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I Put Myself Back in the Narrative

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I Put Myself Back in the Narrative

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Last night I was awake till past 5am. The reason for this was that whilst on Facebook (ill-advisedly, at around midnight. Yes, I know this is entirely my own fault) I saw that a friend of mine was unimpressed with the new Star Wars film. This friend and I have often disagreed about fannish things - he is deeply, deeply fannish, but often reacts to things (particularly Doctor Who and Marvel films) very differently from the way I do. Usually this is entertaining from a distance, and not particularly bothersome - plus, he has a comic tendency to react negatively to something, post about his feelings on the internet, only to completely reverse his opinion once he's watched it a second time. He is a good friend, and I love him a lot. He is also a much, MUCH bigger Star Wars nerd than me, and is completely entitled to feel disappointed by a film that stripped him of his beloved Expanded Universe and did not replace it with something that lived up to his high expectations.

However. What kept me awake last night, brain whirring furiously into the small hours of the morning, was this: 'Is nobody seeing how Rey is such a Mary Sue character? She was only ever in danger ONCE, and she does all this stuff that took Luke YEARS of training. I mean, really?!'

I resisted the temptation to hurl myself into the comments and lay into him, which was probably the right thing to do. I feel very strongly about this, but not strongly enough to get into a fight with him over it. But since I was up all night mulling over the words I was absolutely not going to say to him, I thought I might as well post them here. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that as many people on the internet are much smarter than me, and better at coherently expressing their thoughts, the best thing to do would be to link him to a bunch of articles, that would introduce him to a more nuanced discussion of what it means to use the term 'Mary Sue'.

But first, a caveat: as a straight, white, able-bodied, middle-class ciswoman, I do see myself reflected in media about 100000x more often than anybody else, excepting my male counterparts. (As an Ashkenazi Jew, I see myself reflected a fair amount, though not always in ways I like, particularly as a British Jew - but that is an entirely different essay for another time.) Most of the discussion about Mary Sue characters - their definition, whether it's a positive or a negative, do we need the term, etc - focusses on White women. Because that accounts for the overwhelming majority of ‘Mary Sue’ characters. We ABSOLUTELY need vastly more diversity in race, sexuality, physicality, etc in our Mary Sue characters, whether or not such characters are widely perceived in a positive light. Popular media over the past few years has given us some truly great female heroes and anti-heroes, from Maleficent to Furiosa to Katniss Everdeen to Mako Mori to Korra. Not to mention there are currently three very different female-centred superhero/superhero-adjacent shows airing on tv: Supergirl, AKA Jessica Jones, and Agent Carter. But it's notable that not one of these shows features a woman of colour as a protagonist. Currently, films and TV drama seem to be able to accept protagonists with one 'othering' marker - they can be female, OR they can be a man of colour, OR they can be queer. Finding a protagonist - or, more than that, finding an Epic Hero - with more than one of those markers is very difficult. I am aware of all this, am aware that when I say 'Men' I mostly mean 'straight, white, cis men' and am aware that it's from my own very privileged perspective that I went looking for articles that I would, hypothetically, show my friend. So here we go:

-The Mary Sue TV Tropes Page - enter this page at your own risk, because as everybody knows TV Tropes should come with a black hole warning. But this very helpful explanation of the usage and history of the term pretty much encompasses all possible meanings of 'Mary Sue' - and boy are there a lot of them. It originated as a critique of a certain type of female 'self-insert' characters in Star Trek fic, who were preternaturally beautiful/smart/talented/special, and managed to save the day whilst winning the undying love of the (male) heroes. It's since evolved (many claim, beyond the point of usefulness, much like the similarly controversial term, 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl') to mean ANY female character - note, CANON character, not just fannish creations now - who is perceived as being 'too' beautiful/smart/talented/special. Or it can mean a female character who is clearly an authorial fantasy/wish-fulfillment. Or simply a poorly-written, clichéd female character. The interpretations are many and varied! What joy. The only things that all uses of the term have in common are (a) it is always used as a negative term, and (b) it always refers to *female* characters. As TV Tropes notes, the male equivalent is 'Marty Stu' or 'Gary Stu' - in other words, it's used so infrequently that fandom at large hasn't even decided on a definitive term for it. Only women, it seems, can be 'too much' of a good thing. Which brings me to some of the other links I would hypothetically share with my friend, were I to debate this with him.

