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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

11 Comments

  1. Adam Riggio
    January 15, 2014 @ 5:08 am

    This was wonderful to read this morning. I've been annoyed for a long time every since I was first exposed to the concept of the Mary Sue. It always seemed the kind of idea that anyone could apply to whatever work by a female author they disliked to completely delegitimize that person as a creative figure. What's more, the concept of the Mary Sue gives male authors a pass. After all, some of the most canonically great literature of the last hundred years uses male protagonists that are, if not author avatars, then blatantly the authors themselves. The two examples coming most quickly to my mind are Hunter S. Thompson and Henry Miller. Brilliant artists both, but if a female author were to use themselves in their fiction, even in the dankly glorifying ways Thompson and Miller do (where the protagonists are clearly the authors, they're clearly awesome existential heroes, and they're clearly assholes, but who revel and exalt in their dickishness), she'd be dismissed as a Mary Sue.

    I didn't know the background of this story at all, why it was written, or what its purpose was. To be honest, I hadn't even read it, because the social use of it was so toxic and cruel that I couldn't see that I'd have anything to gain. It was an education today as usual.

    Also, re. your relationship with the characters of Tasha Yar and Jadzia Dax. I had a similar empathetic feeling for Geordi LaForge, Data, and Odo when I was young and working through Star Trek, because they were going through similar paths as I was, trying to figure out who they were and what they were capable of. Those seem to be the characters more usually cited as such in the fandom, but I think I can understand at least some aspect of where you're coming from. Let me know if I'm off the mark.

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  2. Josh Marsfelder
    January 15, 2014 @ 1:57 pm

    I think you've touched on the fundamental problem with the Mary Sue as it's used today, which is that, as a compilation of amateur writing mistakes, it can be easily twisted to describe just about anything the person making the accusation wants it to describe, especially if it's the work of a female writer.

    There's nothing inherently wrong with any of the individual superficial aspects of Lieutenant Mary Sue's character; it's the cumulative effect of how the story handles her that causes the problems Smith wants us to notice. Nor is it meant to be even worthy of note that Mary Sue is female: Odds were that the majority of characters like this Smith would have seen would have been female, because the overwhelming majority of the fanbase and fanfic authors were women. But that meaning has been lost in the intervening decades.

    I think your story of having a relationship with Geordi, Data and Odo is definitely a familiar one for the post-1986 fandom. Especially Data and Odo, who are typically cited as the "loner", "outsider" characters and beloved as such by anyone who feels like they don't quite fit in. For a time Spock was thrown in with them as well, IMO as part of a trend of slightly misreading his character that corresponded with this phase of Star Trek fandom.

    I adored Geordi because he was LeVar Burton and LeVar Burton has always been something of an icon to me, but no, for me it was really Tasha and Jadzia. I loved just about all the characters on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, mind, but it was those two above and beyond anyone else who I felt the closest kinship with and who meant the most to me.

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  3. Cleofis
    January 15, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    Excellent post, and much needed too. That "Mary Sue" has become a catch-all for whatever the user in question doesn't like is a point now so widely recognized that even people who -do- use it incorrectly are dimly aware of it; that's bad it's gotten.

    "I adored Geordi because he was LeVar Burton and LeVar Burton has always been something of an icon to me…"

    This. This so much. I greatly anticipate the inevitable Reading Rainbow post, as that show (and its TNG behind-the-scenes episode) had a profound effect on me as a kid. It used to (and kind of still) bugs me that Geordi never seemed to get the kind of character focus to the degree that Picard, Data, and Riker got, but Burton's performance was one of the things that really connected with me. Incidentally, I was just thinking that if any character proves your point about "character arcs" not necessarily being a must, it's Jadzia: unique amongst both the DS9 cast and a lot of scripted drama in general in that she comes into the show essentially fully formed and more or less stays that way throughout her run, and remains just as compelling as the rest of the cast.

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  4. Josh Marsfelder
    January 15, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

    "I greatly anticipate the inevitable Reading Rainbow post, as that show (and its TNG behind-the-scenes episode) had a profound effect on me as a kid. It used to (and kind of still) bugs me that Geordi never seemed to get the kind of character focus to the degree that Picard, Data, and Riker got, but Burton's performance was one of the things that really connected with me."

    So do I 🙂

    Very possibly the first thing that struck me about Star Trek: The Next Generation was that LeVar Burton was on it. Somehow I found it really significant that he was on both shows at the same time, and there seemed to be a genuine lineage from Reading Rainbow to TNG. LeVar Burton himself has reflected recently on the trajectory of his career from Roots to Reading Rainbow to Star Trek.

    To me, he was always the heart and soul of TNG. Tasha too, but less so because her character had serious conceptual problems. Not that that stopped me admiring her anyway. Definitely Geordi though. But really LeVar.

