Recently I did the culturally appropriate thing for an American living in the early half of the twenty-first century and went to the theater to see the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise. By the film’s end, I was firmly convinced that what I had seen was a ‘Mary Sue’ story.
For those not in the know, a ‘Mary Sue’ or a ‘Gary Stu’ is a character in a work of fiction who is too perfect, is to be marveled at and admired for being the best at everything, and needs no training to learn a fabulous skill. The appellation ‘Mary Sue’ came about from early works of fan fiction wherein authors (mostly women) would write themselves into the story as a character who always saves the day. The character normally comes from a lower echelon of society, yet is often of royal (or what passes for royal) blood.
While Rey isn’t an author–proxy or wish-fulfillment on the part of the writers, she meets many of the other aspects needed to fit the ‘Mary Sue’ type. In particular, with no training or prior indication at all, she manages to use advanced Force powers. Then, never having picked up a sword, she manages to defeat a highly skilled, highly trained opponent in a lightsaber duel. The evidence mounts, the charge remains: Is Rey a ‘Mary Sue?’
In one sense, yes–she is a ‘Mary Sue,’ but that case is restricted and does not consider wish-fulfillment on the part of the creator. In the truest sense, as the character lacks the proxy quality, Rey is not a ‘Mary Sue.’
In the end, she is somewhere in between. The ‘Mary Sue’ designation continues to hound her, and will continue to hound her, yet the character will lack a central existential component which makes Mary Sue truly ‘Mary Sue.’
Sometimes what looks like a duck and sounds like a duck is really a gaseous platypus.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MEN?
Feminist counter-critics have leveled the charge that men are allowed a pass when it comes to the ‘Mary Sue’ charge, and that the character of Rey only irritates sexist knuckle-draggers who think women should be “kept in their place.” While I’m certain that some men may feel slighted by her amazing abilities, this argument is a thinly-veiled ad hominem designed to quell criticism. (To-wit: “If you say ‘Mary Sue’ you’re a sexist who thinks women should be docile, weak-willed wall-flowers.”)
Yet the counter-critics’ argument suggests something that should occur to all of us: Why are male characters seldom slapped with the ‘Gary Stu’ label when they suddenly pull expert information out of thin air to save the day?
For many male characters in genre fiction, military service is a component of backstory. Even if Pvt. Joe spent the duration of a war peeling potatoes, he was a soldier in war time and (it is often assumed) he was given some basic survival, weapons, and first-aid training. Unfortunately, writers have relied too heavily on the ‘military training’ trick to explain away a hero’s unusual abilities. Basic competency in essential bivouac procedures does not translate into assassin-quality stealth and tracking skills. Four years at war may train a man to make an IED, but it’s not some Felix-the-Cat-Bag of infinite solutions–or, rather, it shouldn’t be.
And this is the problem with the layman’s perception of the military. Rather than possessing a stunning array of unique and deadly skills, the average soldier does one thing well enough not to piss off his superior. Genuine Green Berets are few and far between; not every sailor is a member of SEAL Team 6. And yet ‘military experience’ or ‘military training’ or ‘time spent on the front lines’ equates to ‘super deadly space ninja from the future’ in far too many cases.
Yes, there are too many Gary Stus running about in popular fiction. We don’t wish to call writers on it because doing so feels less than patriotic (even if the character served in Starfleet… Hell, especially if the character served in Starfleet.) Give Gary Stu four years of service and he can get away with anything he pleases, and the reader/viewer will never question it.
I think if I’d ever been in the military, I’d be a bit outraged over it, to be honest.
Otherwise, a fine example of a popular contender for the title of Gary Stu is Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss’ best-selling novels The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. While we can argue that Kvothe does have a wizard-mentor in the first book and a uniquely musical heritage, the time spent traveling with Abenthy and performing with his family gets evoked a tad too often. But is Kvothe a mask for Rothfuss’ insecurities?
IF SHE’S NOT A TRUE MARY SUE, WHY DOES SHE LOOK LIKE ONE?
What happened in The Force Awakens to hand Rey the ‘Mary Sue’ Look-Alike of the Year Award wasn’t subtle but it wasn’t exactly obvious, either. Her duel with the president of the Darth Vader Fan Club struck me as insincere because there had been no clue that she could use a sword, let alone an exotic sword like a lightsaber. Her uninstructed use of the Force at critical moments annoyed rather than awed many critically-minded viewers.
Rey looks like a ‘Mary Sue’ not because she can do awesome things, but because we’ve had no real hint that she can do awesome things. In short, Rey’s problem isn’t her ability, it’s a lack of foreshadowing the emergence of these abilities. She performs amazing feats and has a truly disturbing vision, but we don’t really know why and that’s the real issue.
Evidence from previous movies suggests that Force powers manifest in childhood to some extent. The Jedi Order recruits children and trains them over the course of decades to become Jedi Knights. The Force is subtle, yet strong. It takes time to master, and the lightsaber is another matter altogether.
When Rey appears to develop full-blown Jedi powers, up to and including her superior swordplay, it feels unnatural. She goes from being this fierce, independent scavenger to the magical girl with no real explanation as to why or how. In all honesty, if one were watching this movie first–having not seen the original trilogy or the prequels–the natural suspicion may be to believe that the lightsaber is possessed and Rey now contains the soul of some dead Jedi (or Sith.)