-Please Stop Spreading This Nonsense that Rey From Star Wars Is a “Mary Sue” - This short Io9 article argues that Rey is not, in fact a Mary Sue - YES she's super competent at piloting ships and fixing machines and figures out how to use the Force very quickly. But so what? Who knows all the hundreds of things she's really bad at?! Besides which, she’s spent YEARS alone, with time to spare for tinkering with abandoned spaceships and debris, obviously aided in her learning by her latent Force Sensitivity - of course she's had time to develop her mechanical skills. She's also had a much more independent, not to mention dangerous upbringing than Luke. She's had to learn to be self-reliant in a way that he didn't. As for her use of the Force, well, she is CLEARLY Luke's daughter, and as he himself pointed out, 'The Force is strong in my family'. (Even if she isn't - she's definitely related to another powerful Force user. This is Star Wars, she hasn't come from nowhere.) Luke holds a lightsaber for the first time 45 minutes into A New Hope, and by the end of the film (after about five minutes of training with Obi-Wan) he is competent enough to use the Force to help him blow up the Death Star. (Someone did mention Luke's uncanny piloting ability in the comments on my friend's FB thread. His response was to reference that always-hilarious line about shooting womp rats. IT'S NOT THE SAME, LUKE.) Rey is, as the article points out, no more or less unrealistic than anyone or anything else in 'this universe with a magic space elf and fantasy mind powers and spaceships that can jump across the galaxy at the push of a button' - you can't be a Mary Sue if everyone else in your franchise up there with you. (ETA: courtesy of [personal profile] elisi, and Flatmate K, a few tumblr links to explicit comparisons between Luke & Rey: here, here, here, and a slightly rage-inducing tumblr squabble here.)

-Star Wars doesn't have a Heroine Problem - This article in Salon (which references the article I'll link to next) argues that it's actually missing the point entirely to argue whether or not Rey is a Mary Sue. The term has increasingly lost its value, and become 'just another excuse to leave women on the cutting room floor' whilst male characters get to exhibit the EXACT SAME TRAITS with no backlash whatsoever. Nobody argues that James Bond is a Marty/Gary Stu, even though that's exactly what he is. It's not just how Rey measures up against Luke and the other male characters in her own franchise - if you're going to criticise her using a term that specifically refers to a widespread media trope, you need to compare her against a widespread media background. My friend spoke in his FB post about how Rey is scarcely ever in real danger, and when she is she gets herself out of that danger 'too easily'. Well, firstly, I would dispute those assertions. (I for one do not regularly find myself being imprisoned, mind-probed by a despotic teenager with anger management issues, pursued by murderous Stormtroopers, shot at, kidnapped, etc etc. If I did ever find myself in one of those situations, I would probably classify it as 'real danger'.) Secondly - er, like I said. James Bond, anyone? Don't tell me his highly improbable escapes are realistic. And he's just ONE example of the 'standard-issue white male hero with all the skills and all the luck', I could give many more, and this article does. If men are allowed to be portrayed as idealised heroes, why can't women? Who cares if Rey is a 'Mary Sue' or not - it's missing the point if the same standards don't apply to men as well, and ultimately the term does far more harm than good.

