A new Star War came out over the weekend, and it’s kind of a big deal. While the rest of us were lusting over Poe Dameron (“this generation’s Ian Malcolm”), cooing over John Boyega, and realizing, oh yeah, thaaaat’s why people have been banging the Next Big Thing drum over Adam Driver for what seems like years, there are other people… people who hate joy… who have taken a brave stance against a particular element of The Force Awakens. No, not Supreme Leader Snoke, Bargain Basement White Walker. Well, yes, him. He sucks. But also… did you know there is a woman in The Force Awakens. Who does things?! When will the Feminazis stop?
The Force Awakens spoilers there are below, yeeEEEESSSS.
So, yeah. Some people (notably screenwriter Max Landis) have been calling Rey—queen of my life, fire of my soul—a Mary Sue. And while I generally take a Rowlesian stance to “People are wrong on the Internet! Fetch me my smelling salts!” posts, this issue in particular pisses me off. Because it’s not, as the haters would have you believe, about
ethics in gaming journalism whether a particular character is well-written or not. It’s about sexism in nerd culture, and you know my feelings about that. (Also about bread fucking. Eh?)
“Mary Sue” is a term that originated in fandom (specifically the Star Trek fandom, natch) to refer to an instance of a fanfiction writer (usually female, as the majority of fanfic writers are) inserting an idealized version of herself into an established universe. “My name is Ebony, I have awesome hair and awesome clothes and I go to Hogwarts and everyone loves me.” In the Year of Our Lord Captain Phasma 2015, the “Mary Sue” label is often divorced from its fanfiction context and used to describe any female character who’s unrealistically amazing. Rey’s a crack pilot and an expert mechanic and she knows how to use the Force and even Han Solo thinks she’s pretty cool, he guesses? Mary Sue alert! No one’s that awesome. No one’s good at that many things.
Here’s the problem: If Rey is a Mary Sue, then so are Batman (ninja billionaire crime fighter), Neo (the Chosen One!), and Luke Skywalker (small-town farmboy turned galaxy-saving superwizard) himself. When people call Rey a Mary Sue, what they’re really saying is that she’s a wish fulfillment character… but a wish fulfillment character aimed at women and girls, which makes her worthy of a particular brand of scorn.
The “Mary Sue” archetype does have a male equivalent—called the “Marty Stu” or “Gary Stu,” alternatively—but it’s not used nearly as often, and it’s not an accusation you seen thrown at, say, just about every leading man in a superhero franchise. (“Captain America is strong and looks like Chris Evans and is the literal incarnation of everything that’s good about America? Party foul!”) Too, the “paper-thin personality” aspect of the original Mary Sue is more often than not left by the wayside; people object not to a perceived lack of character growth on Rey’s part (she definitely has an arc) but the fact that she’d be so capable as to be able to beat Kylo Ren, a potential future Sith Lord who’s had years of training, in a lightsaber fight. (It’s because Rey’s a riff raff street rat who knows how to defend herself and Ren’s an L-7 weenie, people.)
Make no mistake: The “Mary Sue,” as a concept, is targeted at female characters, female creators, and female spaces of fandom. It’s a method of gatekeeping. It’s similar in substance, if not in particulars, to the response from certain overwrought corners of geekdom when a person of color is cast in a role typically thought of as “belonging” to a white person. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm? What’s this PC affirmative action Social Justice Warrior bullshit! Keep your agenda out of my superhero movies! Christian Bale as Moses? They just wanted the best actor for the role. Chill. A female character who’s talented and respected and drives the story. Wuh-oh, Mary Sue alert. But a guy? Why, that’s just what a hero is.
To every man who thinks Rey is a Mary Sue: I want you think long and hard about the characters who inspired you when you were young. Why did you look up to them? Because they were strong, they were smart, they were resilient, they stood up to injustice? Because they were good, and they showed that good can win? They had flaws, surely, but so does Rey: she spends a good chunk of The Force Awakens with one leg out the door, frightened of the responsibility that being Force sensitive brings and unwilling to open up to other people. Even if you don’t like her as a character yourself, why would you want to begrudge the girls inspired by her the same way you were inspired by a Batman or a Captain Kirk or an Aragorn (if we’re talking wish fulfillment characters)?
If you think a female character being so powerful is unrealistic… then maybe the problem is you.