A Historical Perspective on Mary Sue
Issues and Trends
by Laura M. Hale
Mary Sue, Mary Sue, where are you? Or so rang a similar cry back in 1990 on Usenet among Star Trek fans. It might be one of the few times in a fan fiction community stuck their head up and made that observation. As the Internet became one of the primary means of publishing fan fiction and bringing new people into this community, this refrain would be harder to find.
Who is Mary Sue and where did she originate? She had been around in fan fiction for a while. The origins of the first story with the Mary Sue archetype, they are unknown. What we do know is that in Menagerie #2, a story was published in 1973 that was written by Paula Smith. The story was title “A Trekkers Tale.” It featured a character named Lt. Mary Sue. This story, written as a piece of satire, mocked the genre of stories that had sprung up featuring female characters that were involved with Kirk or Spock, Bones or Sulu, characters that could and did save the day when the heroes could not.
And the archetype was born and labelled. That genre of story could now be more readily identified with the new term, Mary Sue. Early stories labelled Mary Sues, as identified by Joan Marie Verba in Boldly Writing include “The Misfit (A Star Trek Romance)” by Sharon Emily published in 1974, “Double Double Toil and Trouble” by Nickkee Grayson published in 1975, “Pasadena Blue” by Paula Block published in 1976, and some stories by Mary L. Schultz and Cheryl Rice published in 1978.
By 1975, the discussion had begun. According to Verba, Paula Smith criticised a story that had been published in an issue of Warped Space. The criticism was because Paula Smith felt the story contained a Mary Sue. The Star Trek fandom did what we do in modern fan fiction culture: it kerfluffled over the issue of if fan fiction should be criticised. There were two sides to this argument. One said that fan fiction should be held up to the same standards as professionally written work and was worthy of the same type of analysis as other literary works; the other side said, wait, no, this is for fun and we should not criticise it. The end result of this discussion was that a number of fanzines refused to publish anything but positive reviews of other zines and pieces of fan fiction. Poor Mary Sue: so young, so beautiful and already causing a lot of friction in fandom.
In 1980, according to Verba, frustrated Star Trek fan fiction writer Virginia Zanello wrote story called “Side Trip” which answered the question of how would the crew of Enterprise act if an actual Mary Sue showed up on the ship. This indicates a sense of Mary Sue fatigue happening in the Star Trek community. Make them stop! Make them stop! This angst and satire would continue into 1983 when “Marisoo Tudewesque” written by Sharon Macy was published. Members roared and like today, nothing happened: Mary Sues continued to be written and published in fanzines.
By 1980, multimedia fanzines were in circulation and members of the original Star Trek fan fiction community had begun to migrate to other communities. They took their experience with that story which appeared in Menagerie #2, the series that Paula Smith created based on it titled “The Adventures of Lt. Mary Sue” and other discussion and put it into their own fannish context. Terminology crossed fandoms. Yes, the truth is here: Mary Sue was now to be found in Blake’s 7 stories. Some of these fen in that community, a number of them in Australia, were just not amused. Travis really needed a more interesting lover and love life. This trend of Mary Sues playing a role in various Blake’s 7 stories would continue for a number of years.
By 1985, Mary Sue continued to crash fan fiction community lines and she broke into the electronic frontier. In this year, she has migrated on-line, on Usenet, and into the comic book fan fiction community.
Bob Mosley III would comment in 1990 in the Star Trek Usenet community that Mary Sue was largely absent. There was some discussion of this, defining Mary Sue again and then people basically agreed, yep, Mary Sue was really not to be found. This would be one of the few on-line discussions of Mary Sue on-line for a number of years. Indications are out there are fan fiction communities discussed Mary Sue but not on any large scale that would be measurable, referencable.
By 1997, the need to discuss Mary Sue became much larger. That is when Merlin Missy stepped in and did what needed to be done. She invented the “Mary Sue Litmus Test.” Her original “Mary Sue Litmus Test” was based on characteristics found in Gargoyles and Star Trek fan fiction. This created a new awareness in various fan fiction communities as various people from fandoms which had appeared on-line almost totally independently with out connections to the more influential fan fiction communities saw the “Mary Sue Litmus Test,” learned about Mary Sue and took this awareness into their own fannish communities.
This test proved very influential. With permission from Missy Reimer, various other fan fiction community specific “Mary Sue Litmus Tests” were created. To give an idea of when some of these were written: In 1998, the “Thundercats Mary Sue Litmus Test” was written. In 1999, Alexa Close wrote the “Labyrinth Mary Sue Litmus Test.” In 2000, Priscilla Spencer wrote the “Harry Potter Mary Sue Litmus Test.” In 2001, the “Sentinel Mary Sue Litmus Test” was created. In 2002, Emby Quinn wrote the “Gatchaman Mary Sue Litmus Test.” That same year, the “Lord of the Rings Mary Sue Litmus Test” was written and published to the Internet. In 2003, Mette Krangnes wrote the “Inuyasha Mary Sue Litmus Test.” This tradition of “Mary Sue Litmus Tests” and their importance in identifying Mary Sues in various fannish communities would ultimately be a brief one though. Definitions and interactions in the fan fiction community would change and the need for “Mary Sue Litmus Tests” as a fannish tool for identification would become smaller and ultimately, their creation and usage would begin to fall by the way side, being almost unheard of by 2005.
But now, by 2002, the definition of Mary Sue began to change as Mary Sue became further and further removed from her roots. In communities like Harry Potter, on sites like SugarQuill, the community took their understanding of Mary Sue, which was filtered through several layers of various fen, and came to a new understanding. This understanding began to define almost every original character in fiction as a Mary Sue as they all could be said to have traits of Mary Sue. In other communities where there was a distinct absence of canonical female characters and people, in communities like Mest and Good Charlotte, Mary Sue began to be defined as any original female character in fan fiction. By 2004, these two definitions had become main stream in their respective fannish corners. There was and is no going back to the original definition, created by Paula Smith, perpetuated by satirists like Sharon Macy and Virginia Zanello, discussed by various communities like Blake’s 7 and comics, and more clearly defined again by Missy Reimer.
During this same period that original characters, regardless of their character traits or their importance to a story, were being slapped with the label of Mary Sue, other things were going on. Badfic was going on. Wank was going on. Harsh critique was going on. Snark was going on. Mary Sue were being found, pointed to, laughed at. In some cases, authors were being harassed for having written Mary Sues. This trend started in 1998, 1999 with sites like God Awful Trek Fic, Wicked X Witches, BadFic, No Biscuit and Citizens Against Bad Slash. By 2002, 2003, this tradition was much more firmly entrenched in the fan fiction community as the numbers of stories, thanks to things like YahooGroups, FanFiction.Net, automated archiving scripts, and LiveJournal becoming more integral to certain fannish experiences, the number of stories had grown exponentially. With that exponential growth can an equally exponential amount of poorly written fan fic, often featuring the one and only, our beloved Mary Sue. A number of groups had sprung into existence which either directly “critiqued” Mary Sues or did so as part of their fannish. By 2001, God Awful Fan Fiction had become a multifandom haven of Sue discussion and bashing. By 2002, The Mary Sue Report and fanficrants communities had been founded on LiveJournal. By 2003, Fandom_wank had found its home on JournalFen.
Where will Mary Sue go now? What trends are in store for our once intrepid Lt. Mary Sue who got it in with the crew of the Enterprise? One doesn’t know. She’s already made the leap from being a Trek term to being a term used in popular culture. It seems likely she’ll continue her long storied history of being derisive but in a much wider and different scope.