What do Captain Kirk, Daenerys Targaryen, and Dean Winchester have in common?
Apart from sharing a space your mind is traveling to right now (Stop that! Come back!) at some point, each has been accused of being a Mary Sue.
Wait. What’s a Mary Sue again?
The term Mary Sue was coined way back in a 1973 Star Trek fan fiction “A Trekkie’s Tale” which featured a character named Mary Sue, a perfect, flawless, and overly idealized version of the author. Can you see where we’re going with this?
Modern Mary Sues generally always have the answer to everything, or can at least come up with the answer before the credits roll. They’re as hot, athletic, knowledgeable, and skilled as the story requires them to be at any given moment. They never back down. And they never fail. Over time, the term has been used to describe characters who are seen as unrealistic or overpowered. In recent years the term has even crept its way behind the hot little keyboards of those who disapprove of female protagonists on film and in TV in general. Everyone’s a Mary Sue these days, from The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen to Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and from Rey in Rise of Skywalker to Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery.
Are Mary Sues really everywhere? Are all female heroes on film and TV automatically Mary Sues? The answer to those questions is obviously no. And also, does it really matter?
I recently traded TV show recommendations with a film and TV enthusiast friend. He recommended I try Silo on Apple TV+ (It’s excellent. He has great taste!). I countered with Prime Video’s Reacher. He refused to consider it on the basis the main character was a bit of a Mary Sue.
Yes, Jack Reacher is, if we are being honest, more than just “a bit” of a Mary Sue. An ex-military policeman, Reacher is tall, handsome, enormously muscled, super smart, never short of a killer quip, an unbeatable opponent physically and mentally, and emotionally vulnerable when the series calls for it. I can’t wait to see what fools try to go up against him in Season 2.
The thing about Reacher is it’s a grand escape to a comforting world in which I know the bad guys are gonna get their comeuppance, and where a solid (like really solid) hero will save the day, a damsel in distress, and probably an entire town, before slipping humbly away, and I won’t apologize for loving its bald lack of nuance or moral complexity.
In short, I have learned to love Mary Sues and you should too.
Not just because there’s nothing wrong with a little perfection every now and again but because it’s time to stop maligning Mary Sues, period. The trope has evolved far beyond its Star Trek origins and we need to recognize that. In fact, in recent years, fans and critics are actively reclaiming the term to describe characters who challenge traditional narratives, a move I support wholeheartedly.
Fact: many female characters who are labeled as Mary Sues are actually breaking down stereotypes and challenging gender roles.
A classic example is Rey from Star Wars. Rey is often criticized for being too perfect and too powerful, but she actually represents a major shift in the Star Wars franchise. For decades, Star Wars has been dominated by male characters, with female characters relegated to secondary roles. Rey, on the other hand, is the protagonist of the latest trilogy and has become a role model for young girls around the world.
Rey challenges traditional narratives in other ways as well. She is a complex character with a rich backstory and a compelling personality. She is not defined by her gender or her relationship to male characters (sorry Kylo), but rather by her own actions and motivations. In this way, Rey represents a new kind of hero for a new generation of fans.
Before Rey it was Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games who challenged traditional narratives and got labeled as a Mary Sue for her efforts. Katniss was accused of Mary Sueness because her exceptional survival skills and her ability to outsmart her opponents seemed a little OTT to some. However, she was also a symbol of resistance and rebellion who challenged the oppressive regime of the Capitol and fights for the freedom of her people.
Katniss also challenged traditional gender roles. She was a skilled hunter and fighter, and she was not defined by her relationships with male characters. In fact, her relationships with Peeta and Gale were complex and nuanced, and she was not simply a love interest for either of them. Instead, she was a fully-realized character with her own desires and motivations. And now I must go and rewatch this trilogy.
If done right, Mary Sues serve to highlight the absurdity of creative decisions that relegate female characters to secondary roles or in ways that are defined by their relationships with their male character counterparts. Mary Sues are front and center, unapologetically the protagonists of their own stories and unencumbered by how their relationships with men are defined. They are powerful and independent, they fully own their unique skillset, and they are capable of achieving great things on their own.
This is an important message for young women who are often taught to define themselves through their relationships with men. Mary Sues challenge this narrative and show that women can be strong, independent, and successful without the help of men. They provide a positive representation of women in popular culture and serve as important role models for young girls.
My 7 year old daughter was thrilled to learn she needed to wear glasses for distance vision because her hero Kara Danvers of the CW’s Supergirl wore them too. But it’s not just older audiences looking for the comfort and reassurance of a solid TV hero, and little girls who want someone to look up to, who need Mary Sues.
Also a Fact: Mary Sues make space for underrepresented groups in popular culture. This includes people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community who are both criminally underrepresented and casually misrepresented in mainstream media.
Mary Sues like Star Trek: Discovery’s Michael Burnham, or T’Challa from Black Panther have become symbols of empowerment for black and female audiences, respectively. Melissa Navia is crushing it as Erica Ortegas in Paramount+’s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, and although I have yet to decide if Ortegas is a Mary Sue or not, she is definitely an icon for LGBTQ fans of the show and an all round awesome character.
These characters challenge traditional narratives, not by proving that anyone can be a hero, but that a specific someone who looks like me, who feels like me, and who shares the same experience as me, can be. Not just anyone. Someone like me. It’s a pretty powerful message capable of having a profound impact.
Not So Much a Fact as an Opinion: Let’s be honest. As much as we love a flawed and conflicted hero (Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us is perfection), there’s nothing wrong with a little idealization. Mary Sues might just be the heroes we need right now. Apart from the comfort, reassurance and sense of goodness they radiate, these oft-maligned characters represent the qualities that simply make us feel good: strength, intelligence, courage, and empathy.
So while Nancy Drew and Hermione Granger will probably forever be criticized for being too perfect, they are also celebrated for their intelligence, bravery, and determination.
And while Mary Sues like Daenerys Targaryen and Wonder Woman show us that it is possible to be strong, intelligent, and courageous, even in the face of extreme adversity.
Wait. Hold up. where are all the Male Mary Sues at?
While Mary Sues seem to fall into the female/LGBTQ end of the spectrum, there are in fact many male Mary Sues out there, waiting for their chance to be welcomed in from the cold. In fact, we need look no further than comic book, movie, and TV series superhero and icon Superman as the OG Mary Sue.
Other notable Mary Sue men include James Bond (in all his incarnations) Captain James T. Kirk (in all his incarnations), Jack Bauer from FOX’s 24, Dr. John Watson from BBC’s Sherlock, Felicy Smoak’s book-end Oliver Queen from the CW’s Arrow, Dean Winchester from the CW’s Supernatural, Harvey Specter from USA Network’s Suits, and casting my mind back a few years, Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Despite this list of ideal men, a side by side comparison will show that not all Mary Sues are created equal, with female Mary Sues doing most of the heavy lifting, a fact attributed to a misogonistic tendency among certain groups to label just about any female screen hero as unlikely or overreaching in some unrealistic way. (Y’know, those guys. They’re the ones who had all those sweaty nightmares about Captain Marvel.)
Gender identities aside, Mary Sues are important symbols of empowerment and resistance and hope. They console and comfort us with the knowledge that everything is going to be ok. They give us heroes to admire and emulate, and ideals to aspire to. And they challenge the status quo by continually pushing the envelope of tradition and representation.
By learning to fully embrace these unfairly maligned figures we can create a more diverse and inclusive media landscape, and maybe figure out how to unleash the inner Mary Sue within us all.
As a famous writer once said, perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.