Film, a male-dominated form of artistic expression, has been making strides to adapt to the ever-increasing demand for a better and more accurate representation of women in recent decades. Prior to this push for women gaining more autonomy in film, (and in other forms of presenting works of fiction, such as novels), said women typically have taken a supporting, nurturing role, serving as a service to the protagonist. They have often lacked character, tending to have an absence of character flaws.
This idealized form of characterization was put into words with the term “Mary Sue,” first appearing as a result of a Star Trek fanfiction, titled “A Trekkie’s Tale,” published in 1973. The purpose of a Mary Sue is to appear idealized and perfect, often granting wish fulfillment to the audience, providing an idealized form to project oneself onto. In the aforementioned fan fiction, Mary Sue, the character from which the stereotype derived its name, her existence as an original character meant to poke fun of the fan-writing trends of the time, was perfect in every conceivable way with those surrounding her praising her constantly. This character type can be found absolutely everywhere. For example, one could argue that Snow White, as she appears in the original animated feature film produced by Walt Disney Studios, released in 1938, fulfills the Mary Sue archetype. Kind, pure, and unassuming, Snow White seemingly has no flaws, sparking the envy of the Evil Queen all while winning the romantic affection of a passing Prince.
While Mary Sues are often regarded as a relic of a bygone era, Mary Sues have merely adapted to modern demand, taking on new forms. For instance, in the recently completed Star Wars sequel trilogy, the main protagonist, an aspiring pilot turned Jedi, Rey, was met with a mixed reception. As the first female lead in a Star Wars film, many fans of the franchise were enthusiastic for this breath of fresh air. However, throughout the releases of each component of the sequel trilogy, increasing disappointment was expressed towards Rey as a character. Whether it was because of her quick mastery of Jedi techniques (many of which had taken characters from previous films years to master), her skill in any trade she tried (such as piloting the famous Millenium Falcon), or her apparent inability to do wrong, accusations directed towards Rey of being a Mary Sue was inescapable during discussions of the trilogy.
While the presence of a Mary Sue is not an inherently bad thing, it does detract from the author’s ability to tell a detailed, deep story. As stated in an article published in a blog written by Matthew Kadish, a published author who enjoys analyzing film on his aforementioned blog, the reason why the presence of a Mary Sue can be so problematic is her lack of realism or development, robbing her of the ability to develop in an interesting way. As stated by Kadish, in short, a Mary Sue is “[a]n idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character.”
As previously stated, she is extremely competent, needing no room to improve, encountering little to no obstacles. A Mary Sue never has to grapple with self-doubt, internal conflict, or struggle. Any feeling of tension or drama coupled with her transformation over time is drained away, the audience losing fascination, the assumption that she will always win lingering with a bitter yearning for what could have been.
Complexity is what makes characters so interesting. It is commonly accepted that an audience will want to root for a character if they are deemed worthy of such attention. But blandness will not yield these results. Rather than providing the audience with an enthralling character, the creators are rather creating a set of ideals presenting themselves in a human form.
An instance of this can be seen in the critically acclaimed and beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe. For years, fans of the franchise had been waiting excitedly for a solo superhero film featuring a woman as the lead. When this wish had been fulfilled through the movie Captain Marvel, released in 2019, the movie faced a shocking opinion held by several viewers and critics of the film: it was boring. Captain Marvel, otherwise known as Carol Danvers, seemed to represent an idealized individual who was capable of amazing feats with little development concerning the mastery of her powers. While the leading lady did not fulfill all of the qualifications to be considered a Mary Sue, her character arc felt hollow. Outside of realizing the truth of a conflict she unwittingly participated in, her character itself seemed to evolve little. While the resolution of her film was very fitting for the first woman-led Marvel movie with overcoming societal pressures being its central focus, it could have been enhanced. Danvers was already passionate about what she did. She was a confident soldier who was proud of who she was. After coming upon the previously mentioned revelation, she didn’t appear to encounter much internal conflict despite the situation’s shocking nature. With this, the only meaningful thing that Danvers seemed to learn from her experiences was that she possessed a power that she could use for good with little internal reflection or resistance required.
In both Rey and Danvers, these women were gifted with a vast amount of power and yet faced few repercussions. As the infamous quote from Spiderman’s Uncle, Ben, goes: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Powerful women are in no way a terrible thing. In fact, they can be incredible. For instance, Eowyn (the Lord of the Rings), Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), and Mulan (Mulan (1999)). Even in the aforementioned cinematic universes, there are plentiful strong female characters, such as Wanda Maximoff (The Marvel Cinematic Universe), and Leia Organa (Star Wars). But what makes these characters so appealing? All of these characters share a common trait: being human. They are not mere sets of ideals designed to appeal to a broad audience. This is expressed through the presence of flaws, the fight against trials and expectations, and the facing of failure. Each of these women went through transformations, the audience watching them growing into and accepting their respective power, whether supernatural or realistic, learning how to master them. However, they were not free of character quirks. These women could be selfish, brash, self-absorbed, and impulsive. But despite this, they overcame these flaws and grew into their potential.
Powerful women have the ability to be fascinating to watch a story unfold from their perspective. But, when writing these characters, it is important to regard them as humans before anything else. This makes their journey into a strong, capable individual so much more satisfying. Subtracting these flaws from a character can make an interesting, complex story seem flat and boring. It can be argued that the live-action adaptation of the animated movie of the same name, Mulan, fell into this trap. The adaptation (released 2020) was met with several bad reviews, comparing the film to the 1999 classic. One review regarding the adaptation published on the website Film Opinion-itis stated: “The screenwriters seemed to have decided to have Mulan’s story about her being a “woman with a powerful chi”, instead of a strong character that manages to overcome terrible odds because of her cleverness, wit, resolve, and will. Because of this, Mulan is an empty shell of a character that I found myself struggling to even root for.”
As stated at the beginning of this piece, the film industry has been working to include better, more accurate representations of women. This cannot be done by making them perfect beings and borderline Mary Sues. Being witness to a character winning their strength is leagues more inspiring and appealing than seeing it handed over with little resolve. Whether the reason for the presence of this tendency is due to fear of public backlash concerning a flawed character who happens to be a woman or a general unsureness of how to write an appealing female character, the desire for realism in the representation of women will continue to persist. However, this does not mean that film is entirely absent of these characters. But, all around, accepting the humanity of women in film is the first step to take when dealing with the presence of bland, uninteresting, and seemingly perfect characters who happen to be women.