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What is a Mary Sue, and does Star Wars: The Force Awakens have one?

BB8 and Rey, the latest target of Star Wars fan ire
BB8 and Rey, the latest target of Star Wars fan ire

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has only been out a week, but it's already tearing some fans apart.

Depending on whom you talk to, director J.J. Abrams's update has either brought the franchise roaring back to life, or echoed the original Star Wars in useless and derivative fashion. But there's another argument raging among fans — one that is perfectly representative of some of fandom's most insular and insidious instincts. That argument centers on this question: Is Rey, the new movie's protagonist, too perfect to be a good hero? Is she, in fandom speak, a "Mary Sue"?

The short answer? No.

For the long answer, we'll have to dive into what exactly makes a "Mary Sue," and why the term has such a loaded connotation within fandom.

Strap yourselves in. It's about to get real nerdy.

Where did the term "Mary Sue" come from, and why is it so controversial?

"Mary Sue" comes from the world of fanfiction, where fans write stories within existing properties that they love. You can find fanfiction for anything from Star Wars, to Harry Potter to just about any television show. Every subsection of fanfiction has its own priorities and grievances, but the derision toward so-called Mary Sue characters is nearly universal. The Mary Sue, a feminist "geek culture" website, took the term on as a way of identifying itself with fanfic culture, unabashed and defiant in its geeky roots.

The term came out of a short, satirical piece of Star Trek fanfiction that Paula Smith published in Menagerie, a Star Trek fanzine, in 1973.

Lt. Mary Sue

In "A Trekkie's Tale," Lt. Mary Sue grabs the attention of both Captain Kirk (who falls in love with her immediately) and Spock (who admires her logic). Mary Sue, just 15-and-a-half years old, takes over the ship and receives "the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood." Mary Sue reveals that she is half-Vulcan, then dies tragically, causing everyone to mourn the loss of her "beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness."

Mary Sue, in other words, is perfect.

But "A Trekkie's Tale" doesn't just make fun of fanfic authors who create unbelievably perfect characters. It's a direct parody of fanfic authors who insert themselves into the narrative as the aforementioned perfect characters, living out their fantasies of impressing all their favorite characters and changing all their favorite fictional worlds for the better.

To give you an example of a Mary Sue from Harry Potter fanfiction, and more specifically the wish-fulfillment fanfic I wrote as a 13 year-old (why not! we're all friends here), I once wrote myself into the halls of Hogwarts as "Raven," who was a mysterious new student who moves to England from America, causes possessive fights between Harry and Draco Malfoy, and suddenly realizes she has dormant powers that enable her to turn into — wait for it — a raven.

With Raven, I hit all the major Mary Sue requirements. She was mysterious, and she was beautiful. She was inexplicably intriguing. She was the object of everyone's desires. She had hidden abilities no 13 year-old, witch or otherwise, could possibly have. She was the me I wished could crash Harry Potter's adventures.

If you look up the definition of a Mary Sue now, you might notice a footnote that says some version of, "The male version of a 'Mary Sue' is called a 'Marty Stu' or a 'Gary Stu.'" This, to be frank, is a false equivalence.

The idea of the Mary Sue carries with it an inherent gender bias. As fanfiction is predominantly written by girls and women, "Mary Sues" tend to be female. More important to the current Rey conversation, however, is that the trend of writing characters off as Mary Sues has made its way outside of fanfiction to become a derisive description of flawless characters in general — and very rarely does a male character get called out as a "Gary Stu."

The most current and well-known example of a Mary Sue outside of fanfiction is Twilight's impossibly magnetic Bella Swan. Not coincidentally, the most current and well-known example of a Mary Sue inside fanfiction is 50 Shades of Grey's Anastasia Steele — who began her life as E.L. James's S&M fanfic version of Bella.

But let's make one thing clear: not every seemingly perfect heroine deserves to get written off so quickly — especially because it is so incredibly rare that a seemingly perfect male hero gets the same dismissive treatment.

The question of whether Rey is a Mary Sue or not is inspiring controversy

The criticism went from quiet fan grumblings to a full-out Twitter war when Max Landis, screenwriter of 2012's superhero flick Chronicle, posted a series of tweets tearing down Rey as "the worst fucking Star Wars main character ever." Using "fanfic" as a pejorative for The Force Awakens — a movie that does, indeed, call back to its original source material with gleeful abandon — Landis posted a picture of Rey and wrote, "they finally did it. They made a fanfic movie with a Mary Sue as the main character."

The arguments for Rey being "too perfect" go as such: she's super skilled as a mechanic, a combat fighter, a pilot and, apparently, a Force user. All the characters — both established and new — are impressed at her natural skills. She even holds her own against Kylo Ren, a more trained Jedi who nonetheless falls in a lightsaber battle to her by the movie's end.

Landis isn't a stranger to the internet, so he anticipated the responses he might get to this critique. First, he insisted that "Mary Sue" isn't an inherently sexist term, writing "WAKE. UP." next to a screenshot of the definition including "Gary Stu." Then, he acknowledged that some may like Rey because there are precious few good female action or fantasy stars, though Harry Potter's Hermione and Mad Max: Fury Road's Furiosa are "a good start." Finally, he went after the "straw men" arguments sure to come his way: "Luke was a Mary Sue"; "action films have Mary Sue men all the time"; "you wouldn't say that if she was a man."

If Landis wanted to make his point, he would've done himself a service by not including these latter arguments, because here's the thing: even if Rey does have shades of being a Mary Sue character, that doesn't make any of those "straw men" arguments less true.