-With Star Wars' Rey, we've reached Peak Strong Female Character - This article in The Verge states that perhaps Rey IS a 'Mary Sue', for a given definition thereof. She is undoubtedly 'wish-fulfilment' material in her super-competence, her ability to rescue herself, etc, etc. But again - so fucking what? Obviously not every female character should be like her - just as not every male character should be Superman - but if you're writing an Epic Space Fairy Tale with a Big Damn Heroine in the lead, then why SHOULDN'T she be everything we secretly dream of being? The article says it better than I could, so here you go: Maybe the most radical, feminist, subversive thing the cultural community can do is accept and enjoy her, instead of interrogating her right to be perfect — and our right to feel represented by her. When we question a female character's coolness and competency, we're giving into that embarrassing tendency to second-guess and undermine ourselves. The impulse to judge Rey comes from the same place as the societally trained impulse to say: "Am I being unfeminine by being too loud? Too confident? Too present? Too assertive? Should I tone it down? Do I deserve to be heard?"

-It’s-A Me, Mary Sue: Why She’s An Important Figure For Fanfic And Fangirls - This article from, appropriately, The Mary Sue, says more or less the same thing. If I was going to quote anything at my friend to make him realise the ridiculousness of his argument, it would be the middle paragraphs of this article, which accurately describe the most classic Mary Sue of them all: Batman. Or was it Bond again? Or Captain Kirk. Or Aragorn. Or Neo. Or, or or...And then there's this: Because the Sue is always “perfect,” what exactly makes us hate her so much? Is it that she doesn’t have any flaws? Or that she has the wrong kinds of flaws? Or too many flaws? That she cries all the time and needs to be comforted? That she’s incredibly-powerful and no one can defy her? Is it that she’s way too nice to everyone? Or she’s the most anti-establishment of all the angsty girls on the scene? I’ve seen Sues dismissed for all of these reasons, which honestly makes it seem like we’re just dismissing all original female characters outright. The Sue breaks women out of the nice corner in which lady characters often exist in fiction, and that makes people uncomfortable. 'Mary Sue' is a difficult term that needs to die a death whilst the characters who embody the concept live on. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you see Rey as an 'unrealistic' character or not. We all watched the same character. What matters is whether you believe in this character's right to exist, and to be brilliant as she is.

(ETA 01/01/16: Mary Sue, What Are You? - this wonderful essay went round tumblr a while ago, and basically says everything I am trying to say here, but much more eloquently. As does this delightful quote from Seanan McGuire.)

-We Need More Mary Sues - Finally, in my epic and totally hypothetical linkspam, there's this article from Feminist Fiction, a couple of years ago. (Google 'Mary Sue' today and I guarantee that all of the top articles will be about Star Wars. But this is not exactly a new debate.) We don't just want the Mary Sue characters to live on. We want MORE of them. We want more super iconic female heroes, that little kids can dream of being, and of having on their teams. We need to see ourselves in fiction. Otherwise we have no reflection at all. True, most people - even most men - probably do not see themselves 'reflected' in the Marty/Gary Stu characters. But they can aspire to them. They can dream, can fantasise about being them. Men are allowed to be heroes, are allowed to be dazzling and brilliant and not be criticized for it - women are not. That's what the whole Mary Sue discussion is telling us. Men are allowed to be the hero of their own story. What if women want to be the hero of the story too? There have been so many - SO MANY - wonderful stories circling the internet about little girls who have fallen in love with Rey. Little tiny girls who want lightsabers for Christmas, want to dress up as Rey, want to play at using the Force and saving the galaxy because of Rey. How could anyone possibly argue that a character who has inspired this is a bad thing? Star Wars, like Doctor Who, is both 'family viewing' (ie. made to be enjoyed by everyone from small children to grown adults) and deeply geeky, fannish fare. Perhaps some of the fanboys are pissed off that a female character has outshone the hallowed Luke Skywalker's abilities. You know what? I don't care. I keep reading those stories of little girls dreaming of being Rey, and I imagine saying to my friend - do you know why Mary Sue 'self-insert' characters exist? It's because we have to fucking insert ourselves into the story, as we're not already there.