If Rey is possessed, then this is an element of the Force we haven’t experienced before. It’s a change in the established magic system the viewer thinks he knows. If Rey is not possessed, we’re back to our original problem–the ‘magical girl.’
WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING A ‘MAGICAL GIRL’?
The ‘magical girl’ character isn’t flawed in itself, but lends itself to flawed execution. The character is (naturally) a girl who possesses magical powers which she uses to combat evil. Magical girls obtain their powers in a number of ways including boons (the powers are bestowed on the girl from without by a supernatural force), innate ability (the powers are in the girl, she has always known them, but now they are getting stronger), training (the powers are developed by the girl under the tutelage of a mentor), and magical artifacts (the powers are not the girl’s powers at all, but come from some device or phylactery.)
What appears to happen in The Force Awakens is the creation of Rey as a ‘magical girl’ via her discovery of the lightsaber. This is problematic because Jedi are created through a combination of innate ability enhanced by training. We accept that the path of the Jedi–the path of honing one’s gifts–is noble, while the idea of a boon or simply wielding a magical artifact feels less than genuine. We desire our sorcerers and sorceresses not just to wield magic but to be magical in their own right.
Her status as a Jedi or a Jedi candidate feels wrong, unnatural, and–dare I say it?–forced.
By stepping outside the anticipated progression of magical development in the Star Wars universe, Rey accosts our sense of security, our understanding of the way the world works. But we’d like to know that she’s going to be able to do that. We don’t need to know she’s about to change the game, but we want to know that she’s a player and not a pawn.
We appreciate more the innate and trained magic user types because there comes with them a sense of ethics, of an established moral compass. The student who has studied and practiced for years has, we hope, been observed during that time by well-meaning tutors. At some point, the student is either deemed “good” (in the moral sense) or “bad” and his niche is assigned accordingly.
The character who is given magical power by a boon has been chosen by an external force which may or may not be capable of making superior moral judgments. The boon may not be from a well-intentioned entity, either (And that’s an aspect of Death Note which makes it so appealing. The boon can be used well in writing if you recognize its problematic nature and work with it.)
Artifacts may be discovered or bequeathed as boons. The artifact further separates its owner (because ownership is a tenuous thing at best) from the being which gave it away in the first place. The intent of the being granting the boon is contained in the artifact and not within the person who receives it (though in the case of the members of the Green Lantern Corps, the ring is given to someone based on their hidden, ethical attributes, so that’s slightly different, yet also limits character development of the person receiving the ring.) This form of the character type–magical girl or boy by boon/artifact–is clearly the most morally inferior and least satisfying.
Rey, unfortunately, seems to have simply found a lightsaber. Sure, it may ‘call’ to her, but that might also be the voice of a discarnate being, making this artifact a boon from a potentially malevolent supernatural entity. That the scene evokes the image of Pandora doesn’t comfort or reassure us at all.
IS THE AUDIENCE EVEN AWARE OF THIS BULL? ALL I SAW WERE PEW-PEW LASERS.
The issues raised tug at the audience as they watch the film, though some are better at shutting them out than I. None-the-less, the archetypal nature of the characters coupled with established expectations and known rules governing magic demand acknowledgment which isn’t given–or is not given sufficiently.
The ‘Mary Sue’ charge would largely disappear if a hypothetical scene were added depicting Rey’s use of a sword (or a sword-like club) and her intuition (as an indicator of her closeness with the Force.) I have elected to imagine a scene where some hideous, fanged vermin in one of the crashed Star Destroyers on Jakku makes off with a particularly valuable piece of scrap. Rey gives chase and the creature disappears into one of several dark doorways lining either side of a vast hallway. She pauses, closes her eyes, opens them slowly, and stares at one dark entrance. She grabs up a piece of pipe and holds it like a sword. She vanishes into the darkness–squeals and roars follow. The scene cuts to her dropping the piece of scrap, slightly bloody, onto the paymaster’s desk. The blood is not hers.
In fabricating this scene and inserting it into Rey’s introduction, I satisfactorily give her innate Force-inspired intuition and experience wielding a sword-like club in the dark. Her Awakening is set up, as is her victory over Kylo Ren. In electing to demonstrate her skill set early on, in a clear and direct fashion, I am able to banish the ‘Mary Sue’ allegation completely.
But this scene doesn’t exist except in my fantasy. It doesn’t happen like that in the movie. That level of foreshadowing is missing and, quite honestly, I need that to help tie Rey into the existing structures I believe I know. I want to integrate what she experiences, but I have no frame of reference because what she does shatters my expectations (and not completely in a good way.)
DOES THE ARTIST HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO MEET THE EXPECTATIONS OF HIS PUBLIC?
Yes. If he wants to be commercially viable, at least.
While some art appeals to a small, elite clique with tastes transcending the mundane and an eye on a future that will never be, popular art must–by definition–appeal to the masses. Yet in both cases, the “public” (that is, the set of people who will pay to see said art) has certain expectations, especially from well established artists. We expect new, different, and exciting, but also clarity, style, and just a hint of convention to anchor us in the familiar.
Rey is a fine character, and a strong female lead. But her emergence is problematic. To counter the counter-critics, this is not because she is a woman, but because of how her character is treated within the context of the known rules of her world. We expect better treatment of her in this regard, demand that her character be given greater depth and clarity. Unfortunately, she was victimized by the script along with the rest of us.