I want to talk about Star Wars, but that’s dangerous for me, because I don’t want to deliver any spoilers, but apparently I don’t know what a spoiler is.
I think a spoiler is “a shocking or unexpected plot twist that’s important to the story.” Gandalf dying, then coming back from the dead — those are spoilers, except they’re not, because they were in a book that was published in 1954.
That’s another part of the “spoiler” definition, for me — the story has to be recent. There are things in The Force Awakens that would be spoilers now, but won’t be spoilers a month from now. It would have been a spoiler to walk out of a showing of Psycho and declare to the people in line for the next showing, “wow, Marion Crane gets knife-murdered halfway through! I totally didn’t see that coming!” But I’m pretty sure it’s not a spoiler now. Right? It’s not a spoiler? You know what happens in Psycho?
I think my definition sounds reasonable — but in practice, I’m always getting accused of spoilering when I don’t think I’ve done it. I’m like, “That can’t be a spoiler, it was in the book!” “That’s not a spoiler, it’s the premise!” “That’s not a spoiler, it’s just a cameo!” Etc. So I’ve just come to accept that I don’t really know what a spoiler is, and the upshot is that, if you read on, you will not encounter anything I think is a spoiler, but you might encounter something you think is a spoiler.
So, spoiler warning.
For example, the earliest preview for The Force Awakens — the one that first melted my prequel-frozen heart — features a sweaty, distraught young man in a stormtrooper uniform sans helmet, looking around desperately and then running across the desert. I thought, wow, that looks like a conscience-striken stormtrooper who defects! That seems awesome! I totally want to see that!
Is it a spoiler to tell you whether or not we get to see that? I assume no — it’s not a spoiler, it’s the premise. So I’m going to tell you: YES! We totally get a conscience-stricken stormtrooper who defects! And he’s Finn! And he’s every bit as awesome as I was hoping!
I left the movie cheerfully humming the theme music, but also thinking “you know, it’s best if we don’t look too closely at either the politics or the economics of the Star Wars universe,” and then thought, “wow, I think I just pinpointed one of the biggest things wrong with the prequels.”
The even bigger problem with them is that they didn’t give us any new iconic characters, and kind of ruined iconic characters that already existed. Yoda and R2D2 were not improved by being rendered as souped-up CGI versions of themselves. Darth Vader was not improved by being shown as a whiny teenager instead of the David Prowse/James Earl Jones combo that originally won us over. He ddn’t work very well as “reverse Luke” either. Padme was not a fitting Leia substitute. Nobody was even trying to be Han Solo. Young Obi Wan Kenobi should have been great, but somehow wasn’t. Mace Windu should have been great, but was somehow so forgettable that when the question “was Samuel L. Jackson in any of the Star Wars films?” came up a couple of days ago I first declared, confidently, that the answer was no. No, of course not. I would remember him. Right?
Except I didn’t, not without prompting.
Anyway, The Force Awakens introduces some great new characters, and does no disservice to the existing ones, so that’s all good. Although one of the great new characters, the female hero Rey, is apparently being accused of being too much of a “Mary Sue” by people — I don’t know, the fragile masculinity people? The gamergate people? Their Twitter arguments have a suspiciously familiar ring, anyway.
(Although, side note, I have since found out that the original source for all this sturm und drang was an actual honest-to-God movie director, which of course does not mean he isn’t one of the fragile masculinity people, but still.)
I would say “Rey is a Mary Sue” is the stupidest thing I ever heard, but Donald Trump is apparently running for president right now and it’s hard to top that. But Rey is less of a Mary Sue than Leia — who had all the pluck and independence and Force-awareness and handiness with a blaster, and was also secretly an important rebel leader and also a princess.
What? Is it specifically the fact of Rey picking up a lightsaber that is bothering the usual easily-bothered suspects? Is there some phallic thing going on here? Sure, while watching, I did wonder a little, “how is she so good with a lightsaber so soon after picking one up for the first time?” But her usual weapon/tool is a big stick so maybe the fighting styles are similar enough… and there are hints that a lot more is going on with her… Anyway, it’s Star Wars. The answer, as always, is, THE FORCE. That’s how. That’s how anything.
The big difference between Rey and Leia that I appreciate, is that the new movie’s story arc gets to be Rey’s story arc. Leia’s story was always secondary in the first trilogy. The difference that I don’t appreciate so much, is that Rey seems a little under-written. She’s a likable presence on screen and has moments of real verve, but on the balance of “let’s keep her motivations and her past mysterious so we have secrets to reveal in the next movie” and “let’s tell you everything,” the movie leans too hard on “secrets.”
One thing both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back really nailed, was having a trio of heroes who were sort of annoying (but not TOO annoying) and always arguing with each other. Han and Luke thought Leia was irritable and bossy, Leia and Luke thought Han was arrogant, amoral and unreliable, and Han and Leia thought Luke was an immature whiner. And they were all kinda right, and kinda wrong. I think that’s also why the fire goes out sometime during the third movie, when Leia stops snarking at people, Han stops being amoral and potentially unreliable, and Luke stops being naive.