    The reissued Playmates Geordi action figure was my very first piece of Star Trek merchandise. And I need to stop now before I get too emotional.

    "Incidentally, I was just thinking that if any character proves your point about 'character arcs' not necessarily being a must, it's Jadzia: unique amongst both the DS9 cast and a lot of scripted drama in general in that she comes into the show essentially fully formed and more or less stays that way throughout her run, and remains just as compelling as the rest of the cast."

    I confess, you people are starting to figure me out 🙂

    I had serious misgivings about DS9 when it was first announced and was extremely reluctant to give it a chance. One glimpse of Jadzia doing acrobatics on a parallel bar while discussing philosophy with Kira was enough to endear her to me.

    Seeing her lead an exploration team into the Gamma Quadrant on a mission of political intrigue culminating in her talking down a corrupt Romulan commander by reminding him of his people's history of idealism while her best friend singlehandedly stopped open hostilities from breaking out back home…Well, that sold me on DS9 wholesale. Though, in keeping with the post at hand, if someone like Jadzia were written by a female fan today, she'd almost certainly be dismissed as a Mary Sue.

    Argh, if only I didn't have a whole book to get through before I can start properly writing about TNG and DS9…

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  5. K. Jones
    January 15, 2014 @ 6:00 pm

    I feel like the gender-element is pretty important to understanding the root of the Mary Sue archetype (original version), in what seems to me to otherwise ostensibly be a writer's writer style satirical short story.

    It's sort of a common sense notion, but one that bears plenty of deeper discussion, that it seems to be far easier for female readers to self-identify with male characters than it is for male readers to self-identify with female characters. We need not look far for examples. You cited Tasha Yar (a somewhat brusk, and certainly it warrants deeper discussion, but sort of masculine, in the shallow sense character … as well as Jadzia Dax (I've just begun a rewatch of DS9 and grinned ear-to-ear upon hearing phrases like "When I was a man" or "I have been female in 80 years or so".) who is opening all kinds of doors and adheres somewhat to that bit of "competence porn" we discussed during "By Any Other Name".

    Contrast that to the immense amount of trouble people seem to have with Captain Janeway. Or hell, the initial dislike a lot of people have for Counselor Troi, Ambassador Troi, loads of other characters (maybe Lwaxana is a tougher analysis since she'll inherently remind, well, just about ANYONE of an embarrassing mother or aunt figure in our real lives). Or hell, look laterally to the bit of objection to the idea of a female Doctor Who.

    To side-step in genre a little bit we also need look no further for the master-class in this phenomenon with our Tolkienite/Tolkienistas. There's a frankly gigantic culture of female fans for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, novels with virtually (literally in the case of Hobbit) ZERO female characters. It's an absolute boy's club of stories, but I'd argue there are far more female devotees than male.

    So that women can identify with male characters far easier seems pretty inarguable. Those of us males who can do the reverse are absolutely the exception to the rule.

    But I believe it has its roots in some very basic historical contexts. The first is the age old writer's rule of "Write what you know." Writing that rings true is almost always superior writing, and is rewarded by devoted fandom even if it's lopsidedly gender-specific. And historically speaking, when it came to writing about command structures, slightly military, hell, even just general science basis to science-fiction writing, women had a massive handicap.

    Luckily this dilemma seems to be bettering itself naturally along with massive increases in women's rights, or generally the fact that women are advancing and leaving men (except for the most established, entitled men) in the dust as far as career achievement, intelligent thought and societal importance.

    The younger generations of women don't seem to fall prey to this – in fact, if I look at most of the fiction I read, it's youngish men, between 20 and 40, who fall prey to it the worst and whose writing suffers and is constantly criticized as being … 'bad fan-fiction'. My sister is at age 26 a professional writer and writing professor, and I can say that in all the years I've been her primary editor and proof-reader, the amateur mistakes associated with the Mary Sue trope have never been one of her faults.

    Dear god I can't wait for detailed discourse about Jadzia, though. And for that matter, Garak, Sisko, Kira, the O'Briens, f***, the entire DS9 ensemble.

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  6. Josh Marsfelder
    January 15, 2014 @ 6:22 pm

    "It's sort of a common sense notion, but one that bears plenty of deeper discussion, that it seems to be far easier for female readers to self-identify with male characters than it is for male readers to self-identify with female characters. We need not look far for examples. You cited Tasha Yar (a somewhat brusk, and certainly it warrants deeper discussion, but sort of masculine, in the shallow sense character … as well as Jadzia Dax (I've just begun a rewatch of DS9 and grinned ear-to-ear upon hearing phrases like 'When I was a man' or 'I have been female in 80 years or so'.) who is opening all kinds of doors and adheres somewhat to that bit of "competence porn" we discussed during 'By Any Other Name'.