So, okay, let's get down to it: is Rey too perfect?

To be perfectly honest: yes, and no.

Mike Schur, executive producer for shows like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, dove into the Twitter fray with palpable annoyance and exhaustion at the "Rey is a Mary Sue" critique. Insisting that many of Luke's bigger flaws like impatience and shaky self-confidence didn't present themselves until Empire Strikes Back, Schur wrote:

I've certainly never heard anyone -- in the 9000 conversations I've had about [A New Hope] -- say that Luke learned too much too quickly ... Luke picks up a lightsaber, hears about the Force, and 26 minutes later he is angry at Han for not believing in it ... no one bats an eye at that.

Tellingly, Alan Dean Foster's novelization of The Force Awakens hints at a similar anger in Rey. As she stands over Kylo Ren at the end of their lightsaber battle, having won the upper hand, she has to fight the voice within her that's telling her to kill him — a conflict Luke Skywalker would intimately understand.

Herein lies the main issue. If fans like Landis want to accuse The Force Awakens of creating a character who's too good at what she does, too quickly, they need to face up to the fact that the Star Wars franchise was already brimming over with similar moments.

In The Force Awakens, Rey, a young scavenger with mysterious origins, becomes entangled with the Rebellion, flies the Millennium Falcon without prior experience, discovers that she can tap into The Force, and uses it to her advantage to best a more experienced Jedi. Any additional skills Rey has — mechanical work, hand-to-hand combat, climbing — are explained when we first meet her. She's been fending for herself on Jakku for years. If she hadn't picked up those skills, she'd probably be dead.

In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker, a teenage farmhand with mysterious origins, becomes entangled with the Rebel Alliance, discovers he can tap into The Force, and gets a couple days of training to focus his ability. He then leads a squadron into the trenches of the Death Star before blowing the whole thing up, despite having no established prior pilot experience.

The question of how easily Rey wields The Force is a key point of the arguments against her. She gets a Stormtrooper to release her, then fights back and almost wins in a lightsaber duel with the more experienced Kylo Ren.

Luke, at least, had some training. The Washington Post's Sonny Bunch, in a piece that he calls "sympathetic" to Landis's Mary Sue accusations, writes that Rey knows how to use the Force because The Force Awakens is "the greatest, most expensive piece of fan fiction that has ever been created," and so of course she knows what a Jedi mind trick is.

The Star Wars universe grapples with the idea that everyone has a "dark side," but its vague definitions of The Force and who wields it make for heroes with equally vague justifications. What Bunch and Landis's arguments both ignore is the fact that The Force is an incredibly convenient story device in and of itself. Whether we're talking about Luke or Rey, Darth Vader or Obi-Wan, people know how to use The Force because they just do.

An argument of "because genetics" doesn't even work here, because while Leia has some knowledge of the Force, her natural talent for it doesn't match Luke's — and they're twins. The Force is one of the most prominent uses of "because I said so" in modern storytelling. In that case, who's to say Rey can't be just as powerful as Luke?

Thus, the most logical conclusion is this: Their stories aren't exactly the same, but Rey's sudden realization of her powers isn't necessarily more impressive than Luke's. If Rey is a Mary Sue, then so is Luke.

Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

The ugly question at the core of the Mary Sue debate: is asking whether Rey is perfect an inherently misogynistic question?

In an excellent essay over at The Verge, Tasha Robinson pointed out the hypocrisy of a fandom that isn't quick to call out its male heroes for having the same issues:

[Rey is] a fantasy wish-fulfillment character with outsized skills, an inhuman reaction time, and a clever answer to every question — but so are the other major Star Wars heroes. Are they all getting the same level of suspicion and dismissal?

...Back in 1977, were we wringing our hands over whether Han Solo was too suave and funny and cool, or whether Luke's access to the "powerful ally" of an all-connecting, all-seeing, all-powerful Force that "binds the galaxy together" made him way too overpowered?

...We wouldn't be worrying about Rey's excessive coolness if she were Ray, standard-issue white male hero with all the skills and all the luck.

At IndieWire, Samuel Adams argued that people calling Rey hyper-competent are resting on a "sloppy reading" of The Force Awakens, as they fail to acknowledge how surprised and delighted Rey herself is at said hypercompetence. There's a bigger story here. As Vox's Matt Yglesias wrote earlier this month, we might not know how to properly critique The Force Awakens until Episode VIII clarifies some of its key points — especially on Rey's background.

At this point, though, it seems as if a couple of things on both sides of the argument are true. As both Robinson and Adams concede in their pieces, Rey is incredibly good at a great many things — and very quickly. And as even Landis concedes, pop culture is generally starved for decent action and fantasy heroines who don't stand wanly on the side, rooting for their respective heroes, which may drive some of the overly enthusiastic responses to Rey's character.

Both, however, hold firm on one point: we would not be analyzing Rey so closely, if she were a male hero.

While my kneejerk reaction to criticism of Rey was that it's absolutely in the wrong, I have to admit that questioning her merits isn't inherently misogynistic. The real problem is that there's an undeniable false equivalence at play. Many who question female heroes don't just question them, but instinctively dissect them in a way that they usually don't for male heroes.

We won't know what's truly up with Rey for another couple of years, at the very least. Until then, I have no interest in tearing down her entire character by virtue of her being too good, too fast. Rey is very good, in a universe that divides its characters into factions that literally define themselves as the "light" and "dark" sides. It makes no sense to question why some of her good qualities may be exaggerated in the context of Star Wars, because let's be honest: Star Wars is many things, but it is not, and has never been, subtle.

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