her a genius; she rescues the crew from attack with a hairpin; takes control of the ship when all the officers fall ill; and dies a hero. The story concludes: “In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness.”
An obvious piece of satire, “A Trekkie’s Tale” was intended as a challenge to Smith’s fellow fanzine writers — basically, a way of saying “We can do better.” The phrase “Mary Sue” caught on, but as Smith noted in a 2011 interview, “It wasn’t always used as a derogatory term. The Mary Sue seemed to almost be a necessary stage for a writer.” In other words, many an inexperienced writer’s first effort were Mary Sue stories, and those stories provided a gateway to the fanfic community (and hopefully, to better writing). Also, there was a subversive element to even the bad stories: They allowed women to make themselves the hero of the male-dominated universe of Star Trek, a show that was progressive in so many ways, yet relegated most of its female characters to low-ranking crew members and doomed love interests.
So what does this have to do with Rey? Well, over the 42 years since the phrase “Mary Sue” was invented, it has taken on a secondary, more insidious meaning. As fanfic flourishes online, there will always be Mary Sue stories, whether they’re by a teenage writer who inserts herself into her favorite band or a Twilight-obsessed mom who repurposes the characters for her own S&M fantasies. (Yes, that second thing describes the origins of Fifty Shades of Grey.) At the same time, “Mary Sue” has moved away from the realm of constructive criticism and become something else entirely: an insult meant to diminish any female character who seems too good to be true.
Let’s take a look at Rey in this context. Those crying “Mary Sue” (several of whom commented on my story praising Rey) claim that her use of the Force is too strong and sudden, that her ability to fly and repair a spaceship makes no sense, that she’s too good a fighter, that she never shows a flaw or makes a mistake. I take particular issue with that last criticism, because Rey does make mistakes and isn’t flawless; she’s a vulnerable character whose fears, hopes, and worldview have been shaped by fending for herself for years. And there are reasonable story explanations offered for her other skills: She scavenges ship parts for a living, so it’s not a stretch that she’d know how they work or might take one for a joyride from time to time.
Daisy Ridley as Rey in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (image: Disney)
We should also remember the original definition of Mary Sue: a character created to be an idealized proxy for the author. By this definition, Rey can’t even be a Mary Sue, because she’s the creation of male screenwriters. In fact, movies rarely have true Mary Sues because they are collaborative efforts with no one author. (In fact, I can actually think of only one movie character who fits the original definition of Mary Sue to a tee: The too-good-for-this-world leading man played by Tommy Wiseau in his uproariously awful 2003 film The Room, which was also written, directed, and independently produced by Wiseau. “Johnny” is very obviously an idealized version of Wiseau himself, a Mary Sue who made it intact to the big screen because one man was responsible for the entire movie.)
But these arguments aside, most of the traits being used to label Rey a Mary Sue are shared by her obvious story predecessor, Luke Skywalker. Sure, he smashed around a robot ball with Obi-Wan Kenobi and shot at womp rats back home on Tattooine, but even so, Luke executes elaborate pilot maneuvers, wields weapons, saves the princess, and harnesses the power of the Force with the most minimal of training. And where are all the people calling Luke a Mary Sue?
While we’re on the subject of unrealistic heroes, how did Indiana Jones’ archeology background prepare him to combat Nazis? Where are Captain America’s major flaws in the Marvel films? When did Will Smith’s character in Independence Day acquire his alien-fighting skills, or Vin Diesel’s Furious 7 character learn how to steer a sports car out of an airborne plane? How did ordinary NYPD detective John McClane make it out of the Nakatomi building alive? And how does James Bond do, well, anything that James Bond does?
The answer is: It doesn’t matter. These are fantasy characters whose extraordinary abilities create exciting movie plots. And the reason nobody criticizes any of them as a “Mary Sue” (or the rarely-used male variant “Gary Stu”) is because they’re men. It doesn’t occur to people to question male wish-fulfillment characters from male writers, because — from Robin Hood to Superman — our popular culture is built on them. Take, as another example, the writer Caitlin Donovan’s description of Batman; with the gender swapped, he is the very definition of a Mary Sue. Which only proves that the term has become so warped that it’s useless… except to discourage writers from creating female characters at all.
Obviously, I’m of the opinion that Rey is not an idealized heroine. But if she is, does it matter? Hollywood films need more women in those James Bond, Batman, and Indiana Jones roles; women with inexplicable superpowers and fantastic abilities; women who get to go on their own heroes’ journeys instead of being love interest or sidekicks. Sure, cinema has given us some great female genre heroines over the years, like Ellen Ripley or Katniss Everdeen, but they’re still outnumbered hundreds of times over by leading men. (And Katniss, too, has faced wrong-headed Mary Sue criticism.) That’s why some entertainment writers have begun reclaiming the “Mary Sue” label, from the publishers of the popular website The Mary Sue to Verge film critic Tasha Robinson, whose thoughtful defense of Rey-as-Mary-Sue concludes with the line, “Once in a while, isn’t it nice to have something that is too good to be true?”
Even if we do embrace them as “Mary Sues,” it’s important to realize that Rey, Ripley and Katniss — along with Imperator Furiosa, Sarah Connor, Lisbeth Salander, and most of their ilk — were brought to the big screen by male screenwriters and directors (although in some cases, female producers gave them a necessary push). Hopefully down the line, it will become the norm for women to direct tentpole movies starring female protagonists. At that point, I have no doubt the Mary Sue argument will start all over again — and I, for one, can’t wait.
Watch the cast react to seeing ‘The Force Awakens’ for the first time: