Why the Reaction to Star Wars: Rogue One Proves the term Mary Sue is Meaningless

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By Caitlin Donovan | More Articles
April 09, 2016  07:26 PM

I can’t say I was very surprised to learn the news that the female lead in Star Wars: Rogue One, Jyn Erso, is already being dubbed a “Mary Sue” and her being a woman is generally being bemoaned by a small subsection of fans. Rey’s recently been getting called a Mary Sue as well. I’ve seen this pattern before in fandom, many times.

If you somehow don’t know, a Mary Sue refers to a character who is too perfect or powerful for the reader’s tastes. They’re often considered to be self-inserts, an idealized version of their creator. It’s honestly an incredibly vague, nebulous concept. TV Tropes, a popular resource, lists a huge amount of different “Sue” types and admits that it’s hard to define. It is also notable that one of the controversies listed is whether it’s even possible for a male character to be a “sue”. Men can’t ever be too perfect, right?

Several years ago, a trailer was released for a movie related to an anime I was a fan of (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, if you’re curious) that featured a new female character. Obviously, the trailer didn’t really tell us much about her, but the movie's tag on Tumblr was already stuffed with people accusing her of being a Mary Sue. Simply because she was female and existed.

From the Star Wars: Rogue One Trailer

This got me thinking hard about the term and how misapplied it is and how I’ve seen every female character called “Mary Sue” at some point but very rarely male characters. I came to the conclusion it was a heavily gendered term that was used mainly as a way to discourage female characters from existing at this point, and maybe it always had been.

After all, the male variation of the term (Marty Stu or Gary Stu, people can’t seem to decide) doesn’t get nearly as much use and I’d wager there’s a reason for that. Male wish-fulfillment fiction is pretty common. One could argue that a lot of fiction is wish fulfillment at its core. But once women get in on that action, oh boy, how dare they!

So I dashed off a quick 30 minute rant about it. It got a huge amount of attention to my surprise, both negative and positive. (Lots of people assumed I just had my feelings hurt because someone called my fanfic original character a Sue. I don’t write OCs in fic, so nope, it’s never happened.) I’ve seen every argument under the sun for why I am wrong about this issue.

From Star Wars: The Force Awakens

But I think the current reaction to female leads in Star Wars gives my argument some additional weight. It’s like I’ve traveled back in time- a woman appears in a trailer and she’s called a Mary Sue immediately. But wait, there’s more!

 Jyn is not the only female lead in Star Wars who has been accused of being a Sue lately. Rey has gotten a lot of flak too, even from fairly respected sources. Rey is the lead character of The Force Awakens, The Chosen One, following in the footsteps of Luke and Anakin before her. And honestly, her high level of skill is not all that different from theirs.

Many people before me have laid out comparisons of Luke and Anakin’s unlikely genius and shown it as equivalent to Rey’s. Here’s a refresher: Anakin built a fully functional robot, built a pod racer and won a pod race against experienced adults when he was nine. The last one was through subconscious use of the Force, much like several things Rey did. Luke destroyed the Death Star when he flew an X-Wing and was basically the best pilot ever. It was implied that Luke, like Rey, had never flown off planet before his trench run. Luke also went toe to toe with people who had twenty years of training on him.  

Rey was knowledgeable about ships, flew a ship well enough to escape several tight spots (after a rocky start), managed to resist Kylo and escape and then was able to use a lightsaber well enough to beat a badly injured Kylo Ren after tapping into the Force.

Most of Rey’s accomplishments in the movie were given a lot of justification due to her backstory of having to work her ass off to even survive in a hostile land. We see at the beginning of the movie that she’s proficient in stick fighting, since she needed to fight to survive and all. This translates to how she wields her lightsaber. It’s been confirmed that Rey spent a lot of time using flight simulators and also presumably flew some ships, just not off-planet, before her big escape. In addition, she was probably pretty familiar with how ships worked from scavenging.

She took to the Force pretty well, but her predecessors did too, especially Anakin, who again, was wielding it for the win at age nine. The man she defeated was not only bleeding to death, but stated in the movie to have not fully completed his training.

Lucas and Hamill on the the Star Wars set

By the way, Mary Sues are generally considered to be self-inserts. Mark Hamill himself confirmed that Luke was a self-insert of George Lucas. He is literally Lucas’s wish-fulfillment power fantasy.

So, looking at all that, why isn’t Honest Trailers or other fans griping about Luke and Anakin’s accomplishments like they are Rey’s, especially when Rey’s have more justification? It’s simple. People aren’t used to having a female lead be able to easily do impressive things the way male leads always do. We’re used to men as those power fantasy, wish fulfillment, Chosen One-style heroes. But women? That’s just too much. Women should be sufficiently vulnerable and/or in a supporting role.

That’s the knee-jerk reaction many people have. The fact that Jyn’s already been loudly declared by several people to be a Mary Sue just for being a female lead proves that.

The term Mary Sue needs to be retired. It’s such a vague, subjective label that it was never very useful as literary criticism to begin with (criticize a character for not struggling enough, sure, but you need to be more specific to be constructive) and now it’s just a convenient way to say “I hate this female character for existing” without having to actually say it. 

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Caitlin Donovan is a long-time nerd with a passion for superheroes and epic fantasy. She lives in North Carolina with her cat and wrestles with writing novels and doing editorial work when she's not ranting about pop culture online. She runs a blog at ladyloveandjustice.tumblr.com
@Caitlin Donovan | caitlin@epicstream.com