(As a side note, the appearance of Leia and Han in the new film is glorious — I was really worried that the actors would seem cranky and detached and walk through their parts, like Jeff Bridges in the Tron sequel or Harrison Ford in the last Indiana Jones movie, but they are great, and their scenes together are magic.)
The new movie has enough banter and conflict to keep things interesting, but nothing quite like the magic of the original. Still, I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation. You can’t create magic on command. What you can do is craft something solidly entertaining, which this movie is. Putting a young woman in the Luke role is one of the things that feels fresh, in a story that is, by design, highly reminiscent of the first trilogy.
But is Rey a “Mary Sue?”
As others have observed, the Mary Sue accusation has become a cheap way of tearing down female heroes. It’s rarely used as part of a compelling argument for why a character or story is weak. Instead, the goal seems to be to “prove” the character is a Mary Sue — usually by stretching the definition so that basically any action-adventure hero is a Mary Sue — and then treating this as irrefutable proof that the movie is bad.
Which is ridiculous. Sure, Mary Sue-ish-ness can ruin a story. But let’s remember where the term came from — The first Mary Sue was a parody character lampooning bad fan fiction characters. And what made a Mary Sue-type-character bad? Functioning as a wish-fulfillment insert character for the author, to the extent that it became ridiculous — the character and their story were not entertaining except in an ironic way.
A Mary Sue (male or female) isn’t just a character the writer might want to identify with — the Mary Sue is EVERYTHING the writer wants to be, including concepts that don’t work well together, or have no relevance to the universe the Mary Sue is placed into. A Mary Sue is too much of a wish fulfillment vehicle to be allowed to do the things that interesting protagonists do — make mistakes or fail or be unsure or disliked or ignored or rejected or in any real danger.
The Mary Sue can’t ever nor be the focus of attention, which I believe automatically disqualifies anyone fighting as part of a team — such as Rey in The Force Awakens — from being a Mary Sue. If even one other character has a story arc as important or prominent as the character in question (such as Finn, the defecting stormtrooper), the character can’t be a Mary Sue.
A Mary Sue is idealized wish fulfillment cranked up to the point where the whole universe is about wish fulfillment, and so narrowly targeted to the writer’s personal desires that anyone else who reads it is likely to say, “Dude, dial it down a notch. Your character is the youngest Starfleet officer ever, the best pilot ever, more telepathically gifted than Vulcans, has a special aura of sexual attractiveness and an ability to manipulate time and space that mostly serves to land him in a threesome with Captains Kirk and Janeway… And I haven’t even gotten to the wings or the inexplicable appearance of characters from the Firefly universe.”
A Mary Sue cannot merely be any competent character the author or audience identifies with — at that point, there’s basically no difference between a Mary Sue and any other heroic protagonist. A Mary Sue, and the story that contains them, has to be so strongly driven by wish fulfillment that it’s not interesting if you don’t want to project yourself into them, if you don’t want to BE Mary Sue.
Then again — is a Mary Sue protagonist always a problem?
James Bond, in the films, is probably the most Mary Sue character ever invented. Think about it — he’s improbably good at a diverse collection of things, AND is impossibly suave, AND is super-duper desirable to the opposite sex, AND he’s famous/infamous within the movie universe, AND everything that happens in the movies is laser-focused around him to the extent that other characters barely exist, AND he kinda barely exists as well — he’s not even supposed to be an emotionally rich and depth-filled character, he’s supposed to be an awesome, never-flustered guy who looks good in a suit who does exciting things.
And yet, James Bond is massively popular. Does that mean he’s not a Mary Sue after all? No, it means that a Mary Sue protagonist is not an automatic fail. The problem with writing narrowly to fulfill your own particular fantasies, is usually that you’re an audience of one. So if you please yourself, but no one else, that’s the failure point. You’ve written a story that nobody but you could possibly like.
But if millions of people share your desire to project yourself into whatever character you’ve created? Then a Mary Sue protagonist is not a flaw, it’s a phenomenon.
This is why dismissing a female character as a “Mary Sue” comes across as plain old sexism. Adventure fiction is absolutely swimming with male characters who could be accused of being Mary Sues, but nobody bothers to accuse male characters of it. Why is Rey a Mary Sue, when Luke isn’t? Why is Bella Swan a Mary Sue, when James Bond isn’t? Why isn’t Batman or Tony Stark a Mary Sue? Why not Jason Bourne or the hero of any Tom Clancy novel? Why not Indiana Jones? Aragorn? Conan? King Arthur?
Sure, nobody thinks James Bond or Luke Skywalker is a realistic character, but nobody makes them justify their existence either. Of course there are characters designed for 12-year-old boys to project their power fantasies into. Why wouldn’t there be? But give 12-year-old girls the same experience and suddenly… she’s too competent! Too powerful! Too interesting! Too Mary Sue! She ruins the movie! She’s a bad character and you should feel bad for liking her!
So, thbbbbt to that.
Rey isn’t a Mary Sue. But even if she were, so what?