    Contrast that to the immense amount of trouble people seem to have with Captain Janeway. Or hell, the initial dislike a lot of people have for Counselor Troi, Ambassador Troi, loads of other characters (maybe Lwaxana is a tougher analysis since she'll inherently remind, well, just about ANYONE of an embarrassing mother or aunt figure in our real lives). Or hell, look laterally to the bit of objection to the idea of a female Doctor Who.

    To side-step in genre a little bit we also need look no further for the master-class in this phenomenon with our Tolkienite/Tolkienistas. There's a frankly gigantic culture of female fans for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, novels with virtually (literally in the case of Hobbit) ZERO female characters. It's an absolute boy's club of stories, but I'd argue there are far more female devotees than male.

    So that women can identify with male characters far easier seems pretty inarguable. Those of us males who can do the reverse are absolutely the exception to the rule."

    …I have quite a bit of stake in this debate that I can't, for a number of reasons, really elaborate on in any semblance of detail for quite some time and whether or not I'll be able to expound upon it here to the extent I'd really like to is still up in the air.

    That said I do think you've hit upon the root of a big problem Star Trek, and larger genre fiction, has traditionally had. And I have a feeling you're probably going to like Friday's post quite a bit, as it's about precisely this sort of thing. Part of the reason I didn't go into as much detail about that here is because I knew I would be talking about it next.

    As for the individual characters…Just in brief, Tasha has severe problems, but I'm not at all convinced they stem from her being "too masculine". If anything, she had the opposite problem. And what attracts me personally to Tasha has to do more with class than with gender.

    I think the big problem with Kate Janeway is that she's basically Kirk but a woman, with Kirk's sense of morality, meaning it changes every episode depending on who the writer was. This ties into Rick Berman, Brannon Braga and Jeri Taylor trying very hard to turn Voyager into a reconstructed TOS for the 1990s. The fact people have a severe problem with this IRT Janeway and not with Kirk is likewise quite telling.

    The Trois (and though you didn't mention her, I'd submit Bev Crusher too) are I think the best examples of a certain kind of femmephobic strain in genre fandom. This is not helped by, as you say, Lwaxana reminding people of an annoying, overbearing parent, but also Deanna not always getting the best material and, I suspect, Marina Sirtis being possibly miscast (Marina is abjectly brilliant, I hasten to add, one of the flat-out best actors in all of Trek, but I'm not so sure this was the role for her).

    "Dear god I can't wait for detailed discourse about Jadzia, though. And for that matter, Garak, Sisko, Kira, the O'Briens, f***, the entire DS9 ensemble."

    Jadzia is…yeah. Let's leave it at that. Plenty more to come.

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  7. K. Jones
    January 15, 2014 @ 8:42 pm

    Without a Season 1 rewatch any Tasha criticisms I have will be unfocused. Suffice it to say she seems to occupy a sort of a niche that I do encounter in real life and plenty of other genre fiction (and real life). Debra Morgan of Dexter comes to mind, as does a friend of mine who is a police officer. There's that 'trying too hard to be one of the guys' vibe that instantly pegs (Ha! through typing this I've zeroed in on the problem!) them as 'annoying little sister'. This is a type that could presumably irk many male viewers, but also basically anyone with a history of little sister annoyance.

    I have to admit Tasha Yar is a far less extreme example of it than other cases. It's certainly not even in the neighborhood of 'Mary Sue'. But we'll cross that bridge with specific examples when we come to it.

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  8. Josh Marsfelder
    January 15, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

    "There's that 'trying too hard to be one of the guys' vibe…"

    IMO this is a more than fair criticism of the character Tasha became onscreen. I have a theory about why that may be the case, but it'll have to wait until "Encounter at Farpoint" 🙂

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  9. BerserkRL
    January 16, 2014 @ 7:20 am

    Speaking of "Reading Rainbow," the time Jim Morrison came back from the dead to cover the theme song was pretty great: http://vimeo.com/42437780

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  10. BerserkRL
    January 16, 2014 @ 7:21 am

    So that women can identify with male characters far easier seems pretty inarguable. Those of us males who can do the reverse are absolutely the exception to the rule.

    Interestingly, male Ayn Rand fans are an exception.

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  11. Daru
    February 10, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    Thanks again Josh for enlightening me. I had absolutely no idea about the origins of the Mary Sue concept. All I knew though was that I felt vaguely annoyed by it constantly being spouted by mainly male critics of stories.

    I have to say that I am generally a great fan of female characters within Star Trek, especially when they are given proper room. That's really the problem I had with Next Gen around Tasha Yar and her being cut short. I adore Lwaxana and any character like her that has no regard for the constrictions of Star Fleet (and you Barclay!). Deanna I had some issues with, not with the character but with her portrayal through the writing and the acting. And yes, I would LOVE to have seen more time given to Geordie rather than her.

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