Rey is one of the lead characters in the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, to be released on December 15 in the USA. Portrayed by Daisy Ridley, Rey was the surprise hero of Star Wars: The Force Awakens; from humble beginnings as an orphan scavenger, Rey became a competent fighter, excellent pilot, enthusiastic resistance fighter, and ultimately a Force-using, lightsabre-wielding hero to succeed the original films’ Luke Skywalker.
So of course people immediately started labelling her a Mary Sue.
Now, two years later and with everyone except the most diehard of keyboard warriors having moved on with their lives, I think it’s a fair time to look into this before the upcoming film once again causes arguments to inevitably break out.
Probably the most prolific accuser was Max Landis, screenwriter of films such as 2012’s Chronicle and 2015’s Victor Frankenstein. Landis took to Twitter the day The Force Awakens was released with a scathing Tweet accusing the film of being “a fan fic movie with a Mary Sue as the main character.”
Now, I’m not going to pass any judgement on Max Landis as a person, since I don’t know him nor am too familiar with his work. However, I do think that this opinion is extremely problematic, because it belies a problem with how writers and the general public tend to view female protagonists, and especially those which are labelled as a “Mary Sue”.
The term “Mary Sue” derives from the parody character of the same name. In 1973, Paula Smith wrote a parody story called “A Trekkie’s Tale” which starred Lieutenant Mary Sue, a walking satire of the self-insert unrealistic fantasy characters common in Star Trek fan fiction. The opening line pretty much says it all:
“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old.”
Mary Sue was emblematic of the typical way in which fans crowbarred in wish fulfilment characters into existing works: these characters tended to be improbably young, extremely attractive, impossibly competent, adored by everyone even if it seems out-of-character for them to do so, and anyone who disagreed with them was automatically treated as incorrect or in the wrong. These characters tended to be written by fans who weren’t interested in crafting a story so much as they were making wishful, escapist fun.
Unfortunately, the term “Mary Sue” has since blossomed in common parlance to encompass any and all characters who tend to be perceived as “unrealistically perfect”. Where once it was a jab at wish fulfilment characters, it’s now being used as shorthand for a character that is seen as too perfect or flawless to be interesting.
Further complicating issues is that “Mary Sue” has become a specifically gendered term: the original character was a girl, and the name itself is traditionally female, but the term sees widespread use specifically to criticise female characters. Because of this, there’s an underlying fear about writing female characters lest they be dismissed as Mary Sues, and usage of the term has come under fire as misogynistic.
Which brings us to Rey. On the surface, there is an argument to be made that she has many Sue-ish traits: she is well-liked by pretty much all of the characters, she turns out to be a prodigy at pretty much everything she tries, doesn’t really have any glaring character flaws, and she has pretty flawless skin for someone who grew up alone and abandoned in a desert. On the other hand, though, you can argue pretty much the same thing for her predecessor, Luke Skywalker, who pound-for-pound matches that character description. If you want to examine the two movies, The New Hope and The Force Awakens, then both protagonists start from innocuous beginnings, rise to face new challenges, and ultimately become the hero of their story.
In fact, as far as flaws go, Rey’s more flawed than Luke: while she beats Kylo Ren in the climax of the film in a duel, not only is Kylo Ren already injured at the beginning, but Rey’s victory isn’t necessarily framed as a good thing. For a franchise built around the idea of forgiveness and mercy, she really does look like she’s about to kill him out of a sense of vengeance more than anything.
To contrast, Luke single-handedly destroys a moon’s worth of military personnel, racking up a kill count in the hundreds at the bare minimum, despite having zero flight training in military vehicles. See? When you start nit-picking, you can turn any character into a Mary Sue, which is partly why people feel that the usage of the term is misogynistic: it’s specifically used to discredit almost exclusively female characters but doesn’t get brought up to describe similarly improbably talented male characters.
But here’s the thing: a Mary Sue isn’t automatically a bad thing. It gets used in a pejorative fashion mostly because it’s the implication that the character has been badly written, because their wish-fulfilment aspects are glaring enough to break immersion, which is almost always the last thing you want as any creator. But because the Mary Sue is ultimately defined by whether or not they cause the audience to lose their suspension of disbelief, then ultimately whether or not a character is a Mary Sue is entirely relative to their audience: each audience member will have different tolerance for character competence. So you can never conclusively call a character a Mary Sue or not because a character’s Sue-ness isn’t derived from the work but by the audience.
Further, just because a character is a Mary Sue for one viewer or reader, it doesn’t diminish the quality of the overall work. After all, many of the traits of a Mary Sue are the typical traits of pretty much any hero protagonist of any work ever, and a lot of these hero protagonists are meant to be escapist fun, especially in Star Wars.
At the 2017 Star Wars Celebration, Star Wars creator George Lucas talked about what his motivations were for originally creating the series at all.
“The idea was simply to do a high adventure film that I loved when I was a kid, with meaningful psychological themes. And, you know, I don’t know what I felt, it was a really [unintelligible] idea. So, I did that, but it, you know, again, seeing the film tonight, and seeing it when we were shooting in various places after Star Wars, after the first one, you know, seeing all the kids… You know, it’s hard for people to realise this — and I’m not supposed to say this, and I wasn’t supposed to say it then — but it’s a film for 12-year-olds.”
Rey is a character in a franchise about space wizards using pseudo-religious magic that appeals to greater themes but not necessarily to intricate detail. People don’t watch Star Wars for hard science fiction or deep intellectual discussion. The appeal of Star Wars lies in its characters, in its world, and in its grandiose bigger-than-life fun. And if a fantastical character in a fantasy story riles you up enough to lash out at a movie, then maybe you’re the one with the problem, mate.