When I was a kid, and a young teenager, I spent a LOT of time daydreaming about being my favourite fictional characters, and living their adventures. I never inserted myself as *me* into the stories - I wanted to be the hero. And the heroes of my favourite stories as a child and a young teenager were Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Darren Shan, Aladdin. They were the characters I really wanted to *be*. I loved Hermione dearly, loved many Disney women and others, but they were rarely the heroes, or the kinds of heroes I wanted to be. I loved The Little Mermaid, (my second favourite childhood Disney film, after Aladdin) but my idea of an adventure did not include having my voice stripped away. The only female character in a story that I really remember desperately wanting to be when I was younger was Lyra from HDM. And perhaps Matilda. If I'd grown up with Buffy, I'm sure that would have been formative, and if I was a bit younger now, I imagine I would want to be Korra.

(ETA 01/01/16: See This New Statesman article for a much more interesting & articulate discussion of all this. 'Readers who are female, queer or of colour have been allowed role models before. What we haven’t been allowed is to see our experience reflected, to see our lives mirrored and magnified and made magical by culture. We haven’t been allowed to see ourselves as anything other than the exception')

But therein lies another issue - as [personal profile] beccatoria pointed out in one of her fantastic essays on The Legend of Korra -here - so many of Korra's storylines revolve around whether she should be allowed to keep her powers. Unlike Aang, whose Hero's Journey is the more traditional sort of accepting and learning to use his powers for Good, and growing into his role, Korra's journey is a constant, wearing struggle to be allowed to keep the powers that are rightfully hers. She repeatedly has her bending taken away, has her connection to her past lives taken away, has her strength taken away. It all ends well, ultimately, and if you watch it with a meta hat on then it makes a very interesting critque of that very trope, which [personal profile] beccatoria discusses. But it's a different sort of show to The Last Airbender. This is a common trope in stories about female heroes: most male hero fantasy stories are about how they choose to use the power they have. Most female hero stories are about whether they even deserve to keep that power in the first place. Think of Lyra, who loses the 'grace' that enabled her to read the Alethiometer and has to relearn through hard work what was once an innate power. Think of Matilda, in the original Roald Dahl book, who gains a loving home but in return loses her magical telekinesis powers. Think of The Little Mermaid who must exchange her love for her voice. Think of Princess Leia, who is just as Force sensitive as her brother. But does she ever get to learn how to use it properly? No, no she does not. Think of Donna Noble whose ending was especially heartbreaking and awful not just for the complete breach of consent involved in the Doctor forcibly removing her memories, but for the way it played into this trope: sometimes women CAN be heroes, they CAN possess special magical powers like their male counterparts...but one of three things will ultimately happen: (1) They will have their powers taken away, or left to rust unused (2) They will get to keep their powers, but must give up something huge in exchange, or (3) They will die. (This is one reason I am so in love with Clara's ending - she CAN have her cake and eat it and oh it's so wonderful. I guess, see also the ending of Buffy.)

So to go back to Star Wars, at last - there are four things I want from the next two Episodes in the new Star Wars trilogy: I want Han Solo not to be dead (not v confident on this one, alas!), I want Luke & Leia to hang out and be happy (please), I want my new OT3 to grow ever more wonderful together (pretty sure that one's a given) and I want Rey to stay the powerful character that she is, and NOT, at any point, have her ability to use the Force stripped away. Even temporarily. I have no idea if this is a thing that it's possible to do to someone in the Star Wars universe (I can't remember the prequel trilogy very well, and haven't read the EU) but if it is I AM VERY AFRAID that it will happen. And I Do Not Want It. So please, Star Wars, give me in Rey the magnificent, powerful female Hero that I would have wanted to be growing up. And fuck anyone who desires otherwise.

(ETA 11/11/16: Someone else went and wrote this last ramble waaay more eloquently than me, but pleasingly used some of the same examples, here)

Ok, I feel a lot better now. Fingers crossed I sleep tonight.
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